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NJ Ed Commish Goes His Own Way on Charter Regulations

With legislation to overhaul law going slow — for now — BOE will consider plan to expand state’s role with charter schools

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

NJ Spotlight
education, classroom, school, school supplies, class, teachers, students (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The Christie administration is moving ahead with new regulations for charter schools, jumping ahead of the Legislature and its plans to take up the issue — and maybe a whole new law — in the fall.

The state Board of Education will hear on Wednesday the latest version of the administration’s proposed regulations that have come under criticism for expanding the size and scope of charters in the state.

The proposal had been going before the board last month and was delayed for further review. In that time, the new version released yesterday does make changes that appeared to address some of the criticism.

For one, it takes out its main reference to online charter schools, one of the primary targets of concern. However, the new regulations appear to still allow for the online model, just not explicitly. They also revamp how the state will monitor the schools and run the application process for new ones.

Either way, the 70-page package moves ahead in revising the state’s role in approving and overseeing charters schools at a time that the Legislature is planning to renew its work on the issue as well.

"The governor has been calling on the Legislature to work with the administration on a rewrite of the law for over a year and a half, to no avail,” said Barbara Morgan, press secretary to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

“We cannot wait for something that may happen,” she said. “We have an obligation to make changes that strengthen our oversight and accountability measures right now.”

Revising the law is not a new topic for the lawmakers, who have worked on legislation intermittently for the better part of two years.

Leaders in both the Assembly and Senate yesterday said they are beginning anew their work on reviewing the existing law and considering either a series of bills that are already pending or a wholesale rewriting of the 1995 statute.

“There seems to be an agreement even among the charter schools that there needs to be an updating of the law and a curb of the excesses,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Senate majority leader who has begun to take a lead on the issue.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said there are several options available to the Legislature, including a total rewrite of the 1995 law.

But there are also a number of pending bills as well that address specific issues, including a controversial one that would require a local vote before a charter school could open in a community.

Diegnan is a strong proponent of that bill, which passed in the Assembly last year before stalling in the Senate. Yesterday, the education chairman said he still supports it, but did not call it critical to an eventual overhaul of the law if the concerns can be addressed in other ways that can gain bipartisan support.

“It is not essential,” he said. “I still think it would make the process stronger, but again I don’t think that perfect should be enemy of the good.”

Also stepping into the fray has been state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader, who said yesterday that some mechanism is needed to be more selective about where charter schools are located.

“When the Legislature enacted this, the goal for those of us who voted for it was to attack the lack of access to an education in tough, urban areas,” he said.

“It was not to put them in blue ribbon school districts, that was never the intention,” Greenwald continued. “So we are looking at ways to make sure the focus is in the right place and serving the kids who need it the most.”

When asked where to draw that line, however, Greenwald said that was the discussion that had just begun. “This administration seems to have an attack on public education and put them in areas that are really not necessary,” he said.

Before the Legislature gets back into the act, the state board will have the new regulations before it tomorrow, with plenty of contested items. The regulations are only at a proposal stage in the process, but if given preliminary approval, changes afterward will be much more difficult. 

More than 40 people spoke on the proposed regulations at public hearings two months ago, and more than a 1,000 more signed a petition asking the board to reject the new regulations.

The online schooling remains the most controversial, as the model is not explicitly permitted in the law, written at a time online schooling didn’t exist as it does today.

Even so, the state approved two such schools last year, initially slated to open this fall, and the new regulations appear to clear the way for them by no longer requiring charter schools to serve students in contiguous communities. In the previous version of the regulations, online schools were specifically cited as an option as well. That specific wording was removed in the proposal coming before the board today, but not the language about contiguous districts.

Nevertheless, Cerf this month also decided to effectively delay the opening of the two online schools until 2013, so the department can further review its procedures. Legislators have said that they hope to take up the issue in the coming session as well.

Both Diegnan and Weinberg have filed bills that would put a one-year moratorium on online schools, and they also proposed a separate bill that would seek to override any regulations that permit them.

“Let’s get some regulations that apply and don’t relate to some fantasy,” Diegnan said yesterday.

The flurry of different bills has left others saying that a complete rewrite of the law may be the wiser strategy, addressing all the various concerns at once rather than taking them up as they arise.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee and architect of the recent tenure reform bill passed unanimously by both Senate and Assembly, has listed charter school legislation as one of her next priorities. She, too, has said an overhaul of the whole law would be her preference, but has yet to say how she will proceed next.

The state’s charter schools association has been pressing for an overhaul of the entire law as well, and its director, Carlos Perez, said the time is right after the recent passage of other major legislation.

“In this political climate, I think a more holistic approach can be accomplished,” Perez said yesterday. “We’ve seen them tackle tenure reform, and pensions and higher education. [It’s] not like this legislature and the administration are afraid to work together to tackle the big issues.”

NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state’s communities and businesses. Read more From New Jersey Spotlight.

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