Controversial N.J. charter school bill would require local voter approval

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

As the New Jersey State Legislature stumbles through the politically-fraught process of rewriting our 1995 charter school law, one big piece of news broke yesterday. NJ Spotlight reports that State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has formally introduced his charter school bill, A-4177.

Everyone acknowledges that N.J.’s current charter school law is badly flawed. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which ranks all states’ charter school legislation, places us 31st out of the 42 states with charter school laws. If timing is everything, then Assemblyman Diegnan’s bill is a winner. Except for this: he’s insisting on including an element that NJ Spotlight yesterday called a “deal breaker.”

Parent trigger model

What’s the fatal flaw? It’s the inclusion in the bill of a kind of reverse “parent trigger,” an education-reform term usually reserved for legislation that allows parents in a community to vote to close a failing traditional school and turn it over to a charter organization. Assemblyman Diegnan proposes a different kind of parent trigger that appeals to that same populist vibe. According to the bill, aspiring charter schools can only be approved through a single authorizer, in this case a vote by members of all communities within the proposed charter’s geographic parameters.

Typically, good laws are based on best practices. There’s no shortage of scholarly work on effective charter school laws. NAPCS, for example, recommends that state laws include “at least two” charter authorizers.

To be clear: no other state in the country subjects aspiring charter school applicants to a community vote with no appeals process. That’s because such a system paralyzes charter school expansion. After all, the presence of a charter school is potentially beneficial to a minority of community members. There are only so many seats, maybe only one hundred in a start-up, so how will an aspiring charter garner a majority of votes?

Vocal opponents

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has said he won’t introduce the bill because it would stymie all charter school growth in New Jersey.  Governor Christie has said he won’t sign it. Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), architect of N.J.’s tenure reform bill, is preparing to introduce different charter school legislation that will incorporate best practices, including the provision of multiple authorizers.

Why, then, is Assemblyman Diegnan bothering to play this out? Why waste political capital on a quick trip to nowhere?

Certainly, there are good things about the bill. It attempts to address some of the funding issues that plague N.J. charter schools and incorporates some sensible fiscal and academic accountability measures. There is a wan tip of the hat towards multiple authorizers, but only through the establishment of a committee of independent reviewers with no power to approve applications.

But that weak doff towards independent reviewers has cost Diegnan the support of the primary boosters of his bill, a lobbying group called Save Our Schools-NJ. While the parent trigger element was crafted exactly to SOS-NJ’s specifications, it’s less sanguine about this other piece of the bill.

From SOS-NJ’s Facebook page: “Having a politically appointed and completely unaccountable board review and approve charter school applications would be a complete disaster for New Jersey’s public schools. It would make our already undemocratic charter school approval process even worse as such boards are created specifically to override local wishes… This language needs to come out of the Diegnan bill or it will make our terrible state charter law even worse!”

Diegnan’s bill no longer has the support of the anti-charter school movement. NJEA, his second highest campaign contributor and no shrinking violet in voicing opinions about education reform measures, remains silent on the bill and its prospects.  N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association is lukewarm, noting that “Diegnan’s draft omits key issues in the charter debate, including online or virtual schools and funding.”

Perhaps the Assemblyman hopes that his bill will advance N.J.’s cantankerous deliberation about the place of these independent schools in the landscape of public education. If so, he deserves praise for his willingness to sacrifice political capital on this piece of legislation. If not, then his intentions remain mysterious.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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