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Assembly Democratic charter school reform legislation designed to increase transparency and accountability and establish voter input into the charter school process was approved Thursday by an Assembly panel. The bills are sponsored by Assembly Democrats Albert Coutinho, Mila Jasey, Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., Peter J. Barnes III, John Wisniewski, Ralph Caputo and Reed Gusciora.

The measures, approved by the Assembly Education Committee, would:

  • Creates greater accountability and transparency of charter schools and their operations. (A-2147). Sponsored by Coutinho (D-Essex) and Jasey (D-Essex).
  • Require final voter approval at the annual school election or by the board of school estimate before the establishment of a charter school (A-1877). Sponsored by Assembly Education Chairman Diegnan (D-Middlesex), Barnes III (D-Middlesex), Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), Caputo (D-Essex), Gusciora (D-Mercer) and Jasey.

“Charter schools can play important roles, but only if we know for sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing when it comes to educating our children,” Coutinho said. “A failing charter school is no different than a failing public school. Both are unacceptable and both need proper accountability and oversight. Any school entrusted with our children’s future and receiving public funding should be held to the same standards.”

The first bill (A-2147) implements measures to improve the oversight and accountability of charter schools, including, among other things:

  • Requiring students to be selected for enrollment in a charter school through a lottery;
  • Requires a charter school to maintain a waiting list for admission to the school and to annually submit the number and demographics of students on the waiting list to the commissioner;
  • Requires the adjustment of the per pupil tax levy amount that a district of residence must send to a charter school if the district’s budget is defeated by the voters or disapproved by the board of school estimate and the district’s tax levy is reduced;
  • Requires a charter school to file with the Commissioner of Education and the district of residence a report on the student enrollment demographics of the charter school by October 15 of each year.
  • Establishes grounds for which the commissioner may revoke a school’s charter, including: the charter school has not fulfilled any condition imposed by the commissioner in connection with the granting of the charter; the charter school fails to achieve the core curriculum content standards or fails to meet any performance standard set forth in the school’s charter; the charter school engages in a practice and pattern of discrimination in violation of federal or State law or violates any federal or State law; or the charter school violates any provision of its charter, including provisions concerning fiscal responsibility.
  • Permits a board of education and a charter school to enter into a written agreement to conduct collaborative education programs or implement shared services;
  • Requires that a charter school, upon the revocation of its charter, provide parents or guardians with information on how to transfer their student to the school district of residence; and
  • Requires charter schools to be subject to review and evaluation under the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJ QSAC).

“Charter schools have a role to play as we undertake significant education reform measures,” said Jasey. “The intention was never to replace regular public schools but rather to provide schools where new approaches and strategies could be tested and then, where successful, shared with their counterparts. This bill will help increase transparency and oversight, elevate standards and foster collaboration that will hopefully benefit our entire educational system.”

The second bill (A-1877) would require that after the Commissioner of Education grants initial approval of a charter application, final approval must be granted by voters at the annual school election or by the board of school estimate prior to designation as a charter school district of residence or expansion of a charter school.

“Community support is crucial in strengthening the establishment of charter schools,” said Diegnan, Chair of the Education Committee. “Local input will help ensure that the charter schools that are created fit the needs of the community thereby strengthening the entire public education system.”

“The public deserves the right to decide whether public dollars should be devoted to a charter school,” Barnes said. “Our democracy relies on giving the community a voice, and charter schools that are worthy will surely get the support they need.”

“Improving our educational opportunities is important, but so is public input,” Wisniewski said. “Charter schools, if designed properly, can help meet the educational needs of a particular community, but voter input is crucial in deciding whether it is in their best interest to divert public funds to a given school.”

“Every community’s needs are unique and what works for one might not work for another,” said Caputo. “When it comes to an issue as critical as education, and the valuable tax dollars that go along with it, the voters deserve to have their input weighed.”

“Any proliferation of charter schools needs to be accompanied by sufficient input from the community,” said Gusciora. “Charter schools, by nature, are designed to fill important gaps in local educational opportunities. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be siphoned from public schools if a community doesn’t feel the need exists.”

The bills now await consideration by the full Assembly.