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Assembly Democratic charter school reform legislation designed to make it easier to create charter schools while increasing accountability was released Monday by the Assembly Budget Committee. The bills are sponsored by Assembly Democrats Mila Jasey, Albert Coutinho, Angel Fuentes, Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., Peter J. Barnes III and John Wisniewski.

The bills:

– Would permit high-performing non-public schools to convert to charter schools upon approval of an expedited application by the state (A-2806). Sponsored by Jasey (D-Essex) and Coutinho (D-Essex).
– Would allow the State Board of Education to approve up to three, four-year public institutions of higher education as charter school authorizers. (A-3083). Sponsored by Jasey, Coutinho and Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester).

“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. These bills will ensure that charter school applications are properly vetted, and where approved, will be subject to proper oversight.”

The first bill (A-2806) would permit high-performing non-public schools in failing school districts to convert to charter schools upon approval of an application by the state. The application must certify that upon conversion to charter school status the school will prohibit religious instruction, events and activities that promote religious views, and the display of religious symbols. The name of the proposed charter school cannot include any religious reference.

Under the bill, the Commissioner of Education would be directed to establish an expedited process for the review of such applications.

“Charter schools, if done correctly, can be a vital part in improving our public education system and ensuring quality education for our children,” Coutinho said. “By removing some of the obstacles to creating charter schools, we’ll be opening the door to a better future for many children while ensuring the proper oversight is in place for a quality education.”

Under current law, the state education commissioner is the sole entity charged with granting, renewing and revoking charters of charter schools in the state. The second bill (A-3083) maintains the commissioner’s role as a charter school authorizer and authorizes the State Board of Education to establish a process to allow higher education institutions to become charter school authorizers.

This State Board of Education would be allowed to approve up to three, four-year public institutions of higher education as charter school authorizers. Once approved, an institution will be authorized to review and approve applications for the establishment of new charter schools, grant, renew, and revoke the charters of charter schools, and will be responsible for the ongoing monitoring of any charter school it authorizes.

The State board will execute an authorizing contract with each approved institution for a term of three years with options to extend the contract for two additional one-year periods. Charter school authorizer would be required to accept applications at least twice each year and make a decision on the application within 150 days of its receipt.

“We need to open the doors to more charter schools to expand educational opportunities for children, create some competition and give more children a chance to succeed and improve their futures,” Fuentes said. “The current system needs to be streamlined and do more to encourage community involvement, which is our goal with this bill.”

The bill would also stipulate that a charter school authorizer may not approve a charter school application that has been denied by another authorizer within one year of the date of the denial; and require that an initial charter be granted for a period of five years as opposed to the current four years. The first renewal of a charter would also be granted for a five-year period with a ten-year period for each subsequent charter renewal.

Two additional charter school reform bills were recently released by the Assembly Education Committee. Those measures:

– Create greater accountability and transparency of charter schools and their operations. (A-3356). Sponsored by Coutinho.
– Require final voter approval at the annual school election or by the board of school estimate before the establishment of a charter school (A-3852). Sponsored by Assembly Education Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), Peter J. Barnes III (D-Middlesex) and John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex).

Both bills released today were approved by a vote of 11-1. All four bills can now be considered by the full Assembly.