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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 theAssembly Education 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 nonpublic 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).

– Creates 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 Diegnan (D-Middlesex), Barnes III (D-Middlesex) and Wisniewski (D-Middlesex).

“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 nonpublic schools 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. The commissioner must grant a charter application for the conversion of a nonpublic school provided that the school is either: high-performing, as determined by the commissioner; or engaging the services of a charter management organization approved by the commissioner.

“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 expand the list of individuals and entities that may submit an application to establish a charter school; 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.

The third bill (A-3356) 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;

– Requires charter schools to be subject to review and evaluation under the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJ QSAC).

“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.”

The last bill (A-3852) would require voter approval at the annual school election or by the board of school estimate prior to designation as 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.”

schools are important, but so is public input,” Wisniewski said. “The voters deserve a chance to decide whether their community should get a charter school and have public money devoted to it.”

The bills were all released by the Assembly Education Committee.