Assemblyman Explains Vote Against Local Approval for New Charter Schools
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli said the state Department of Education will listen to the concerns of the community before approving a new charter school, after he previously expressed support for a public vote.
Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Assembly passed a bill that would require a local referendum for any new charter school before it opens in a community. However, local proponents of the legislation are unhappy with the 16th District's Assembly representatives, who voted against the bill.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough) and Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Readington), who represent South Brunswick, Princeton and Hillsborough in District 16, both voted against bill A-1877, which passed the assembly by a vote of 46-27.
Ciattarelli said that he believes local input is important before a charter school is approved by the New Jersey Department of Education, but it's up to local elected officials to make sure that input reaches the DOE and is taken into consideration.
"In respect to charter schools, a group needs to file a very thorough application that shows all of the necessary resources are in place and all criteria has been met in order to even by considered by the DOE and (Commissioner Chris Cerf)," Ciattarelli said. "What I felt comfortable with is the process we have in place, whereby once the Commissioner has received an application, a select group of local officials are notified and it's at that time those officials would provide feedback to the Commissioner as to whether the charter school is in the best interest of the community. I don't see a public vote being necessary with that type of process and protocol in place."
Ciattarelli's vote against the bill was in contrast to earlier statements he made expressing support for the legislation. In an interview with Patch last November before his election to the Assembly, Ciattarelli said he was in favor of allowing the public to vote before a charter is approved.
"If there is a consensus that a school system is failing there needs to be choices and certainly charter schools provide that," Ciattarelli said in November, 2011. "I don't advocate for charters in those districts that are consistently ranked as excellent. However, legislation that proposes leaving the decision to voters on the ballot is the right public policy. I don't see (a public vote) as crippling the charter movement because there is so much need and room for improvement in those districts performing at a substandard level."
Ciattarelli said when he made that statement he was unaware of the review process at the DOE before a charter school is approved.
"When we spoke at that time, I wasn't cognizant of the process and protocols that are in place," Ciattarelli said. "Now knowing what they are, I'm comfortable that this process serves the best interest of the community."
Public education advocate group Save Our Schools NJ, who has been pushing for passage of the charter school bill, expressed skepticism about the DOE listening to community input before approving a new charter.
"The New Jersey Department of Education historically has not taken community wishes into consideration when approving new charter schools. There are many examples of this," said Save Our Schools spokesperson Julia Sass-Rubin. "For instance, last year, more than 1,200 residents of Plainsboro, Princeton, South Brunswick and West Windsor signed a petition asking the NJ DOE not to grant a second planning year to the Princeton International Academy Charter school (PIACS), which would draw students from those districts. Less than two weeks after that petition was hand delivered to the NJ Department of Education, Acting Commissioner Cerf granted PIACS a second planning year.
"Similarly, the Cherry Hill school district responded to the Regis Academy Charter school application with multiple objections to that school, yet Acting Commissioner Cerf granted Regis a charter, even after external reviewers gave the school very weak ratings."
Princeton resident Dina Lewisohn Shaw, also a member of Save Our Schools, said the current system in place does not provide the proper oversight for charter schools.
"I feel like these people want choice with no responsibility," she said. "At least give us the option to vote because we need to look at everything in these tough economic times. It's interesting that (Gov. Chris Christie) came to pat (Princeton) on the back after we voted to consolidate, yet he wants to say we're not mature enough to have a voice in the education system."
South Brunswick will lose about $1.6 million from state aid for students the state projects to attend charter schools. Even with the South Brunswick Zoning Board of Adjustment's denial last week of the application for PIACS, the district must continue to budget for those students. PIACS has a June deadline to obtain a certificate of occupancy or will need to apply for another planning year extension from the Department of Education.
A companion to bill A-1877 currently in the State Senate is stalled, and has yet to be posted for a hearing. According to NJ Spotlight, the bill faces an uphill battle for approval.
The 16th District's State Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerville) told Patch last November that he supports a public vote before a charter school is approved.
"I think in the right areas charters are part of the solution, but it has to be supported by the local communities," Bateman said last year. "In areas where schools are failing they can play an important role. There are a lot of great charters, but they have to be welcomed by the municipality and the public should have a right to have a say in the matter."
Assemblywoman Simon's office said she would be declining the opportunity to comment on the legislation.
Ciattarelli said he feels it's incumbent on the DOE and local elected officials to make sure the process in place works and that the wishes of the local community are taken into strong consideration.
"The impression that I've gotten in the time I've been representing South Brunswick is that this is a community that feels strongly about what they have, which is a phenomenal public school system," he said. "That being the case, the onus is on any group that feels a charter school is warranted to present a compelling case as to why. This is where the process comes into play that I'm comfortable with. If a group comes in and submits an application to the Commissioner, once we've been notified, I think as elected officials we need to provide feedback that becomes part of the decision making process."
As Gov. Christie has stated that he is a strong advocate for charter schools, Save Our Schools believes this push for new charters could be the deciding factor in determining whether a charter is approved. Rubin said the DOE doesn't listen to community input even when considering the fate of an existing charter school.
"The NJ DOE also ignores community wishes when deciding whether to close a charter school," she said. "For example, the Emily Fisher charter school in Trenton has very strong community and Board of Education support, yet Acting Commissioner Cerf appears to be proceeding with intentions to close the school, despite the students' impressive academic improvements. So community wishes, or school quality for that matter, do not seem to matter to the Department of Education, when they are deciding to open or close a charter school."
While expressing confidence that the DOE will take the wishes of a community into account during the approval process, Ciattarelli said if this doesn't prove to be the case then it's up to legislators to step in and push for a revision of the process.
"I still believe this is a community decision, but I think they're a part of this process by providing, through their elected officials, information to the Commissioner of Education as to whether a charter school is in the best interest of the community," he said. "In the end, if the Commissioner is approving applications in communities in which the overwhelming majority doesn't want a charter school, then we need to revisit the process."
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