On Wednesday, June 29, the New Jersey Assembly will be voting on two charter school reform bills: A3852 (local control over the establishment of charter schools) and A3356 (greater transparency and accountability in the operations of charter schools).
Currently, New Jersey residents and local school boards have absolutely no say in whether or not a charter school can be established in their towns. If the state's commissioner of education approves a charter school, a local school board just gets slapped with a bill from the state for the tuition of the charter school students, forcing them to take that money away from the conventional public schools. With so many local school boards already dealing with reduced budgets, this means cutting programs that benefit the majority of students to pay for the pseudo-private education of a few.
Last Tuesday, simultaneous rallies were held in three central New Jersey communities to call for passage of the reform bills. Speaking at the rally in Highland Park, Melanie McDermott, a member of Save Our Schools NJ, the organization that sponsored the rallies, summed up the issue in two sentences: "Right now, the decision to approve a new charter school is made entirely by the state's Commissioner of Education. Local community wishes DO NOT MATTER."
Bill A3852 would put an end to this tyranny. This bill, if passed, will require that any new charter school first be approved by the local school district -- either by the voters of the district at their annual school election in districts with an elected school board, or by the Board of School Estimate in districts with an appointed school board.
With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being a zealous proponent of charter schools, and acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the man with all the power to approve new charter schools, being adamantly opposed to local control, residents across the state are turning out at rallies like those held last week and making their opinion heard with chants like the one heard at the Highland Park rally -- "We Want a Vote!"
Charter school reform has recently become a big issue in Highland Park, with the charter application of the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Immersion Charter High School. As Highland Park's mayor, Stephen Nolan, said at last week's rally, this is a town that has no need for charter schools. Highland Park has an exceptional public high school, ranked among the top 200 high schools in the country, with a graduation rate of 100% and 98% of the students going on to college.
But, beyond the obvious lack of any need for a charter school, budgetary issues, and overwhelming local opposition, the Tikun Olam charter school is a prime example of a school whose application should have been laughed off the table from the start.
As one of the overwhelming majority of Highland Park residents who are opposed to this school, I joined a committee formed earlier this year to scrutinize the school's application, and was astounded that approval of this school was even being considered by our state's Department of Education.
The application is riddled with fabrications and gross misrepresentations about both the purpose of and need for this school. Quotes from experts are taken out of context to make it appear that these experts have shown a "connection between learning Hebrew and our nation's vital interests," and a specious argument is made that, because of trade with Israel, the teaching of Hebrew is necessary for the commercial interests of America (although the official business language of Israel is English). But these arguments aren't fooling the school's opponents, including Highland Park Rabbi Steven Miodownik, who wrote to acting Education Commissioner Cerf:
"Proponents of the Hebrew language charter school have carefully placed a fig leaf over their agenda of forcing the state to fund their 'free' alternative to private Jewish education, but it is not the job of the State of New Jersey to provide religious instruction for its children; that must be left up to our excellent private schools."
But, despite these and many other problems with the Tikun Olam application, the school's founders are not only reapplying, but being helped by the state to rewrite their application. State Senator and Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), speaking at the rally in Highland Park, had this to say about the "remedial" help being given to this group of educational wannabes who could conceivably be entrusted with the education of our students:
"And now the triple whammy is almost upon us; another proposed charter school in Highland Park, whose application has only been denied twice. And now they're receiving a tutorial from the Department of Education because their application was so deficient. It doesn't really instill a lot of confidence in how that school is going to perform now does it?"
If you live in New Jersey, please take a few minutes today to contact your representatives and urge them to vote tomorrow for charter school reform. Let them know that "We Want a Vote!"