NJ Supreme Court Will Hear Challenge to Expansion of Charter Schools in Newark

JOHN MOONEY | FEBRUARY 12, 2020

NJ Spotlight

New Jersey Supreme Court

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New Jersey’s charter schools will soon get their day before the state’s highest court — twice.

The state Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a lawsuit that had challenged the expansion of charter schools in Newark, arguably the state’s nexus for the alternative schools with more than a third of its students enrolled in them.

By apparent coincidence, a group of charter school parents and the sector’s association on the same day filed to become “friends of the court” in a separate case before the high court regarding the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings.

In that case, the charter schools are trying to get in on a challenge seeking what would surely be billions of dollars in new school construction aid for 31 needy districts statewide.

The confluence before the court of the two cases comes at a time when charter schools face increasing fire from traditional school districts, largely over the public money that charter schools draw from the other districts. But while those battles have been fierce in several communities, including in Newark, they have largely stayed out of the courts in recent years.

The court’s decision to hear the Newark case is significant, as it goes to how the state has approved the expansion and renewal of previously approved charters in the state’s largest city. The complaint before the court specifically cites the expansion of seven charter schools in Newark, part of a wave of expansions statewide.

‘Significant constitutional questions’

“It’s a big case that raises some really significant constitutional questions that need to be addressed,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation and has led the charter case as well.

And Sciarra said the implications could go beyond just Newark. “Everyone is struggling with the impact on equity once the charters start expanding,” he said.

The state Supreme Court is taking up an appeal of a state appellate court ruling in 2019 that rejected the ELC’s arguments, contending among other factors that the district itself had not joined the challenge. Sciarra maintained that the Newark district was under state control at the time of the appellate ruling, but the district — in the middle of transitioning to local control — now has joined the ELC as a friend of the court itself.

One of the main charter networks under challenge responded yesterday that it was confident the court would side with the education it is providing.

“The ELC’s years-old petition seeks to rob thousands of Newark students of the high-quality education they are receiving at our schools,” said Barbara Martinez, the chief communications director for Uncommon Schools.

“We are confident that the Court will side with the thousands of families who have chosen to send their children to charters, and the many thousands more who want to attend but can’t because of massive waitlists.”

Separately, the Abbott v. Burke case is arguably a bigger one for the state, given the money that would be spread across nearly three-dozen districts if the court agreed with the argument that the state is obligated to spend significantly on new school construction in needy districts.

And now the charters want to get in on that case, saying that one in five students in Abbott communities go to a charter or hybrid “renaissance” school.

“It is really important that the court look to funding all the public schools, not just district schools,” said Harold Lee, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “Just because a family decided on a charter or renaissance school, it doesn’t mean that their safety and security go away.”

School building needs have long been the bane of charters in New Jersey, as they are not permitted under law to use public funds toward the costs of facilities. “It’s the biggest challenge to operating a charter,” Lee said, explaining it can represent 10% to 15% of their costs.

‘My children need to feel they are safe too’

The filing for so-called amicus status before the court came from a collection of charter families in Newark, Trenton, Paterson, Camden and elsewhere. One of them is Charlottee Tullo, the grandmother of three children who attend Foundation Academy Charter School in Trenton. She said they have the same right to adequate school buildings as other children in Trenton.

“My children need to feel they are safe, too,” she said in an interview yesterday. “They need not to have a roof leaking on their head when they are trying to focus on learning.”

Another is Dane Tomlin, the father of two students at North Star Academy in Newark. He said his children were initially in an old district school building, and the move to a new space made a palpable difference.

“Coming from an old and dilapidated school, moving into a new one,  just the pride they have in the building and how it’s kept,” he said in an interview yesterday. “Nobody cared about the old one, but the new one, they were excited just to be part of it.”

Whether the court agrees to accept the application for amicus status is yet to be seen, of course; Sciarra said the ELC will oppose it. He predicted the court would, too, saying its Abbott rulings had been about the condition of district school buildings, not charters.

“The constitutional violations had related only to district schools, not separate ones,” Sciarra said. “And charters are separate (agencies) under separate state supervision.”

He said charters should instead take up their case with the state Legislature, which ultimately would need to appropriate funds for the Abbott funding if ordered by the courts. Following previous Abbott rulings, the Legislature added non-Abbott and vo-tech schools to also get additional funds for construction. ”That’s the appropriate forum,” he said.

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