State Supreme Court to Decide on Challenge of Newark Charter Schools Expansion

North Star Academy

NEWARK, NJ -- Oral arguments in the most significant New Jersey charter school case in 20 years were heard in state Supreme Court on Monday, and a decision by the justices could change the landscape for charter schools for decades to come.

At issue is whether the Commissioner of the Department of Education erred in granting expansions to seven Newark charter schools many years ago. In a 2016 lawsuit, the Education Law Center alleged that the Commissioner did not properly consider segregative or financial impact on the Newark Public Schools district in granting the expansions. 

After an appellate court upheld the expansion in 2019, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of that decision. 

The seven charter schools are: TEAM Academy, Robert Treat Academy, North Star Academy, Great Oaks Legacy, New Horizons, and Maria L. Varisco-Rogers Charter School and University Heights. The schools have added thousands of students since the expansions were approved. 

In a brief filed by ELC in February 2017, it argued that then-state Education Commissioner David Hespe approved the charter schools’ expansion requests without evaluating and assessing the impact of the loss of funding and resources in the district schools and the segregative effect expansion would have on the district population.

Deputy Attorney General Donna Arons defended the Commissioner’s decision of 2016 to grant the expansions in testimony before the state supreme court on Monday. She argued that the Commissioner at the time, David Hespe, followed the charter act as codified by the legislature. 

While ELC argued that further expansion of charter schools could pose adverse effects on traditional schools, some education advocates say recent data shows otherwise. 

“If it could, the ELC would throw thousands of Newark students out of the schools their families have chosen and stop future families from picking their child’s school based on unproven claims of charter schools’ segregative effect,” said Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. 

“The evidence has been clear that academic achievement has improved over time for both district and charter school students with the growth of charter schools,” Lee said. “The ELC’s case is tone deaf to Newark families devoid of facts.”

Indeed, nearly five years later after ELC filed an appeal, recent studies of Newark public charter students’ performance have found significant improvements under expansion. 

A report issued by Stanford University in March found that both district and charter school students posted learning gains in math and reading. The district also did not experience significant financial effects after annual state aid to the district has gone up nearly $200 million since 2015, and local funding for the district has gone up as well.

“A mountain of research is now showing that these learning gains at both Newark’s district and charter schools are not just significant in New Jersey, but are nationally significant and outpace the progress we’ve seen in just about every other city in America,” New Jersey Children’s Foundation Executive Director Kyle Rosenkrans said in a statement. 
Rosenkrans also pointed to data that the growth of Newark charters did not exacerbate racial segregation patterns, as the ELC claimed.  

“Newark’s ratio of Black/Latinx to white students is the same today as it was in 1999, before charters had taken root (in 1999, 95% of Newark schools were ones where 75% or more were Black or Latinx; in 2018 that figure was basically the same, at 93%),” he said. “More importantly, a recent nationwide study by researchers at the Urban Institute proved this point, and found that NJ charters are not exacerbating school segregation in the state.

During Monday’s hearing, Newark Public Schools District officials joined in the ELC’s call to overturn the appellate court’s decision. 

Although the district was under state control at the time of the appellate ruling, the district has since regained local control. Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León previously tried to stymie charter expansion

In a statement read by Newark Public Schools’ General Counsel Brenda Liss, district officials opposed the former commissioner’s decision to uphold the expansion. 

“We respectfully join the ELC’s request for a reversal of the appellate decision which upheld the decisions of the Commissioner of Education granting the seven charter school requests for expansion in 2016,” Liss said. 

“Specifically, we agree with the Education Law Center’s position that given the evidence presented,” Liss said. “The commissioner failed to satisfy his duty under the Charter School Program Act and under the Constitution to closely scrutinize the request of expansion and their fiscal impact and segregative effect on the district schools and students in Newark.” 

A representative of the American Federation of Teachers, long a foe of charter schools, also testified in favor of the ELC’s case against the expansions. 

Following Monday’s hearing of oral arguments, the state Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion on the case before June 30.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-04-27 02:18:34 -0700