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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New Jersey’s Top Court Tackles Charter School Expansion

District schools and nonprofits say the Education Commissioner’s decision to expand enrollment in Newark charter schools five years ago was a bad call.

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — The placement of over 6,000 students enrolled in Newark charter schools sparked concern within the New Jersey Supreme Court Monday during arguments opposing the expansion of charter schools.

“I don’t know how you escape that what you’re ultimately seeking is an analysis that ends with a remedy that takes these children out of charter schools,” Justice Anne Patterson said during oral arguments Monday.

In 2016 the state’s commissioner of education approved enrollment expansion for seven charter schools in Newark, as permitted by the New Jersey Charter School Program Act, allowing for nearly 8,500 students to be enrolled over the next five years.

The act was enacted in 1995 when the state took control of the Newark School District after it continued to show that its students were not keeping up academically with those enrolled in surrounding districts. Part of the state’s solution was to create several charter schools.

This most recent expansion received some push back by the Education Law Center, a nonprofit that supports New Jersey public schools. The group filed suit opposing the 2016 decision, arguing the commissioner did not properly evaluate the effects the expansion would have on Newark public schools.

In 2019 an appellate division affirmed the enrollment expansion, causing ELC to seek reversal from the high court Monday.

ELC attorney David Sciarra assured the panel that he does not want to have the thousands of students enrolled over the past five years removed from the charter schools.

“The students don’t go anywhere,” said Sciarra, “We prevail on, hopefully, the commissioner thoroughly evaluating these issues and then using his power and his statutory powers and other powers to address these things going forward.”

Justice Patterson remained unsure, and questioned what ELC’s suit intends to accomplish.

“It’s five years later and the expansions have happened,” said Patterson. “So it seems to me that you want to undo the expansion, otherwise what's the point of it?”

Sciarra pushed back, again reminding the court that they are not seeking to remove students already enrolled, but that the expansion has not reached its enrollment capacity yet, which he says can be stopped.

Thomas Johnston, an attorney representing the charter schools, said that charter schools in Newark are a win for all students.

“Today we have a success story. Today we have thousands of students in Newark outperforming students in far wealthier communities,” said Johnston. “We have material improvements in academic outcomes amongst charter school students and amongst Newark Board of Education students.”

Justice Barry Albin raised concerns about potential racial segregation at these charter schools, noting that 89% of the students at one of the seven charter schools are Black.

Donna Arons, attorney for the commissioner, assured the judges that the commissioner is aware of the numbers, but it is not an issue of segregation.

“The Charter School Act requires that charter schools, to the extent feasible, seek to enroll across a school age community; it doesn’t require perfect matching with the district, and I understand this isn’t even close to perfect matching,” said Arons. “But there was nothing on the record to suggest that this wasn’t purely the result of parental choice.”

It is worth noting, however, for the 2018-2019 school year, 15 charter schools, in cities such as Camden and Newark, had no white students enrolled.

Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association, says that ELC has the story all wrong.

“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,” Lee said in an email to Courthouse News. “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. The ELC’s case is tone deaf to both Newark families and devoid of facts.”

Katherine Merseth, an education professor at Harvard University, says while charter schools can provide students with a better education and more options for families, there is a potential to hurt public schools through funding.

“Where charters can harm traditional public schools is by attracting students away from traditional public schools and therefore reducing the per pupil expenditure amounts given to the traditional public schools,” said Merseth in an email. “However, the argument can be made that with fewer pupils to educate, the traditional public schools necessarily should receive less funding. In this way, charter can induce a level of competition for the traditional public schools, causing them to improve their programs and therefore become more attractive for families to choose them.” 

In New Jersey, districts must give about 90% per-pupil funding to charter schools. This year, Newark district schools gave about 27% of its state and local aid to charter schools.

Several charter schools, including some of the seven that were granted expansions in 2016, applied for another enrollment expansion earlier this year. Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan denied the request.

Currently there are 8,000 students on waitlists for charter schools in Newark, and 36,000 on waitlists across the state.

After arguments, Johnston again noted that charter schools are beneficial to the Newark community.

“We were happy to present information about how public education has substantially improved in Newark during the growth of charter schools, for all students, including Newark District students,” Johnston said in an email.

Sciarra did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.

The panel was rounded out by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Lee Solomon, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Fabian Pierre-Louis.

Categories / Appeals, Education, Law

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