Must Codify Education Commissioner’s Constitutional Obligations
In comments filed today, Education Law Center is calling on the NJ Department of Education (DOE) to issue rules requiring the State Education Commissioner to assess the impact of NJ charter schools on both student segregation and local school district budgets.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court has made clear the Commissioner’s obligation to assess whether a proposed or operating charter school is causing student segregation or depriving district schools of necessary funding, both of which would violate the right of district students to a thorough and efficient education under our State Constitution, ” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director.
“The State’s failure to properly codify this obligation in the rules governing New Jersey’s charter school program is a violation of constitutional law,” Mr. Sciarra added.
In several rulings, most recently in December 2013, the NJ Supreme Court firmly established the responsibility of the State Commissioner to determine whether a proposed charter school would exacerbate racial segregation and/or deprive students in district-run schools of essential funding.
Current rules require the Commissioner to annually assess the student composition of every charter school and any segregation resulting from the loss of students from the district of residence. However, the NJ Attorney General has advised ELC that such assessments are limited to race and do not include other student groups protected from discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, English language proficiency, poverty or other factors placing students at risk academically.
Based on a flawed interpretation of the law, the Attorney General asserts the Commissioner does not have to commit these annual racial segregation assessments to writing, making it impossible to know if the Commissioner actually carries out these reviews or knows what the results are.
Data collected by the DOE shows the distinct segretative effect of charter school proliferation in certain districts, especially Camden, Hoboken and Newark, and the importance of assessing the impact on students. For example, Elysian Charter School in Hoboken serves only 26% black or Hispanic students, while the district serves 64%. Only 1% of the Newark charter school student population is English language learners, while 9% of district students fit this category.
In addition, some districts are experiencing rapid and substantial charter school growth, further necessitating annual evaluations of the impact of these schools on district resources. Newark’s charter school enrollment has more than doubled in the past five years, and the district’s budget will take a projected $211.5 million hit in 2014-15, as that money is passed on to charters. In the case of Camden, transfers to charters grew from $34.7 million in FY11 to a projected $84.5 million in FY15, resulting in well-documented cuts in teachers, staff and programs in district schools.
To address the failure to meet constitutional, statutory and regulatory mandates with regard to the assessment of charter schools, ELC is calling on the State to revise current charter program rules to require:
- that the Commissioner carry out a detailed review of the student composition of charter schools and a comprehensive assessment to determine whether the loss of district students results in the segregation of students by race, gender, disability, English language proficiency, poverty or other factors placing students at risk academically;
- that reviews of charter school student composition and assessments of segregative effects be conducted prior to granting an application for a new charter school or an amendment to an existing charter, and annually for each operating charter school;
- that these reviews and assessments be posted online on the DOE website;
- that annual evaluations be conducted on the impact of the loss of funding on the staff, programs and services to students in district-run schools, and that these evaluations be made available online on the DOE website.
“The Commissioner should be aware that a comprehensive assessment of the segregative effects of proposed and existing charter schools and the impact of charters on district funding are issues of utmost importance to ensure all students have the opportunity to achieve State academic standards. This is particularly true in State-run districts, such as Newark and Camden, where charter schools serve a significant segment of the district student population,” said Mr. Sciarra. “Our proposed rules are the minimum necessary to ensure the Commissioner properly fulfills his constitutional obligation to all public school children.”
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