Education Law Center’s pending challenge to the NJ Department of Education’s (NJDOE) attempt to circumvent basic safeguards in NJ’s charter school law was argued this week before a panel of Appellate Judges in Newark.
Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney, argued that a 2013 NJDOE rule allowing existing charter schools to open an unlimited number of “satellite” schools in the 31 “former Abbott districts” and in districts with “priority schools” goes far beyond the provisions in NJ’s charter law, which requires a thorough, deliberative and transparent review of applications for new charter schools.
Ms. Athos pointed out to the Appellate Court that the NJDOE’s so-called “satellite campus” rule changes the very essence of the charter program established by the Legislature in 1995. The Legislature was careful to allow a charter to be granted only for one specific school. Under the new rule, the NJDOE has created a fast track process that allows an existing charter school to open one or more or an entire network of schools, which, Ms. Athos argued, is not permitted under the statute.
Ms. Athos noted that the current charter law does not authorize site expansion under one charter. The charter law would have to be amended by the Legislature to permit this form of expansion, and the NJDOE has never asked the Legislature for such an amendment.
“We brought this legal challenge to hold the State accountable for adherence to the letter and intent of the charter law. The law requires charter schools be approved on a school-by-school basis, and only after rigorous review, to make certain that these schools operate equitably, for district and charter students alike,” Ms. Athos said.
ELC is also challenging the NJDOE’s repeal of a 1997 regulation that prohibits a charter school from changing its core mission, goals and objectives through a simple amendment to its State-approved charter. Without this regulation in place, charter schools may make a material change to their operations or the criteria by which they are evaluated without having to undergo the extensive application and approval process required to obtain a charter.
ELC was joined by attorneys from the Gibbons law firm, representing the grassroots organization Save Our Schools NJ (SOSNJ). SOSNJ submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of ELC’s position on both charter regulations at issue.
Attorney Benjamin Yaster of Gibbons argued that the absence of rigorous regulatory requirements for the charter amendment process signals that the Commissioner may not be evaluating the effects on student segregation and the impact of the loss of funding on districts, as mandated by the NJ Supreme Court to ensure that the operation of a charter school does not undermine a constitutional “thorough and efficient education” for district students.
The three-judge panel that heard the attorneys’ arguments is expected to deliver a decision about the regulations within the next few months.
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