Acting on behalf of Newark school children, Education Law Center has filed an appeal of NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe’s February 2016 approval of a massive enrollment increase in seven Newark charter schools over the next five years.
At issue in the appeal is the data and research evidence presented by ELC to the Commissioner demonstrating that expanding charter enrollments at this time would exacerbate the budget crisis in the State-operated Newark public schools (NPS) and trigger even deeper cuts to teachers, support staff and programs in already under-resourced NPS schools. ELC also presented evidence to show that expanding charters would further concentrate at-risk students in district schools, especially students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs). These students require additional programs and interventions that have been reduced and cut in NPS schools over the last several years.
“This appeal is not about the merits of charter schools or district schools, but rather about the State’s overarching obligation to ensure a thorough and efficient education for all public school students in Newark,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “This appeal raises the abject failure of the Commissioner to perform his mandated constitutional duty to make certain that before charter schools can expand, all Newark children have the resources they need to succeed in school, whether they attend a district or charter school.”
“The Commissioner simply ignored the overwhelming evidence in the record that a further increase in charter enrollment at this time will harm children and schools throughout the city,” Mr. Sciarra added.
In their applications for renewal, seven Newark charter schools submitted requests to Commissioner Hespe that, taken together, would greatly increase overall charter enrollments over the next five years. The Commissioner approved these requests without explanation and without providing reasons. The approved charter increase totals nearly 9,000 additional students over five years, from just under 10,000 to almost 19,000 students.
Several of the charters sought substantial increases. For example, Team charter school, operated by the New York-based KIPP network, secured the green light to increase enrollment from 3196 to almost 8000 students and to add up to six new charter schools. The Commissioner’s approvals will almost double the current enrollment in these seven charters by the 2020-21 school year.
The approved expansion will also increase the seven charters’ share of Newark’s total charter population from 20% to approximately 37%. If enrollment in the district and in the fourteen other charters remains stable, the Commissioner’s decision will mean that by 2020-21, nearly half of all Newark’s school children will be enrolled in the charter sector.
Before the Commissioner, ELC submitted extensive comments on the charters’ requests for expansion, including detailed research documenting how the State’s decision to rapidly expand charter enrollments from 2009 through 2015 has put the NPS budget in crisis. The data shows charter enrollments nearly tripled to 12,885 students during that period, while the percentage of students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs) in NPS schools increased significantly.
Further, while the NPS budget has been flat since 2011 as a result of the State’s failure to fund New Jersey’s school funding formula, payments from the budget to charter schools have risen dramatically to $225 million, representing 27% of the total NPS budget. ELC also documented that the combination of flat budgets and rising charter payments has triggered severe reductions in spending on regular classroom instruction, guidance and other support services, and special education and bilingual education in NPS schools.
The NJ Supreme Court, in several rulings, has imposed upon the Commissioner an affirmative constitutional obligation to carefully evaluate the impact that opening or expanding charter schools will have on the loss of funding and the segregation of students in districts served by the charters.
“The Commissioner must meet his constitutional obligation to assess and determine the impact that the loss of funding from increased charter payments will have on the ability of the Newark district to provide a thorough and efficient education to all public school children,” said Michael Stein of Pashman Stein in Hackensack, the firm representing ELC on this appeal. “The Commissioner did not evaluate the impact of charter expansion on the NPS budget, even though ELC presented a compelling record that the expansion would mean less funding, more cuts to essential staff and programs, and the further concentration of students based on disability and English language proficiency in NPS schools.”
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