In a brief filed this week with a state appellate court, ELC argues that Commissioner Christopher Cerf and the State Board of Education exceeded their authority under the state’s charter school law by opening the door to a significant increase in the number of charter schools located in New Jersey’s high poverty, high minority school districts.
Specifically, ELC is challenging a recently adopted rule allowing existing charter schools to establish and operate an unlimited number of “satellite” schools in the 31 “former Abbott districts” and districts with schools designated as “priority schools” under a waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Under the regulation, charters could open “satellites” in these districts simply by amending their charter, bypassing the application and review process for establishing a new charter under New Jersey’s Charter School Program Act (Act).
ELC is also challenging the repeal of a longstanding regulation prohibiting a charter school from changing its core mission, goals and objectives also through a simple amendment to its state-approved charter.
For the first time since the passage of the Act in 1995, Commissioner Cerf and the State Board have taken the position that multiple school sites can operate under a single charter. As ELC argues in its brief, there is no support in the Act for allowing existing charters to operate multiple schools in different locations. Rather, the Act focuses on individual schools as “the unit for educational improvement,” and ties the granting of a charter to a specific school, requiring that every charter application provide “[a ] description of, and address for, the physical facility in which the charter school will be located.”
In addition, the NJ Legislature specifically prohibited any expansions or modifications of the charter program without legislative approval, and legislators have never even considered the policy issues related to the opening of satellites by existing charter schools.
California experimented with multiple-site charter schools between 1992 and 2002, but enacted stringent geographical restrictions on charter schools after uncovering fiscal and other irregularities resulting from the use of satellite schools in different locations.
New Jersey currently has 86 approved charter schools serving over 30,000 students. Under the new regulations, any of those 86 schools can amend their charters to operate satellite campuses in the 31 former Abbott districts or the two non-Abbott priority districts of Lakewood and Roselle. Commissioner Cerf has not explained why he chose to target charter expansion through satellite schools to only these districts.
“If the Commissioner wants to allow charters to operate satellite schools at different locations, then he must seek to amend the Act. This rule does an end run around the Legislature, which has made it clear that there can be no expansion of the charter program without its express approval,” said ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos, who filed the brief.
The push for satellite charters is coupled with the State’s repeal of a regulation, in effect since 1997, that bars amending a school’s charter by changing the mission, goals, and objectives of the charter.
“Measuring whether a charter has met its goals allows the State to determine the success of the school. If charters can change their goals without undergoing the usual approval process, the goals become a moving target,” Ms. Athos said.
Under the new regulations, there are no limitations on charter amendments. When applying for an amendment, a charter school does not need to undergo the extensive application and approval process required to obtain the initial charter and is also freed from the requirement of notifying any parties other than the district in which the charter is located.
The State now has at least 30 days to respond to ELC’s brief. ELC has asked for the Court to hold oral argument in the case, which is not anticipated to be scheduled before the fall.
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