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Will This Be the Year? Efforts to Strengthen New Jersey Charter School Law Underway

The time has come to update New Jersey’s charter school law. Currently ranked #29 out of 43 in our annual state charter laws rankings report, the law needs improvement in several areas, including expanding authorizer options, increasing operational autonomy, ensuring equitable funding, and strengthening charter contract requirements. Attempts to change the law over the years have been thwarted by the usual politics. However, strong momentum for a comprehensive overhaul appears to be building this legislative session. Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton recently unveiled his much-anticipated bill to overhaul the Garden State’s charter school law. The bill contains provisions to establish an independent charter board, provide more flexibility to public charter schools, enhance the charter school application process, and grant first-refusal rights to charter schools for surplus public property. Already the bill is generating considerable discussion from both supporters and opponents of public charter schools. Some local district supporters believe the bill goes too far in expanding public policy support of charter schools and have said they will fight bill. Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz also sees the need to modernize the charter law and has pre-filed two charter school bills. The first bill proposes to align charter school enrollment and demographic patterns with those in the charter school’s district of residence. While Assemblyman Singleton’s bill encourages charter schools to follow the same demographic patterns of the districts they serve, it does not have explicit requirements for them to do so.  The second bill would establish university authorizers instead of an independent charter commission, as called for Assemblyman Singleton’s bill. Both the Senate and Assembly bills increase authorizer accountability and mandate that authorizer practices align with nationally-recognized best practices. Considerable support for and opposition to all of these bills is expected. However, with the gubernatorial and legislative elections behind us, and the case for updating the charter law clearly stated, charter school supporters are hoping that this is the year to revamp New Jersey’s 19-year-old charter law. Lisa Grover is senior director for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.