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Spring 2011

Charter Schools in New Jersey: Just the Facts

Teresa Moore, Esq.

Governor Chris Christie's vision of education reform for New Jersey places charter school expansion front and center.1 He wants to overhaul current law to foster charter school growth and encourage more private charter school operators to manage schools in New Jersey. His agenda includes allowing private and parochial schools to become charter schools, as well as expanding charter school authorizers beyond the Department of Education to all public institutions of higher education (two- and four-year) as well as to existing school districts.

With so much attention directed to charter schools now, Legally Speaking decided to take a close look at the features of charter schools.

What Are Charter Schools?

Charter schools have been part of New Jersey's education landscape since 1995, when the New Jersey Charter School Program Act, N.J.S.A. 18A: 36A-1 et seq., was enacted.

NJ charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools. They operate independently of the local school district in which the charter school is located, and have their own board of trustees. The charter school Act authorizes the Department of Education to grant charters to founders to manage a public school. The intent behind creating charter schools, according to section 2 of the Act, is to "offer the potential to improve pupil learning; increase for students and parents the educational choices available when selecting the learning environment which they feel may be the most appropriate; encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods; establish a new form of accountability for schools; require the measurement of learning outcomes; make the school the unit for educational improvement; and establish new professional opportunities for teachers."

The New Jersey Department of Education reports that a total of 73 charter schools were operating as of April 1, 2011. The Department approved another 23 last January to begin operating in September of this year, or later if a planning year was granted.2 Where are the schools located? To date, seventeen of the state's twenty-one counties have charter schools. None have been formed in Cape May, Gloucester, Hunterdon and Ocean counties, although the Act allots a minimum of three to each county.

Notably, this year for the first time two "virtual" online charter schools were approved. One is a high school that plans to serve at-risk students in Newark; the other is a K-12 school for at-risk youth in Camden, Neptune Township, Paterson, and Perth Amboy.

As of March 31, 2011, which was this year's regular deadline for submitting applications for charter approval, the Department of Education had received 58 new applications.3 The applications include a K-12 virtual charter school based in Jersey City, schools with themes such as fashion, Chinese-American culture, health sciences, Hebrew language, and business/vocation/entrepreneurship/technology, as well as many that do not organize around an area of concentration.

Current regulations require these proposals to be decided by September 30, 2011, with approved schools generally expected to begin operating in September 2012.

In addition to Governor Christie, various state legislators would like to amend the charter school law. Pending legislation includes bills that:


  • require charter schools to be authorized only in "failing school districts," meaning districts in need of improvement as defined in the No Child Left Behind Act (A3454);
  • place a three-year moratorium on new charter schools (S1474);
  • require voter approval at the next school election or by a board of school estimate prior to establishing a charter school (A3852/S2243);
  • permit nonpublic schools to convert to charter schools (A2806/S2933);
  • allow charter school applications to be submitted any time in the calendar year, with 90 days for a decision (A2142);

  • establish Rutgers University as a charter school authorizer (A3083/S2198); and
  • authorize shared services and other collaboration between school districts and charter schools (A3356).

The FAQ below, and accompanying charts, provide additional details about the current landscape of charter schools in New Jersey.

Frequently Asked Questions about Charter Schools

Q. Who can form a charter school?

A. Founders can be teaching staff members, parents with children attending schools of the district, or a combination of both. Founders can also be institutions of higher education or private entities within the state in conjunction with teaching staff members and parents. Private and parochial schools are not eligible to become charter schools. If a charter school is established by a private entity, representatives of the private entity cannot constitute a majority of the school's trustees, and the charter must specify the extent to which the private entity will be involved in operating the school. The name of the charter school may not identify the name of the private entity, and the private entity may not realize a net profit from operating the charter school.

Q. Who can operate a charter school?

A. No more than 50% of a charter school's board of trustees can be associated with the same private non-profit or for-profit entity. The charter must specify the extent to which a private entity will operate the school. Charter schools cannot be operated by for-profit entities.

Q. For how long are charters granted?

A. Initial charters are granted for four years. The Act allows the Commissioner to grant a five-year renewal. The NJDOE has granted multiple five-year renewals to qualifying charter schools.

Q. May charter schools charge tuition?

A. No, charter schools must be tuition-free to students who reside in the district, just as the traditional public schools of the same district are.

Q. How are children admitted to charter schools?

A. A charter school is open to all students on a space-available basis, with preference given to children who reside in the district in which the charter school is located. Charter schools must not discriminate in admission policies or practices on any basis that would be illegal if used by a public school. If more students apply than there is space available, a charter school must employ a "random selection process" to admit students.

Q. Must charter schools admit students with educational disabilities?

A. Yes. N.J.A.C. 6A:11-4.8. If a child enrolled in a charter school is determined to require a private day or residential placement, the responsibility for payment is that of the district of residence, not the charter school.

Q. Is transportation available to students enrolled in charter schools?

A. Students who reside in the school district in which the charter is located must be provided transportation, or aid in lieu of transportation, on the same terms as transportation is provided to students attending district schools. Nonresident students may be eligible to receive transportation or aid in lieu of transportation; such services are the responsibility of the board of education of the school district in which they reside.

Q. May an existing public school become a charter school?

A. Yes, if at least 51% of the teaching staff and at least 51% of the parents and guardians of pupils in that school sign a petition in support.

Q. May charter schools organize around a theme?

A. Yes. The Act says, "A charter school may limit its admission to areas of concentration of the school, such as mathematics, sciences or the arts." N.J.S.A. 18A: 36A-7. Charter schools may establish reasonable criteria to evaluate prospective students, which must be outlined in the school's charter. At the same time, charter schools must be open to all students on a space available basis, and shall not discriminate in admissions policies or practices on the basis of intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, status as a disabled person, proficiency in the English language, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a school district.

Q. Must charter school staff be certificated?

A. All classroom teachers, principals and professional support staff must hold New Jersey certification. In addition, the charter school board of trustees must employ or contract with someone holding a New Jersey business administrator certificate to oversee fiscal operations. The administrative regulations also provide that the board must employ or contract with a "lead person or another person who holds a New Jersey standard school administrator or supervisor certificate or a New Jersey standard or provisional principal certificate... to direct and guide" instructional staff.

Q. Must charter school staff be unionized?

A. It depends. If an existing public school becomes a charter school, employees of the charter school are deemed to be members of the collective bargaining unit in the applicable agreement. For other charter schools, there is no requirement that the board of trustees negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with teachers or other staff. The Act gives the board of trustees of a charter school "the authority to employ, discharge and contract with necessary teachers and nonlicensed employees, subject to the school's charter." The Act also states that the board of trustees may choose whether or not to offer the terms of an existing collective bargaining agreement to its employees, although the board must adopt any health and safety provisions. Charter schools are subject to the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act. And a charter school may not set a teacher salary lower than the minimum statutory teacher salary nor higher than the highest step in the salary guide in the collective bargaining agreement in effect in the district in which the charter school is located.

Q. Does tenure apply to charter school staff?

A. Yes. "Streamline tenure" is the Act's name of the tenure process for all charter school teaching staff members, janitors, and secretaries who are either newly employed in a charter school or employed in a charter school while on leave from a district board of education. Streamline tenure is acquired after employment for three consecutive years plus the next succeeding year.

Q. Does the administrative cap on the salaries of superintendents of school districts apply to charter school "lead persons"?

A. No.4

Q. How does the academic achievement of students enrolled in charters compare with the achievement of pupils from the school districts where the charter schools are located?

A. This has been the subject of debate. For various points of view on the data regarding student improvement, see the New Jersey Department of Education's interim report of January 18, 2011, entitled "Charter Schools in New Jersey," concluding that NJ charter schools are outperforming the traditional public schools in their districts;5 the observations of education professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, who contends that the evidence is inconclusive;6 and a 2009 Stanford University study of 16 states (not including New Jersey) concluding that charter school students underperform students in traditional public schools.7 The Association for Children of New Jersey has analyzed charter schools and traditional public schools in several New Jersey cities in its annual "Kids Count" Survey.8 Additional study of student achievement in charter schools in New Jersey is needed.

Q. How are charter schools funded?

A. Charter schools are funded through state education aid and any private funding that they may receive. As for public fiscal support, the school district of residence pays the charter school for each student enrolled in a charter school who resides in the district at the base rate of 90% of per-pupil school aid. Additionally, the school district pays the charter school security aid, a percentage of special education aid, 100% of preschool aid and 100% of federal funds attributable to the student.

Q. Does a local board of education have any say in whether a charter school is approved or not?

A. Yes. The board of education, or state district superintendent of a school district in intervention, of the district of residence of a proposed charter school reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the Commissioner. The Commissioner has the final authority to grant or reject applications.

Q. Are members of charter school boards of trustees held to the same ethical standards as board of education members?

A. Yes. Trustees are considered "school officials" under the School Ethics Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-23, which applies to them. The board of trustees must also operate in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6.

Q. What is the capacity of the NJDOE to approve and monitor charter schools?

A. As of the earliest part of 2011, there were five employees in the state Office of Charter Schools. Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf is now reorganizing the office, and intends to expand it to fourteen staff members.9

Teresa Moore is an attorney who consults with the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy and teaches school law in the LEGAL ONE training program. She practiced law privately for 18 years, specializing in representing boards of education and private schools.

Footnotes

1The Governor's education agenda announced in the fall of 2010 highlights the role of charter schools in its title: "The Christie Reform Agenda: Education Is the Civil Rights Issue of Today, challenging the system to grow high-quality charter schools, spur innovation and create public school choice." (emphasis added) For agenda details, see the PDF here.

2Approvals apparently exceed the number of charter schools that are operating, according to the Department. Its "New Jersey Public Schools Fact Sheet" says there are now 73 charter schools. Its "Charter Schools Directory" lists 104 charter schools, including the 23 that were approved in January 2011.

3Star Ledger, April 1, 2011. A list of the applicants is available at NJ.com.

4The Record, March 20, 2011. http://www.northjersey.com/news/118317294_Charterschoolsescapepay_limit.html.

5The report is available from NJ.gov. Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf has stated that he intends to obtain an independent review of the report's findings. (See minutes of March 7, 2011 State Board of Education meeting.)

6http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/unspinning-data-on-new-jersey-charter-schools/

7http://credo.stanford.edu/

8http://www.acnj.org/main.asp?uri=1003&di=683

9http://www.njpsa.org/agr/news.cfm?newsid=1110

Charter schools operating in New Jersey as of April 1, 2011

Academy Charter High School
Lake Como
Academy for Urban Leadership Charter High School
Perth Amboy
Adelaide L. Sanford Charter School
Newark
Barack Obama Green Charter High School
Plainfield
Bergen Arts and Science Charter School
Garfield
Burch Charter School of Excellence
Irvington
Camden Academy Charter High School
Camden
Camden's Pride Charter School
Camden
Camden's Promise Charter School
Camden
Capital Preparatory Charter High School
Trenton
Central Jersey Arts Charter School
Plainfield
Central Jersey College Prep Charter School
Somerset
chARTer~TECH High School for Performing Arts
Somers Point
Classical Academy Charter School of Clifton
Clifton
Community Charter School of Paterson
Paterson
Discovery Charter School
Newark
D.U.E. Season Charter School
Camden
East Orange Community Charter School
East Orange
ECO Charter School
Camden
Elysian Charter School Hoboken
Hoboken
Emily Fisher Charter School of Advanced Studies
Trenton
Englewood on the Palisades Charter School
Englewood
Ethical Community Charter School
Jersey City
Foundation Academy Charter School
Trenton
Freedom Academy Charter School
Camden
Galloway Community Charter School
Galloway
Gray Charter School
Newark
Greater Brunswick Charter School
New Brunswick
Greater Newark Charter School
Newark
Hatikvah International Academy Charter School
East Brunswick
Hoboken Charter School
Hoboken
Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa)
Hoboken
Hope Academy Charter School
Asbury Park
Institute for Excellence Charter School
Hammonton
International Charter School of Trenton
Trenton

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Jersey City Community Charter School
Jersey City
Jersey City Golden Door Charter School
Jersey City
Lady Liberty Academy Charter School
Newark
LEAP Academy University Charter School
Camden
Learning Community Charter School
Jersey City
Liberty Academy Charter School
Jersey City
Maria L Varisco Rogers Charter School
Newark
Marion P Thomas Charter School
Newark
New Horizons Community Charter School
Newark
Newark Educators' Community Charter School
Newark
Newark Legacy Charter School
Newark
North Star Academy Charter School of Newark
Newark
North Star Academy Charter School -- Clinton Hill Middle
Newark
North Star Academy Charter School -- Vailsburg Elementary
Newark
Oceanside Charter School
Atlantic City
Pace Charter School of Hamilton The
Trenton
Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology
Paterson
Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities
Trenton
PleasanTech Academy Charter School
Pleasantville
Pride Academy Charter School
East Orange
Princeton Charter School
Princeton
Queen City Academy Charter School
Plainfield
Red Bank Charter School
Red Bank
Renaissance Regional Leadership Charter School
Wrightstown
Ridge and Valley Charter School
Blairstown
Riverbank Charter School of Excellence
Burlington
Robert Treat Academy Charter School -- North Campus
Newark
Robert Treat Academy Charter School -- Central Campus
Newark
Schomburg Charter School
Jersey City
Soaring Heights Charter School
Jersey City
Sussex County Charter School for Technology
Sparta
TEAM Academy Charter School
Newark
TEAM / Newark Collegiate Academy Charter School
Newark
TEAM / RISE Academy Charter School
Newark
TEAM / Spark Academy Charter School
Newark
Teaneck Community Charter School
Teaneck
Trenton Community Charter School
Trenton
Union County TEAMS Charter School
Plainfield
University Academy Charter School
Jersey City
University Heights Charter School
Newark
Unity Charter School
Morristown
Village Charter School
Trenton
Vineland Public Charter School
Vineland
Visions Academy Charter High School
Newark

Additional charter schools approved as of January 2011

Arete Charter School
East Orange, NJ
Atlantic City Community Charter School
Atlantic City, NJ
Atlantic Preparatory Charter School
Atlantic City, NJ
Bright Horizon Charter School
Penns Grove-Carneys Point, NJ
Camden Community Charter School
Camden
Dr. Lena Edwards
Jersey City
Dr. Therman Evans Charter School for Excellence
Linden, Elizabeth, Roselle
Forest Hill Charter School
Newark
Global Visions Charter School
Egg Harbor City, Galloway Twp., Mullica Twp.
Great Oaks Charter School
Newark
Kingdom Charter School
Gloucester Township
M.E.T.S. Charter School
Jersey City
Martha Palmer Chaneyfield Charter School
Newark
Millville Charter School
Millville
New Day Charter High School
Newark
New Jersey Virtual Academy
Newark
New Jersey Virtual
Camden, Neptune Township, Paterson, Perth Amboy
People's Prep
Newark
Roseville Community
Newark
Shalom, Englewood
Teaneck
Spirit Prep
East Orange, Irvington, Newark
Vailsburg Prep
Newark
Willingboro Charter School
Willingboro

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Please note that Legally Speaking is intended to be informational in nature. Nothing in Legally Speaking should be construed as legal advice as to any specific matter. Readers are encouraged to contact legal counsel to discuss specific legal issues that arise.