Charter Schools and Parent-Triggers

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At the Assembly Education Committee hearing on Monday, representatives of suburban school boards pleaded with legislators to deploy a mechanism within pending charter school laws that would require a public vote in favor of a proposed charter school before approval by the DOE (or other authorizing agency.) So, for example, the charter for Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick would be approved only after 51% of East Brunswick residents pressed the “yes” button in the voting booth. (See earlier post.)

How is that proposed approval process different from the “parent trigger bill” proposed by Republican Senator Joseph Kyrillos?

In the first scenario, as described at Monday’s hearing, residents of towns like Princeton and East Brunswick would have the right to veto the establishment of a charter school in order to stymie the flow of tax money away from their districts. Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who chaired the hearing, nodded approvingly, noting that there is “a difference between need and want” and that, for example, the Hebrew immersion charter school in East Brunswick has “absolutely divided the community.”

In the second scenario, Kyrillos has proposed the Parent Employment and Choice Act, which would allow parents and residents to vote to force overhauls of districts by changing traditional schools into charters, firing school administrators, or establishing a tuition voucher program.

The former lets parents vote yea or nay to expand local school choice by approving or not approving a new charter. The latter lets parents vote yea or nay to expand local school choice by approving or not approving a new form of governance. Both scenarios provide a vast increase in resident/parent power, beyond simply electing school board members and approving budgets.

So the two proposed legislative tweaks are not so different. What’s different is that one is largely backed by wealthy communities who have great school systems anyway. The second is backed (and had its genesis in Compton, California; see recent update here from Democrats For Education Reform) by activists whose kids are trapped in educational wastelands.

Prospects for the legislation advocated by suburban districts seem good. Assemblyman Diegnan all but promised compliance, and there are legitimate reasons for limiting charter expansion to areas that serve our neediest kids. After all, there’s a difference between a charter that provides a further echelon of exclusion in an elite school district, and a charter that provides succor in a desert. Prospects for the parent-trigger bill, on the other hand, seem grim, in spite of the fact that it is directed at Saharan localities.

How does one square approval for parental power in wealthy communities and distaste for parental control in poor communities?

This is not an argument in favor of the parent-trigger bill, about which I remain agnostic. What troubles me amidst all the promising charter activity is the diversion of energy, political and otherwise, from kids without options to kids who have many.

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  • kallikak, January 27, 2011 @ 7:05 pm Reply

    Neither of the two legislative “tweaks” recognizes the constitutional burden (Article VII, Section 4) on the state to provide a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools” for all children between five and eighteen years of age.

    Why are we debating “escape hatches” for some students when the rest are consigned to underperforming public schools?

    When will the Governor and legislature confront their collective responsibility to fix that which is broken?

  • NJ Left Behind, January 28, 2011 @ 3:37 pm Reply

    Hi, Kallikak. I appreciate all your thoughtful responses. What legislative fixes do you think are available for kids consigned to those underperforming schools?

  • kallikak, January 29, 2011 @ 5:09 pm Reply

    I've not heard the legislature talking about any “fixes” (unless you consider a 50% de-funding of pre-school as an improvement).

    Remember that the Supreme Court was initially drawn to this issue because of the legislature's FAILURE to act in the 70s.

    Are you suggesting that members of suburban school boards have a pro bono obligation to counsel legislators in the performance of their sworn (and paid) duties?

    P.S. Excuse my typo: it's Article VIII (not VII), Section 4.

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