Lawyers for Newark’s public school children have asked New Jersey’s appellate courts to block the Christie Administration’s effort to nearly double charter school enrollment in the state’s largest school district, warning the increased privatization of the city’s schools would deepen the system’s fiscal crisis, increase racial isolation, and deprive the neediest public school students of essential services.
The Education Law Center (ELC) is seeking to reverse a decision by former state Education Commissioner David Hespe to allow seven charter schools to increase enrollments by 8,499 students over the next five years–putting about half of all students in the privately-operated but publicly funded charters. Public money is taken from the regular schools to pay for students in the privately-operated charters.
And the half of the 36,000 Newark students remaining in traditional public schools would face a bleak future of increased need and reduced funding.
“The dramatic expansion of charter school enrollment authorized by the Commissioner will continue the substantial decline in funding available in the NPS”–Newark Public Schools–“budget to educate students attending NPS schools,” the ELC brief in opposition to charter expansion charged.
“The loss of funding will exacerbate an ongoing NPS budget crisis, further diminishing the availability of classroom teachers, support staff and other resources essential to delivering a constitutionally-mandated thorough and efficient education.”
The brief also warned that expanding the charter schools would “also increase a pattern of segregating high concentrations of high-risk students in NPS schools, namely, students with disabilities and English language learners (‘ELL’). Those students require additional funding and resources for a thorough and efficient education, putting added strain on the NPS budget. Further, the expansion will perpetuate the intense racial isolation of Newark students in an already de facto segregated district.”
The brief also accuses Hespe, who has resigned and been replaced by interim commissioner Kimberly Harrington, of ignoring the laws governing charters by failing to consider the impact of their expansion on public schools, allowing them to expand “satellite” campuses that are really new schools without filing new applications and without identifying the facilities they would use. Hespe’s decisions–driven by the strong pro-charter views of Gov. Chris Christie–are called “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” in the ELC brief.
The efforts by the ELC–a public interest law firm in Newark that represents children in New Jersey’s poorest school districts–may finally bring to a head the growing dispute between charter school advocates and supporters of traditional public schools who argue charters rob their students of needed funds and contribute to segregation.
The state’s highest court, while warning that charters may not deprive public school students of their rights, has put off “for another day” most serious questions about the fiscal and racial implications of privately operated schools that can select and expel their students–especially in the state’s poorest districts.
“That day has arrived on this appeal,” the ELC lawyers wrote.
The public school advocates recited the consequences of Christie’s efforts–in alliance with former mayor and now US Sen. Cory Booker–to make Newark what they promised would be the “charter capital of New Jersey.”
In the last seven years, charter school enrollments have tripled in Newark from 4,559 to 12,885 students and the money taken from regular schools to support that expansion increased from $60 million a year to more than $225 million.
And that’s in the context of continued cuts in state aid to the Newark schools while the Legislature–at the urging of the governor–takes money from the city’s public schools to hold the charters “harmless” from state aid reductions. From 2016 to 2019, total charter funding is expected to increase from $234.6 million to $310.6 million, while NPS funding will drop from $572 million to $497 million.
The “combination” of cuts to NPS and expansion of charters “has resulted in severe reductions in essential staff, regular classroom instruction, guidance, support, special education, and bilingual education programs in NPS schools.”
The enrollment practices of charter schools–which can expel students that NPS schools must take back–“have spawned new forms of discrimination: among students with disabilities and English language learners between charter and NPS schools in a district already experiencing extreme racial isolation.”
Children are segregated, not just by race, but by ability and language and the need for special education.
In short, the students left behind in regular public schools have increasingly greater needs–and less money. The charters take fewer of the neediest students and are taking more and more money from the regular public schools.
The ELC says New Jersey faces a “bitter historical irony” of capping decades of efforts both to desegregate schools and to improve urban education with a betrayal of the children who need help the most–a betrayal in the form of the theft of funds from the public schools by privatized charter schools.