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Tiffany Boyd-Hodgson of Morristown, left, and Jutta Gassner-Snyder of Maplewood, are two of the parents who have applied to establish a charter school in Maplewood. The Mandarin-language immersion program would be housed in the St. Joseph School. (Photo by Danielle Austen.)

One by one, the legislators, parents and district officials lined up to speak at a rally in Millburn on a recent summer night. They had come to make it clear that two new Mandarin-immersion charter schools proposed for the area were unwelcome by many residents of this affluent Essex County enclave, where the median household income approached $170,000 in 2009. It was getting late by the time Alle Ries, a Maplewood parent with a daughter entering kindergarten in the fall, grabbed the microphone. She was the ninth speaker of the night, but the audience remained rapt.

“Right now, the decision to approve charter schools—as we’ve all heard tonight—is coming right out of the governor’s office,” Ries declared. “That needs to stop. Local communities need to be able to have their wishes heard.”

Ries and the rest of Save Our Schools NJ, a self-described grassroots, nonpartisan organization, are quick to say that they are not against all charter schools. In fact, the daughter of Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save Our Schools NJ, attends Princeton Charter School. Instead, the group argues that, if a community doesn’t wish to have a charter school, it shouldn’t be forced to accept one.

The proposed Mandarin-immersion schools—one in Maplewood, the other in Livingston—would be open to students from Maplewood-South Orange, Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills, West Orange and Union. For each student who attends, the school would receive funding from that student’s respective district—between about $8,400 and $11,000 per child, depending on the town.

The first three districts, in particular, raise the question of whether affluent communities with successful school districts are an appropriate fit for charter schools. Each of those districts performs well above the state average on standardized tests and graduates 96 to 100 percent of its students from high school.

Still, the founders of the would-be charters—in some cases simply parents in the community—are appalled by what they see as the dearth of innovation in the school systems, which lack even a single language-immersion program. Left to their own devices, they argue, school systems have no incentive to innovate.

Yet local boards of education, parents and superintendents in the county are fighting back against the proposed charters with rallies, petitions and letters to the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) to keep all charters out of their towns. They question the purpose of charter schools, contending that charters should be confined to failing school systems. Further, they seek local control over charter approval.

Similar debates are raging throughout the state in places like Princeton, Highland Park and Montclair—all communities with above-average school systems. The DOE’s decision on which of its 55 charter applicants to approve this year, to be announced by September 30, could settle some of the arguments and set the tone for charter growth in the future.

So far, Governor Chris Christie’s policies have been decidedly pro-charter; in January, the DOE approved 23 new charter schools—about half of all applicants, and the largest number approved in a single year since the charter law was passed in 1995. The state does not have a cap on charters; theoretically, all 55 applications could be approved this time around.

Yet Christie and acting education commissioner Chris Cerf have hedged their support for charters, noting that any charter openings should depend on the community. Christie has said that, if a charter were to open in a suburb, “there should be a need for that school and a demand for that school.” Cerf, in a remark often quoted by charter opponents in Millburn and the surrounding areas, said “boutique” charter schools—like language-immersion schools—may be unnecessary in districts that are “humming along.”

Millburn High School, where nearly half of all juniors and seniors are enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, was ranked last year as the state’s best by New Jersey Monthly. It’s one reason why Millburn superintendent James Crisfield questions the need for charters serving Millburn students.

“I actually like the idea of charter schools in districts where the schools are not succeeding and not meeting the students’ needs,” Crisfield says. “That’s not the case in Millburn…. In places like that where the schools are not failing but are actually excellent, I don’t see any point of adding cost to the system.”

Pro-charter Maplewood parent Jutta Gassner-Snyder does not buy Crisfield’s argument. An Austrian native with a daughter starting kindergarten in the fall of 2012, Gassner-Snyder was dismayed by a lack of opportunities for her daughter—who has attended a Mandarin-immersion preschool since she was one—to be exposed to the language early on in the public schools. And so, Gassner-Snyder, with nine others, submitted an application to start the Hua Mei Charter School, a Mandarin-immersion school they hope will eventually serve grades K through 5. Gassner-Snyder, like many of the other founders, does not have a background in education. Rather, they see their role as crystallizing the mission of the school and finding the principal and teachers to see it through.

She dismisses the argument that charters belong only in high-needs districts, rattling off research findings about the benefits of bilingual education. For example, students who are fluent in a tonal language, such as Mandarin, tend to have a greater understanding of math concepts—and some special-education students in language-immersion programs score as well on assessments as their general-education peers in English-only programs.

“When we look at the original charter initiative, it had no mention to save failing school districts,” Gassner-Snyder says, referring to the New Jersey charter law. “It was instituted to see what other education model is working that is not currently implemented in the school system.”

New Jersey’s charter law states in its first paragraph that charters can “increase for students and parents the educational choices available…[and] encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods.” The law never specifies what sorts of districts charter schools should target but does state: “The commissioner shall actively encourage the establishment of charter schools in urban school districts with the participation of institutions of higher education.”

The wording of the law aside, parties on both sides of the debate think charter reform is needed. Gassner-Snyder and her cofounders don’t think charters should have to rely on school districts for funding; they would prefer a different money stream. The New Jersey Charter School Association would like to see a law that empowers multiple entities beyond the DOE to authorize charters. The association also wants more autonomy for charter schools. Meanwhile, Save Our Schools and state legislators on both sides of the aisle, wary of charters in good school systems, are trying to push through a variety of bills that would increase transparency in charter schools and subject charter-school applications to a local approval before the applicants could seek DOE approval.

But any reforms likely won’t define where charter schools can open. Only a few states have written into their charter laws that the schools should target low-income students and neighborhoods. “There hasn’t been so much debate because almost every state has allowed them to exist everywhere,” says Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College in New York.

Historically, charter schools have served multiple functions and purposes. They have been opened as a way to save children in struggling inner-city school systems; as destinations for children of affluent parents wishing to avoid what they view as the pitfalls of public schools; and as laboratories that, in theory, can pass along successful new ideas to public schools across the country.

“We do need more innovation in the suburbs, and we need different kinds of schools to match a variety of student interests and family preferences,” says Bruce Fuller of the University of California at Berkeley, who has studied charter schools. “Public school systems have been very slow to adapt to a globalizing workforce.”

Many new suburban charters in New Jersey—those already approved, as well as those seeking approval—have a global outlook. Most tend to offer language-immersion programs; one new potential charter, the Princeton International Academy Charter—which was approved last year but still is searching for facilities—will follow the interdisciplinary approach of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. The IB emphasizes creativity, service and hands-on learning.

This type of education is sorely missing in New Jersey, says parent Dvora Inwood, who attended the town’s schools herself as a child. “Those schools have not changed. They’re not innovative. They’re not really meeting [the] challenges of multiple learners,” she says.

Three of the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School’s five classrooms share one large building off the back of Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Brunswick. In three of the five rooms, blue partitions separate the spaces; shelving, white boards and filing cabinets do double duty as walls. It’s a step up, though. During its first two weeks in operation, the Hebrew-immersion charter school did not even have furniture.

East Brunswick Public Schools is suing the state for allowing the charter, claiming it did not have enough students enrolled at the time to open. Hatikvah did not receive its first check from the school district until the school year was well under way.

But principal/director Naomi Drewitz, who spent 28 years as a teacher and administrator  in public schools in nearby East Windsor, can at least understand the animosity. “They’re going to fight any charter school,” she says. “It takes away a huge, huge chunk of money from their chunk of money”
The fights in Maplewood and Millburn are reminiscent of what East Brunswick went through last year, before the DOE approved the charter school’s application over parental protests and the local board of education’s recommendation to deny the application.

Drewitz is hopeful that—with rave reviews from parents, full enrollment (at 152 students) and a waiting list that is 75 students long—opponents might slowly change their minds. But as long as the six home districts of those enrolled at Hatikvah must hand over several thousand dollars per student, she understands that any partnership beyond a professional working relationship may be too much to ask for.

The Hatikvah case had an additional layer of complexity; as a partial Hebrew-immersion charter school, there was concern from some that the school represented a use of public money for religious purposes. The school, however, claims not to teach anything about Judaism or even keep track of the religious background of its students. Even so, fears of blurring the church-state line persist in relation to other potential charters, such as the application this year for a Hebrew-language high school in Highland Park. Yet for other interested parties, like Save Our Schools, the issue is not about language but community control and school funding.

Traditional New Jersey public schools receive much of their funding based on a  per-pupil allotment determined by the DOE. When a student attends a charter school, the charter gets 90 percent of that student’s funding allotment, while the district keeps 10 percent. Charter schools don’t receive any additional funding from the state or town (though they can apply for it); it’s common for them to turn to outside fundraising to supplement their budgets.

Charter-school advocates like Gassner-Snyder argue that the choice they provide to parents is worth the cost to local districts, adding that, if parents decide not to send their children to the charters, the schools don’t see a dime. Districts, though, bemoan the loss of any money when their budgets are already being cut.

For towns vehemently fighting charters, a recent statement by Christie has been a rallying cry of sorts: “Let’s reward excellence. Let’s encourage excellence. Let’s fund excellence.”

While charter critics contend that allowing these schools into good school systems is the very antithesis of funding excellence, Gassner-Snyder says if her school were to open at full capacity—or 90 students in the first year—she’d hardly be siphoning away large amounts of money. She estimates that, if enrollment is evenly distributed across the five districts, her school would receive about $1 million, or $200,000 from each district out of budgets that total more than half a billion dollars.

“So they are going on this witch hunt over less than a quarter of [a] percent,” she says. At full capacity, in five years, with 270 students and an operating budget of $3 million, the school would get about $600,000 per district—which is less  than 1 percent of their annual budgets, Gassner-Snyder points out.

Yet, this oversimplifies the process, according to Crisfield, who says Millburn went though “a tremendous amount of pain and agita” in the last budget season, cutting 18 staff members and significantly reducing facilities funding. “The problem is we would have no corresponding reduction in cost,” he says. “You can’t reduce staffing when your class size goes from 24 to 22.”

Drewitz, a self-described charter and public school advocate, feels her school has proven itself. Speaking during the school’s summer session, with the sounds of English and Hebrew lessons spilling over into her office, she gets tears in her eyes thinking about the school’s difficult yet successful first year. “If I believe that this is what’s right for children, then I’m going to stand by it.
And from what I have seen this year, it’s worked,” she says. “I don’t believe any politician or any public-school superintendent or any community member could come here and tell me otherwise, that [Hatikvah] should not exist.”

Read the full story at New Jersey Monthly.

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