New Brunswick BOE Joins Call to Halt Charter School Growth

Students and teachers in class at Greater Brunswick Charter School. Credits: Greater Brunswick Charter School

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The issue is not about the quality of education in charter schools, or comparing test scores with traditional public schools. The issue, city school officials say, comes down to the money.

That’s the reason why New Brunswick Public Schools has joined several nearby districts in calling for the state to “place a moratorium” on charter school growth in Middlesex and Somerset counties.

“Our collective concern is that the expansion of existing charter schools and the addition of a new charter school would reduce funding available to support and serve traditional public schools in the counties,” Superintendent Aubrey Johnson said in a statement to TAPinto New Brunswick.

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The city’s Board of Education approved a resolution last week petitioning the state Department of Education to “conduct a full, open and thorough” analysis of how additional charter school seats in the area would affect public budgets. Until then, the resolution reads, the state should quash any applications for charter school expansion.

Five charter schools operate in the two counties, according to the resolution. A number of them have sought state approvals to enroll more students.

Another institution, Ailanthus Charter School, got the green light to open last October, with plans to begin serving students in September 2018. That school would primarily accommodate students from New Brunswick and Franklin, according to the district.

In total, 2,316 seats exist in charter schools in Middlesex and Somerset at the moment, according to the document. If the charter schools are granted approval after review, that number could increase to 5,283.

New Brunswick and its public-school peers must pay a certain amount of money for each hometown kid who enrolls in a charter school. Exactly how much is determined by a state formula that has been a source of contention among those in the education community.

“The situation is dire,” Johnson said of the state-mandated formulae. “To be clear, this requested moratorium is not in opposition to charter schools. Rather, it’s about the tremendously negative consequences for school budgets and for the quality of public education in Middlesex and Somerset counties.”

School boards in Franklin, Old Bridge, Monroe and Middlesex Borough have voiced similar concerns.

But not everyone agrees that charter schools are draining money that could be better spent on public education.

The New Jersey Charter Schools Association, for instance, believes the larger issue at stake is the ability for children to get a strong education.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing that we want for every family in the state is that they have an opportunity to select where they send their children to be educated,” Amanda Vega-Malinowski, the group’s spokesperson, told TAPinto New Brunswick.

She said local charter schools want to expand because they are indeed drawing plenty of interested students and parents.

“If there is a demand for high-quality seats in charter schools that are serving children well, it’s hard to say no,” she said. “We need to think about the kids.”

School districts only pay when a would-be student opts to instead attend a charter school, she noted.

For New Brunswick’s school officials, the “lack of publicly available studies” on how this financial relationship impacts public-school students is a major problem.

Plus, a state-mandated cap on how much school districts can raise taxes makes it more difficult school districts to replenish their coffers after such payments, according to the resolution.

But the city’s school district also suspects that some charter schools might foster segregation. Two in particular, the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick and the Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School in Somerset, were singled out in the resolution.

Officials from those schools could not be reached for comment.

The head of the Thomas Edison school, however, reportedly rejected such a claim as “part of an effort to harass” charter schools.

New Brunswick’s school board asked the state to look into possible segregation in charter schools.

Vega-Malinowski said charter schools are based on “parent choice,” and charter schools use open, fair, public lottery systems to decide who gets in. That makes it challenging to segregate kids or take only high-performing ones, if that is the objective.

Local charter schools typically reach out to various segments of the community through direct mailers, phone call campaigns, press releases and making applications available in multiple languages, she said. Local charter schools have said they aim to reflect the demographics of their communities to the greatest extent possible.

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