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Charter Schools in New Jersey -- We Want a Vote!

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On Wednesday, June 29, the New Jersey Assembly will be voting on two charter school reform bills: A3852 (local control over the establishment of charter schools) and A3356 (greater transparency and accountability in the operations of charter schools).

Currently, New Jersey residents and local school boards have absolutely no say in whether or not a charter school can be established in their towns. If the state's commissioner of education approves a charter school, a local school board just gets slapped with a bill from the state for the tuition of the charter school students, forcing them to take that money away from the conventional public schools. With so many local school boards already dealing with reduced budgets, this means cutting programs that benefit the majority of students to pay for the pseudo-private education of a few.

Last Tuesday, simultaneous rallies were held in three central New Jersey communities to call for passage of the reform bills. Speaking at the rally in Highland Park, Melanie McDermott, a member of Save Our Schools NJ, the organization that sponsored the rallies, summed up the issue in two sentences: "Right now, the decision to approve a new charter school is made entirely by the state's Commissioner of Education. Local community wishes DO NOT MATTER."

Bill A3852 would put an end to this tyranny. This bill, if passed, will require that any new charter school first be approved by the local school district -- either by the voters of the district at their annual school election in districts with an elected school board, or by the Board of School Estimate in districts with an appointed school board.

With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being a zealous proponent of charter schools, and acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the man with all the power to approve new charter schools, being adamantly opposed to local control, residents across the state are turning out at rallies like those held last week and making their opinion heard with chants like the one heard at the Highland Park rally -- "We Want a Vote!"

Charter school reform has recently become a big issue in Highland Park, with the charter application of the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Immersion Charter High School. As Highland Park's mayor, Stephen Nolan, said at last week's rally, this is a town that has no need for charter schools. Highland Park has an exceptional public high school, ranked among the top 200 high schools in the country, with a graduation rate of 100% and 98% of the students going on to college.

But, beyond the obvious lack of any need for a charter school, budgetary issues, and overwhelming local opposition, the Tikun Olam charter school is a prime example of a school whose application should have been laughed off the table from the start.

As one of the overwhelming majority of Highland Park residents who are opposed to this school, I joined a committee formed earlier this year to scrutinize the school's application, and was astounded that approval of this school was even being considered by our state's Department of Education.

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Chris Rodda is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History.
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