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Charter School Reform Bill Filed in New Jersey Legislature

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A New Jersey lawmaker is attempting to rewrite the state's charter school laws to include another layer of oversight and more public input. Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would create a statewide charter-authorizing board while establishing a framework to include public feedback in the charter-authorizing process.

"Our law had not been updated since the late 90s," Singleton said. "And the charter school movement has changed a great deal since then."

Under the bill, the authorizing board would monitor the publicly funded, independent schools and have the power to shut down low-performing ones. Furthermore, it would vet charter applicants and make recommendations to the department of education as part of a new authorization process that would also require input from local school boards and community members. Currently, the New Jersey Department of Education makes all authorizing and closing decisions.

In writing the legislation, Singleton said he consulted a range of stakeholders from the teachers' union to school board members to charter school advocates. Singleton, a charter school supporter, believes his bill is balanced and doesn't expect anyone to be happy with it.

"No one is 100 percent happy. I take that as a badge of honor," Singleton said. "The viewpoints are so different—trying to drag people into the middle is a challenge. There are things that charter school advocates wish were in the bill that aren't, and there are things in the bill that opponents wish weren't."

One criticism is that the new board would be part of the education commissioner's office and would not have enough independence.

"The New Jersey Department of Education has become a strong authorizer," said Alex Medler, the vice president for policy and advocacy with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "It's adding a layer [to the department of education] without really changing much. We would recommend adding an independent charter board."

If New Jersey were to do that, it would join a small but growing group of about 15 states with independent statewide charter oversight boards. The benefit of an independent board, according to Medler, is that it is more stable because it is less susceptible to political and administrative changes than a department of education.

The bill, A-3226, is co-sponsored by Singleton's fellow Democratic assemblyman, Carmelo Garcia.

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