One change to New Jersey's charter school law passed the legislature yesterday, while talk mounts that a broader rewrite of the state's 15-year-old statute governing the semi-autonomous schools may be in the offing.
The state Senate passed a bill that would allow certain parochial and private schools to convert to charters. Few think that the proposal will lead to many such conversions, but may send a lifeline to at least a few closing Catholic schools.
The measure, which passed 25-13, is the only one of a half-dozen proposed reforms to New Jersey's charter school law that has now passed both the Senate and the Assembly. It goes next to Gov. Chris Christie for his expected signature.
But while other charter proposals have languished, leading Democratic legislators said there is momentum gaining for a more comprehensive overhaul of the 1996 charter law that could loosen some restrictions and add others.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview that she still hopes to get some specific changes through by the end of the calendar year, including a bill to extend the number of organizations that can approve new charters.
But Ruiz said she also plans a public hearing of experts and educators before her committee in the next month to start what she called a "hard look" at the overall law.
"It will be for discussion purposes, so we can engage in a conversation," she said. "We need to look at what has been working in the law, and what hasn't been working."
"It is time to revisit the law in its entirety," Ruiz said.
What will be included in those revisions, of course, is still to be determined. Some pending proposals would increase the state's capacity for approving and overseeing charters, while others would make it more difficult for new charters to open and put greater restrictions on existing ones.
Christie has proposed his own charter revisions that would add significantly more flexibility to charter schools, while his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has lately been touting greater accountability for enrollment and performance.
One of the primary sponsors of several of the proposals in the Assembly said the broader rewrite of the law, in whatever form, is likely to take some time. State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), whose list of bills includes the charter conversion proposal passed yesterday, said he has been involved in some of the early discussions about enacting a new law entirely.
"It is something that is being looked at as we speak, and we are waiting for some more feedback," he said. "But a whole new charter law may be something that we want to save for the new legislative session."
In the meantime, he pressed for another of his bills that would set stiffer requirements for existing charters and the lotteries they use to select students.
"We need to do something," he said. "The status quo is unacceptable."