The New Jersey Assembly Education Committee on Monday moved along four bills to change the process of creating and overseeing the state's charter schools.
The most controversial of the proposals would require voter approval of charter-school proposals. Charter advocates strongly oppose this idea, which could limit the number of charters.
"You will stop the growth of charter schools with the referendum bill," said Carlos Perez, head of the New Jersey Charter School Association. No other state puts charters to a vote, he said.
Jonathan Gonzalez, an alumni of Camden's LEAP Academy who has a scholarship to the University of Rochester, spoke passionately about schools such as his alma mater and urged the legislators to not put "another blockade" in the path of charters.
The other proposals included permitting nonpublic schools to become charter schools and allowing the state Board of Education to approve up to three four-year public colleges or universities to become charter school "authorizers," an idea Gov. Christie supports. Now, the state is the sole authorizer.
A fourth bill would adopt certain accountability standards, such as maintaining waiting lists, that some charters already follow.
Speakers testified forcefully in favor of getting more public input into the charter process and against so-called boutique charter schools, some of which are proposed or have opened in high-performing districts.
"Public funds will go to fund [the equivalent of] a private school," Lisa Grieco-Rodgers, an activist with grassroots Save Our Schools New Jersey, said of a school she is familiar with.
Others said such schools were not necessary and diverted resources from high-performing exisiting schools.
Rebecca Cox, president of the Princeton Regional Board of Education, said her district had to cut staff and programs to support two charter schools.
Some education experts spoke in support of having multiple charter authorizers. An earlier version of the bill had Rutgers University as the only authorizer other than the state.
However, Julia Sass Rubin, another advocate with Save Our Schools and a Princeton charter parent, called the state's charter law "broken" and urged more public input into the process rather than empowering more authorizers.
John Burns, representing the New Jersey School Boards Association, called for local school districts to play a larger role in the authorization process. The association also supported the local referendum bill.
Some concern was raised regarding the separation of church and state on the bill to allow private and parochial schools to become charters.
Sponsor Albert Coutinho (D., Essex and Union) said the schools would be barred from religious content, and their teachers would have to get state certification within two years.
The bill was spurred by parochial schools that were doing a good job educationally but struggling financially, he said.
This bill "allows for these high-performing educational environments to continue," he said.