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Christie losing enthusiasm for charter schools in N.J.?

When the Christie administration approved just one new charter-school application last week, there arose questions as to whether it was backing off from its previous enthusiastic support for the growth of the charter movement in the state.

When the Christie administration approved just one new charter-school application last week, there arose questions as to whether it was backing off from its previous enthusiastic support for the growth of the charter movement in the state.

A separate move to place seven other charters on probation and close two existing schools reinforced that notion.

But the picture has turned more complex with the state's announcement Friday that it will approve expansions of four charter schools, including a controversial Hebrew-language school in East Brunswick.

Also Monday, the state Department of Education announced it had rejected an appeal in a contentious case involving opposition to the renewal and expansion of a charter school in Hoboken, the HoLa Dual Language Charter School.

The cases, pieced together, represent a complex picture of how the state's charter movement is shaping up in Gov. Christie's second term. After the rush of approvals for new charters in the first term, far fewer are being approved in the second.

In announcing the four approvals last week, the administration said each school had proved its ability to provide quality education while meeting fiscal and operational requirements. The administration also turned down five applications for expansion.

Democratic legislators have started to ask questions about the administration's apparent shift over the last couple of years, as the Legislature grapples with how to bolster charter-school oversight.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D., Essex), cochair of the Joint Committee for the Public Schools, said at a Friday conference that it was time for a moratorium, both on new charters and on expansion of existing charter schools.

"I think we need a timeout to look at our experience in New Jersey over the past 20 years to what has worked and hasn't worked," Jasey told the legislative conference of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

"I think a moratorium on seats would be a better idea than on [overall] approvals," she said. "Right now, you have the ability for existing schools to add seats without applying for an additional charter."

The odds are long for any new controls via the Legislature, where virtually any changes to the state's two-decade-old charter-school law have hit roadblocks.

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), the Assembly's education chair and sponsor of a major charter-revision bill, said Friday that he did not expect passage of any revisions any time soon because of fundamental differences over whether local voters should have the final say.

Such a provision, which was in his bill, has been a nonstarter with other legislators, charter advocates, and the Christie administration itself.

"It's hard to get consensus on charter-school legislation, I'll be honest with you, especially concerning public input," Diegnan said.

When asked if any legislation would pass, Diegnan replied: "I maybe shouldn't say this out loud, but I don't think we'll have consensus on this until we have a different governor."

Among the four expansions approved last week, the expansion of the Hatikvah Charter School in East Brunswick was among the most contested.

The school last year was turned down by the state in its bid to add grades and students. But the Christie administration gave the elementary school at least half a victory this time, agreeing to let the school add middle-school grades for existing students as they get older but turning down a request to increase enrollment.

The approval would allow the addition of 150 students over three years in seventh and eighth grades, a significant jump from the current 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the school.

The expansion application of HoLa in Hoboken actually was submitted last year, and initially was approved by the Education Department. But the public school district appealed, leading to the decision released Monday. It can be appealed to the state Appellate Court.

The district argued that HoLa was leading to racial segregation within the school community as a whole, noting its predominantly white enrollment compared with a district enrollment that is predominantly black and Hispanic.

Education Commissioner David Hespe ruled that he found no such impact, noting that HoLa's enrollment has reflected a growth in the white population in Hoboken overall.

"Compared to Hoboken district schools, the demographic composition of HoLa's student population appears to better reflect Hoboken's population," Hespe wrote.