The Red Bank Charter School, one of New Jersey's longest running, occupies an old home joined with a former elementary school building. Its brightly decorated classrooms are filled with a mix of faces: white, Hispanic, and black students, dressed in navy blue and khaki.
"What makes the school special is, we are integrated. That's hard to do," said Meredith Pennotti, the charter school's principal.
Critics see it differently. By competing for students in Red Bank, the charter school has been accused of contributing to segregation of the Monmouth County borough's traditional public schools, where 82 percent of elementary and middle-school students are Hispanic, compared with 44 percent in the charter.
Advocates and public school officials in several New Jersey districts with charter schools have leveled similar accusations, spurring legal challenges and a federal investigation, and stoking debate about the distribution of resources and the persistence of school segregation, even in diverse communities.
New Jersey's charter schools often don't mirror the demographics of other public schools in their districts, an Inquirer analysis found — though whether they should, and how closely, is a subject of contention in both courts and communities.
Nationally, studies comparing charter and traditional school enrollments and tracking student transfers have found greater segregation of students as a result of charters.
In Pennsylvania, black and Latino students tend to enroll in charters with more students who look like them than in the schools they left, a study published this year revealed. It found that white students followed the same pattern in the Philadelphia area, where critics have questioned the mix of students in charters.
Because of research showing the harm of segregation, "I think any school, district, or charter that is segregated is concerning," said Erica Frankenberg, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, who conducted the Pennsylvania study. "A charter should be representative of the district."
New Jersey, where Gov. Christie has vigorously promoted expansion of charters, has a stricter legal standard than other states when it comes to race.
The state constitution specifically bars segregation in public schools, and the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that state education officials had the power to merge school districts to achieve racial balance. State law says charter schools must seek to enroll a cross section of school-age children in the community.
"We've got this incredibly strong but aging body of law that says racial balance whenever feasible, and then we've got the day-to-day balance, which is to largely ignore those provisions," said Paul Tractenberg, a retired Rutgers Law School professor, who heads a nonprofit that researches and promotes diversity in education. Tractenberg observed that the state, as a whole, continued to have "among the most segregated public school systems in the country," in part because of where people live.
Given residential segregation patterns, faulting charter schools is "a spectacular example of missing the point," said Christopher Cerf, superintendent of the state-run Newark schools, who previously served as state education commissioner and is a former president of the for-profit Edison Schools.
Charter schools educate a small but growing share of New Jersey students, primarily in urban areas. Under Christie's watch, enrollment has increased from 21,000 in 2009-10 to 46,000 last year — or 3.4 percent of the state's 1.37 million public school students.
The Inquirer and Daily News analysis of the state's 88 charter schools found that almost all of the schools differ by at least 10 percentage points from their districts in at least one of three major demographic categories — race, socioeconomic status, or English-language proficiency.
The state, which requires officials to evaluate whether charters have a "segregative effect" on their districts, doesn't specify by how much those populations can diverge.
Some parents are uncomfortable with the discrepancies among schools.
"If the population wasn't so segregated," said Julie Ramirez of Princeton, "I might have a different view of the [charter] school as a whole."
Ramirez, who is white, and her husband, who is Hispanic, have children in the Princeton public schools, where 15 percent of students in grades kindergarten through eight are Hispanic, compared with 3 percent at the Princeton Charter School. Debate over the charter, she said, "is causing a lot of friction in the town."
The Latino Coalition of New Jersey, an advocacy group, has called on the state Department of Education to close five charter schools, including the Red Bank and Princeton charters. The group is also involved in a court appeal challenging the state's renewal of the Red Bank charter.
The complaints aren't just about demographics but also about the money that districts send to charter schools. For every dollar districts receive per pupil from local taxes and the main type of state school aid, state law entitles charter schools to a comparable 90 cents. In recent years, the state has spared charters from aid cuts even as growing districts await the funding to which they are entitled.
In January, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation at the Red Bank charter for issues related to recruitment and admissions. The office has investigations open at four other New Jersey charter schools, but the issues in those cases are disability discrimination and retaliation, according to a federal department spokesman.
A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, which has renewed the charters or approved expansions at each of the schools contested by the Latino Coalition, said the department could not comment on issues involving pending litigation.
"The main thing we want to achieve is a serious charter school law that actually considers segregation before approving the charters, or reapproving them," said Frank Argote-Freyre, the Latino Coalition's director. "This administration's totally failed to do that."
Red Bank Borough Public Schools Superintendent Jared Rumage contends that public perception has driven some parents away from the district schools.
"The very existence of the charter school implies to the community, and those people interested in purchasing homes in our community, that the public schools are inadequate," he said.
Rumage, who has been superintendent for three years, said the charter school enrolled "predominantly advantaged" students compared with his schools.
Nearly 89 percent of Red Bank Borough school students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2016-17, compared with 42 percent at the charter school. Just over 35 percent of the borough students were limited English proficient, compared with 4 percent at the charter school. Those gaps have widened over time, according to the Inquirer and Daily News analysis of Department of Education data.
The charter school's leaders contend that the problem is the borough schools — that they don't reflect the community because students have opted to attend private schools.
Reflecting the borough schools "would be to replicate the segregation," said Pennotti, the charter principal.
According to 2011 to 2015 U.S. Census estimates, 32 percent of children ages 5 through 17 in Red Bank were white. Just 7.5 percent of Red Bank Borough school students last year were white, compared with 42.5 percent of students at the charter school. The charter enrolls 200 students, while the borough schools enroll about 1,300.
Taxpayers are paying "to run a second school district for a small, predominantly white … group of children," Rumage said, noting that $1.6 million of the $3 million in state aid to Red Bank went to the charter school. For several years before last, half or more of the charter school's students were white.
Pennotti said the issue was the state's underfunding of its school-aid formula. "The unfairness is largely that Red Bank is an underfunded district," she said.
The contrasts among the schools have made an impression on district parents like Maria Flores, who has two sons in the Red Bank Borough schools. At the start of one school year, her older son came home and said his friends had disappeared.
"Years later, I found out those kids moved to the charter school," she said. "How did they know how to put their kids in the charter school? I never knew anything."
Last year, her younger son was in an entirely Latino class. "He said, 'Mom, why don't I have white friends?' "
Flores, a native of Mexico who works as a housekeeper, said she felt that some better-off white parents shied away from the school because "they're afraid to send their kids with different kids."
Kate Damm, who is white and has a daughter at the charter, said she didn't have reservations about the borough schools, but liked the charter's K-8 model. The "diversity in many different areas" that drew her and her husband to Red Bank "is reflected in the charter school," said Damm, who works in human resources.
Rudy Ramirez, who has two children at the charter, said he and his wife decided to enter their son into the lottery after seeing advertisements in town.
"I'm pretty sure there are people in the Hispanic community who feel that perhaps some white Americans don't want to get involved with our Latino kids," said Ramirez, a native of Costa Rica who moved to Red Bank 24 years ago and works in property management. But that's "an individual view." Of the controversy surrounding the charter, he said: "The Hispanic community, we need to do better — better inform ourselves."
The charter school's recruitment efforts have faced scrutiny for years. Following a lawsuit, the school entered into a state consent order with the Red Bank Borough schools in 2007, requiring it to provide the district with information about its enrollment and to advertise in Spanish-language newspapers, among other provisions. It also recently began weighting its annual lottery to favor economically disadvantaged students.
Cerf, the Newark superintendent, said that as education commissioner, he "took accountability incredibly seriously," reviewing the composition of schools and their recruiting policies before renewing their charters.
Of segregation complaints, Cerf contended that "propagandists who have a beef with charter schools for reasons that have nothing to do with this have found this to be a useful talking point."
Argote-Freyre said the Latino Coalition has "never, as a position, opposed charter schools."