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3-22-12 NJ Spotlight on Charter School Local Vote, Preschool Funding
Fine Print: Voter Approval on Charter Schools The Assembly passes a bill requiring local approval for charters, but the measure goes nowhere in the Senate

Preschools - "The roots of the concern date back a few years, to the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, when the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) rewrote the rules for what levels of income would qualify families for programs before and after school and for summer programs that are an inherent part of the centers..."


NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Voter Approval on Charter Schools

The Assembly passes a bill requiring local approval for charters, but the measure goes nowhere in the Senate


By John Mooney, March 22, 2012 in Education |1 Comment

What it is: The bill, A-1877, requiring a local referendum on any new charter school opening in a community was approved by the full Assembly last week on a largely party line vote, the furthest the controversial bill has progressed. The vote was 46-27, with all the Democratic leadership in favor.


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What it isn’t: Likely to pass and be signed into law anytime soon. A companion bill in the Senate is not even posted for a hearing, and there is little enthusiasm so far from the Democratic leadership in that chamber.


What didn’t happen: While the Assembly passed this bill in the last voting session before the budget break, it did not post another, less controversial bill that would have placed greater reporting and other requirements on charters.


What’s holding up the referendum bill: The Senate has always been a tougher sell on this proposal, one that the Christie administration also staunchly opposes as potentially blocking any new charters from opening. The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate education committee, and its chair, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), has been among those voicing skepticism while not committing either way. Last Thursday, following the Assembly vote, Ruiz said she wants to get to the concerns of local input through a broader rewrite of the state’s charter school law.


Ruiz quote: “I would like to sooner rather than later look at the whole charter authorization process to ensure we are promoting quality charters and the department is authorizing the most appropriate people to open up schools where there is definitive need.”


Would she support a local vote as part of that? “I understand the genesis of the concerns, and in the charter revision, we have to include components that secure a place for the public’s weigh-in in a very real way.”


With a binding vote? “I don’t have language to a bill to comment.”


A prime sponsor’s argument: State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) is one of the primary sponsors and has maintained that local districts should have a binding say on how their money is spent. By state law, the district must pay for each one of its students who attend a charter school at roughly 90 percent of their per-pupil costs.

But the prognosis isn’t good: “I’ve been trying since last session, last fall and before the lame duck session, to get this to a vote, but I haven’t been successful,” Buono said yesterday. “At this point, the chances are slim, but I won’t give up.”


What’s the problem? “Ask the chairman of the Senate committee,” Buono said of Ruiz.


What about a compromise? Another Senate bill would put the vote in the school boards’ hands. There have also been behind-the-scenes discussions about amending the bill to selectively apply the requirement of a local vote. For instance, districts that are low performing by certain standards would not have the vote, while the highest performing would.


Buono’s retort: “I think that would be problematic. I think that would just cause some people to feel disenfranchised, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.” Other proponents have voiced the same misgivings.


What happens next: The Senate goes back to its committee schedule in May, when and if it is has completed its review of the annual state budget. But Ruiz has said even if this bill did proceed, her first order of business is finishing her work on a tenure reform bill and bringing that to a vote. She has said she hopes for a vote on tenure by June. That bill’s prospects in the Assembly are far less certain.



NJ Spotlight - Are NJ's Poorest Children Losing Out at Preschool?

Eligibility changes force centers to scale back as fewer preschoolers qualify for 'wraparound' money

By John Mooney, March 22, 2012 in Education |1 Comment

They are the primary caregivers of New Jersey's public preschool program in its poorest cities, hundreds of private centers that serve on the public's behalf -- and dollars -- to educate tens of thousands of preschoolers in cities like Camden, Newark and Elizabeth.


Under the programs first ordered more than a decade ago by the Abbott v. Burke school equity case, more than 60 percent of the 44,000 Abbott preschoolers are in private centers under contract with their districts.


But this so-called "mixed delivery" system is facing some strains, as some of the state's funding has shifted and left the programs worried if they can provide the services once envisioned.


The roots of the concern date back a few years, to the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, when the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) rewrote the rules for what levels of income would qualify families for programs before and after school and for summer programs that are an inherent part of the centers.

That funding for the "wraparound" services was mixed, with the state Department of Education funding the centers through a complicated formula that left the DOE paying about three-quarters of the overall costs of a 10-hour day and the DHS paying the balance.


But as new eligibility requirements were phased in over the past several years -- they are in full effect this year -- officials and advocates said centers are seeing far fewer students in their classrooms qualifying for the wraparound money, depriving students of programs and costing centers funds they can't make up elsewhere.


"It's been building for the last two years," said Ray Ocasio, executive director of La Casa de Don Pedro Inc. in Newark, the community services organization that serves about 350 Newark preschoolers and saw about half of its $1 million in DHS money cut.


"We have been able to cover it for a little while, but it is clearly not sustainable," Ocasio continued.


As many as a third of his students no longer qualify for the wraparound money, leaving Ocasio to cut back summer programs last year by a third and likely further reducing them this year. He did not rule out eliminating them altogether next summer. 

In Elizabeth, the Egenolf Early Childhood Center has lost half of its $235,000 in wraparound money, and has just 30 of its 150 students in aftercare, down from 90 in the past.


"It's pretty serious," said Lorraine Cooke, the center's director. "And you have to think about what has happened to these kids [no longer in after school]. We have kids going home to be looked after by other kids."


Cooke, vice president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children, testified about the cuts before the Senate budget committee last week.


"It's happening around the state," added Cynthia Rice, a policy analyst with the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "It's a hand-in-hand program [between the DOE and DHS], and when one hand moves back, it is hard to sustain."


A series of meetings took place this winter with the DOE, the DHS, and the private centers, as well as their home districts, to come up with potential remedies. A DHS spokeswoman yesterday said the eligibility changes were meant to bring them in line with other state programs and spread the funding to programs outside the Abbott districts as well.


"The changes to the criteria bring the wraparound program in alignment with our other childcare subsidy program, NJ Cares for Kids, and creates equity in the eligibility criteria and benefits among the childcare programs," said Nicole Brossoie, the DHS spokeswoman.


"Previously, someone who lived in an Abbott district had access to free childcare, at a higher income, while in a non-Abbott district there was an income threshold."


Still, she and other state officials said they loosened some of the restrictions this year on how the different funding streams are to be spent, for instance, allowing DOE funding to be applied to administrative and other costs previously off limits.


Separately, Gov. Chris Christie also has proposed a $14.5 million increase in preschool funds for next year to address rising enrollments and inflation, bringing the total to $633.7 million next year for 45,000 students. But officials acknowledge it remains far short of making up the money lost with DHS's eligibility changes.


"All this should at least allow them to spread the money around a little better, but unless someone has a plan for creating new money, it is going to be hard to get everyone where they want," acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday.


In individual districts, there have been some stopgap measures as well. The Newark Public Schools will provide an undisclosed amount of money to help local providers through the year, officials announced this week. Ocasio said it may be as much as $3.8 million, but that could not be confirmed with the district.


"That takes some pressure off," Ocasio said yesterday. "But all of these things are still just a Band-Aid for this year. We still have a big challenge, and this budget cycle is critical. Without it, there are real reservations going into next year."


Cooke of the Egenolf center in Elizabeth said this summer would be telling. She said just 30 students have signed up for programs, when she would usually have 180.


"For someone like ourselves that has been around since 1890, we have an endowment we can use," she said. "But for newer centers, they don't have that. I hear some are taking out bridge loans to survive."

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