A boisterous rally in Highland Park drew about 300 people who want local voters to have a greater say in approving charter schools.
Calling themselves a bipartisan grassroots initiative, organizers of the June 21 SOS (Save Our Schools) rally support two pieces of legislation that seek to slow the expansion of charter schools in the state.
Organizers say local voters should have a say whether such schools — including the proposed Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School, which would draw students from Highland Park, Edison, and New Brunswick and which drew criticism from several speakers — serve local interests and school budget priorities.
With the strains of the Beatles’ “Revolution” playing in the background, adults and children held signs and chanted “We want a say.”
Coleen McKay of Highland Park said she understood that “not every school fits every child,” but objected to having local districts fund charters without getting voters’ approval.
The Highland Park rally was one of three being held statewide — the others were in South Brunswick and Millburn.
The SOS organizers support New Jersey Assembly Bill A-3852 and its Senate equivalent, S-2243, which would require local approval before the establishment of any new charter schools. Currently, only state approval is required.
Another bill, A-3356, seeks increased transparency of financial, educational, and demographic records of the charter schools.
They are opposed by Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature’s Democratic leaders — including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Camden). However, three Dist. 18 Democratic legislators, who represent the area and are sponsoring the bills, voiced vehement opposition to the current charter school law. State Sen. Barbara Buono and Assembly Members Patrick Diegnan Jr. and Peter Barnes III also have written letters of opposition to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.
The assembly bills were expected to be voted on June 30, after NJJN goes to press.
The Tikun Olam school, which would be the state’s first Hebrew language charter high school, was turned down for the second time in January. Founder Sharon Akman of Highland Park said the state Department of Education cited deficiencies, but encouraged her to reapply and is providing tutorial help.
Opponents of Tikun Olam have raised concerns that it crosses church and state lines. Conversely, there is concern within the Jewish community of Highland Park and Edison, which includes many Orthodox Jews, that the school would undermine existing Jewish day schools.
Among the Orthodox critics of the Tikun Olam proposal is Rabbi Steven Miodownik of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park.
“As a tax-paying resident of Highland Park, I believe it is critical for the Jewish community to support a strong and vibrant public school system in Highland Park,” he wrote in a letter to Cerf obtained by NJJN. “Every dollar of state aid that our public schools receive bolsters services to all children in Highland Park and makes our neighborhood desirable for new families seeking quality education. I am extremely concerned about siphoning hundreds of thousands of government funds away from these fundamental community institutions to establish any niche charter school that would immerse its students in a specific language and culture.”
Miodownik went on to note that proponents of Tikun Olam have “carefully placed a fig leaf over their agenda of forcing the state to fund their ‘free’ alternative to private Jewish education.”
However, supporters of Tikun Olam and the Hatikvah International Academy charter school, an East Brunswick Hebrew-language school for children in grades K-2 that opened in September, have steadfastly denied such claims.
Akman previously told NJJN she chose Hebrew as a language for the charter school she is supporting because she had a background in the language.
“I feel the high school years are a stepping stone for college,” she said. “Foreign language proficiency really gives young people an edge. Also a key component of the school is tikun olam, repairing the world, and the community service which goes hand in hand with that. Community service is so important for college admission.”
In a prepared statement, Carlos Perez, president and CEO of the NJ Charter School Association, called the proposed charter school regulations “bad public policy” that would “undermine the entire premise of a charter school.”
“It’s a reaction to a challenge of the status quo by the entrenched education establishment to stop the thriving charter school movement in New Jersey in its tracks,” Perez said.
Melanie Hughes McDermott, an SOS member from Highland Park, said the community became a hotbed of anti-charter school sentiment after Hatikvah fell short of filling its roster with East Brunswick students and by state law was allowed to fill remaining slots with children from neighboring districts. Local school districts are required to foot the bill for their residents who attend charter schools out of district.
“We had six kids leave our school district and we got a bill for $64,000,” said McDermott. “We are already operating with a loss of state aid. That just woke everybody up.”
Costs for educating pupils in district are lower. Additionally, the sending district is responsible for students’ transportation to an out-of-district school.