Advocates for charter and renaissance schools say state aid for school construction projects should not go just to traditional public schools. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
An Assembly panel on Thursday approved amendments to a bill that would retool a state authority tasked with maintaining school buildings in the state’s neediest districts, but education advocates sparred over whether non-traditional public schools should fall within the agency’s mandate.
Talks over the role the Schools Development Authority ought to play in the construction and renovation of charter and renaissance schools — charters in newly constructed school buildings that enroll more local students than traditional charter schools — dominated Thursday’s hearing of the Assembly’s education committee, with some lauding charter schools’ inclusion in the bill and others arguing they would siphon resources away from needier facilities.
The Schools Development Authority is responsible for capital improvements — including modernizations, renovations, and new construction — in 31 court-identified SDA districts, which are typically low-income school districts.
Charter and renaissance officials, saying their schools serve a growing share of students in those districts, have urged lawmakers to expand the authority’s mandate to non-traditional public schools.
“The inclusion of charters and renaissance schools in the state school construction program is critically important because charter and renaissance schools in SDA districts are serving students with the same needs and backgrounds as the SDA district schools, as evidenced by the fact that 91% of charter students in SDA districts are Black or Hispanic,” said Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, an education advocacy group.
Roughly 80% of SDA district charter students come from low-income families, she said, adding charter and renaissance schools have historically been ineligible for school construction aid.
The bill under consideration Thursday (A4496) would create a separate fund to pay for capital improvements at charter schools. White and others lauded this provision, saying it would prevent competition for funds between charters and traditional public schools.
But critics expressed worry that state construction aid for charters could end up in private hands, given most charter schools do not own the buildings they occupy.
“Public money should not be used to construct and renovate private property. Many charter schools lease facilities that are privately owned, and any work done with taxpayer dollars would benefit those private owners,” said Theresa Luhm, managing director of legal advocacy group the Education Law Center. “The Legislature should also take into consideration that charter school closures are not an unusual occurrence.”
She noted roughly 40 New Jersey charter schools — a little under a third of all charters that have existed throughout state history — have closed. If that happened to a charter that received state construction aid, that money would effectively go into private hands, Luhm said.
Assemblyman Brandon Umba (R-Burlington), who is the business administrator in Manchester Township, noted the state could use eminent domain to regain control of school buildings it paid to renovate or construct.
“If you put public money into something, it does lay credit to taking that if it is needed, so I don’t think that we would be putting money into a building that might not then be used to educate students if that charter were to stop being in existence,” he said.
Others raised concerns about stretching the SDA — a historically underfunded and sometimes scandal-plagued agency that already has a broad portfolio of aging and dilapidated school buildings — even thinner.
The authority received roughly $1.9 billion in total funding in the current fiscal year budget. The Murphy administration has estimated it would take more than $5 billion to address existing issues at schools in SDA districts.
Debra Cornovaca, director of government affairs for teachers union the New Jersey Education Association, said if the state has a certain amount of money intended for the SDA, any amount directed to charter schools is, by definition, taken away from traditional public schools.
“It’s really a zero-sum game, frankly,” Cornovaca said.
The Assembly Education Committee did not hold a vote to advance the bill.
In a statement attributed to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) read aloud by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), the committee chair, Coughlin said the chamber would continue to tweak the bill.
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