The Newark-based advocacy group the Education Law Center is urging the New Jersey Department of Education to halt the spread of charter schools in Paterson. In a letter dated Aug. 14, 2017, the advocacy’s executive director David Sciarra argues the growth of charter schools has “significantly reduced the essential resources available to educate students” in the Paterson Public Schools.
Charter schools will receive $46 million from the district’s budget in the 2017-18 academic year, up from $34 million the previous year. Sciarra’s letter is accompanied by a new report that shows charter schools in the city are enrolling fewer students with limited English proficiency and disabilities.
For example, 15-percent of overall enrollment in Paterson is classified as limited English proficient. Those students are not evenly divided between charters and district schools. 3-percent in charters; 16-percent in district schools, according to the report.
Similarly, 14-percent of students in the city suffer from one or more disabilities (excluding speech). District’s classification rate is 15-percent and charters’ 7-percent, according to the report.
Charters have a higher classification rate for students with speech disability 1.5 to 0.5-percent.
“Not only do charter schools enroll fewer special education students, they are also less likely to enroll students with the most severe, and thus costliest, disabilities,” says Sciarra in the letter. Charters have fewer students with multiple disabilities, autism, emotional disturbances, and intellectual disabilities, the study found.
Students with disabilities are more expensive to educate. This creates a further burden on the district.
“While the charter schools may provide a service for a percentage of students, their drain on district finances results in the vast majority of regular school students seeing their educational opportunities severely compromised,” said school board member Jonathan Hodges.
The report says the state has failed to provide sufficient aid to the local school district “depriving students of the opportunity for a thorough and efficient education.”
Hodges has been an opponent of charter schools in the city. His efforts resulted in the city council passing a resolution calling on the state to impose a moratorium on new charter schools.
Sciarra urges the state to reject the applications of three new schools — M.C. Adams, Public Charter School for Boys, Global Learning Charter School, and The Paterson Dual Language Public Charter School – seeking to open in the city. He wants the state to more thoroughly consider the impact the new charters will have on the district.
“The Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education weighs several factors when determining whether to approve or deny a charter school application, including the fiscal impact the new school would have on the district(s) of residence, and comments from the public,” said David Saenz, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, on Friday morning.
Saenz invoked state law to assert the commissioner has the last say on whether to deny or grant new charters.
Amauris Rosario, lead founder of the proposed Paterson Dual Language Public Charter School, has yet to see the letter or the report.
Khader “Ken” Abuassab, co-founder of the proposed Global Learning Charter School, said charters are opening because there’s a need in the city. He said parents opt for charters to avoid sending their students to overcrowded district schools.
This year, the district had to fill an almost $42 million budget shortfall. It cut 208 positions including laying off 85 teachers. School officials at the time said charter schools were a major cost driver for the district.
“I’ve always said, the funding for charter schools has to be corrected,” said school board president Christopher Irving. He does not oppose charter schools; in fact, Irving favors “school choice.” He thinks charters should be funded directly by the state rather than through the local school district.
Very little is likely to change at the state level until a new governor is sworn in, said Irving.
“The district is hurting because of the negative effects of flat funding and charters being held harmless,” said Rosie Grant, executive director for the Paterson Education Fund. She agrees with the Education Law Center’s position on new charter schools. The center was responsible for the successful Abbott v. Burke case that forced the state to provide more funding to poor urban school districts to bring them up to par with wealthier suburban ones.
Grant noted over the past years both charter and district enrollment have increased. The district though has remained flat funded. The district should have received $458 million in state aid, but received $401 million, according to the report. The state later increased that amount to $405.72 million following a budget deal between the governor and lawmakers.
The report recommends the state fully fund the district. It also says some policy decisions at the state level resulted in charters getting higher per pupil payments from the district. The report calls for an end to that practice.
It also suggests the local school levy be increased. Local contribution to the schools is $41 million when it should be $91 million, according to the report. School officials have had difficulty increasing taxes on homeowners, for Paterson is too poor.
A family makes $31,500 per year compared to the state average of $72,000. Homeowners in Paterson on average spend 44-percent of their income on housing expenses, according to New York City-based personal finance firm SmartAsset.
The state provides the municipal government $25 million in aid recognizing the plight of homeowners in the city.
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Correction (Aug. 20, 2017): A previous version of this report erroneously stated the school board approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. The city council passed such a resolution, the school board did not.