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Supreme Court upholds expansion of Newark charter schools

June 22, 2021 GMT

New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state’s decision to allow the expansion of seven charter schools in Newark, rejecting a challenge that argued it would hinder the ability of students in traditional public schools to get a quality education.

The lawsuit was brought by the Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit that has brought legal challenges on behalf of students in poor school districts in New Jersey and other states.

It said New Jersey’s education commissioner’s 2016 decision to approve increased enrollments and the expansion of facilities for the charter schools would negatively affect public school funding.

The Supreme Court concluded that the ELC and Newark’s school board, which joined the appeal, hadn’t demonstrated that expanding the charter schools would result in fiscal harm to traditional public schools.

The lawsuit had argued that because Newark was one of 31 urban school districts designated in landmark legal decisions in the 1980s and ’90s as being victimized by inadequate and unequal funding, the state should have to demonstrate the charter school expansion wouldn’t jeopardize the quality of traditional public school education. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument.

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The court agreed with the plaintiffs, however, that the commissioner’s decision didn’t take into account the racial impact the expansion could have, or the potential that it could increase segregation by leaving the city’s traditional public schools with a higher concentration of students with disabilities or English language needs.

While failing to conduct that analysis rendered the decision deficient, the justices wrote, reversing it would be impractical and could disrupt the education of thousands of students in Newark’s charter schools.

“We hold that in determining future applications to open new charter schools or to expand charter school enrollment or facilities, the Commissioner should thoroughly address both issues,” Justice Anne Patterson wrote in the 7-0 opinion.

Charter schools are free public schools that operate independently of a local school district’s board of education, and are instead governed by an independent board of trustees. They are open to all students in the school’s geographic district, and admittance often is awarded via lottery due to high demand.

Newark’s first charter school opened in the late 1990s, and nearly two dozen currently operate in the city. In the lawsuit, the ELC projected that if the expansion of the charter schools was approved, 50% of all Newark students would be enrolled in charter schools within five years.

“This ruling now puts the commissioner on firm and clear notice of the state’s constitutional obligation, on an ongoing basis, to evaluate the impact of charter schools on student segregation and take action to remedy those impacts,” Education Law Center executive director David Sciarra said in a statement Tuesday.

Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association, said in an email that the ruling recognized that “public charter schools are an integral part of the education ecosystem in Newark and the continued expansion of Newark charters has improved the quality of the overall public education system in the city.”