Charter Schools: Livingston Acts to Persuade NJ Education Leaders
Board of Education votes unanimously to send letter urging that two applications be denied.
The Board of Education will urge New Jersey school leaders to deny applications for two Mandarin-immersion charter schools in Livingston.
Voting unanimously, the board members hope a letter – now in draft form – will persuade Acting Education Commission Christopher Cerf to deny charters for Hanyu International Academy Charter School and Hua Mei Charter School.
“When charter schools were started, even then I wasn’t a fan of them,” said Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who joined the nearly full house in the auditorium at Livingston High School for public discussion on charter schools. “I think the jury’s still out if the vision was urban as oppose to suburban.”
Acting separately at their meeting at town hall, the Township Council voted 4-1 to oppose the charter applications as well. Councilwoman Deborah Shapiro, who is a founder of Hanyu International, did not abstain and voted against the resolution.
The action by the school board will allow the members to present to Cerf their reasons while the charter schools should be denied. The letter will include supporting material, including a petition signed by 500 Livingston residents that was presented to the board on Monday night and a sampling of the comments made by residents against charter schools in Livingston.
The board will also question parts of the applications, including that they do not demonstrate legitimate community demand. Six identical pages of community support signatures (for a Mandarin Chinese immersion school in Northern New Jersey) were photo copied and included in both charter applications, according to the draft letter.
Also, the board questions staffing at the schools. Duel certified teachers in Mandarin and elementary certification are extremely rare, yet neither applicant addresses the issue of staffing teachers with dual certification, the draft letter says.
The Board of Education does not have a further role in the process, and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brad Draeger cautioned that the district would not receive a response or a decision on the charters until September.
Board member Bonnie Granatir pressed her colleagues to take the next step in joining the state School Boards Association in support of legislation that would give towns a vote. Board members in Millburn and West Orange passed such a resolution at their meetings on Monday night, but the resolution was tabled in Livingston.
Earlier on Monday, the Assembly Education Committee approved A2805, by Assemblywoman Linda R. Greenstein (D-Mercer and Middlesex), which would require a public vote of approval prior to the establishment of a new charter school.
"Today the Assembly Committee voted out a bill to let the towns decide -- so Livingston would decide for themselves whether to let these charter schools, or any charter school in. It would be your right to go to the ballot box and make that decision," Codey said.
“Ultimately, I’d like to see a brake put on this,” Granatir said, who is advocating for criteria to monitor the charter schools and a review of their performance data over the past 15 years.
Much of the tension over charter schools in Livingston is financial. The school district would be required to pay 90 percent of the per-pupil costs for each child attending a charter. Granatir said the board estimates the first year costs at $683,000, an amount that will grow each year, potentially resulting in cuts to programs at the traditional public schools and higher taxes.
The board points out the achievements of Livingston Public Schools in its draft letter: “Governor Christie has said, ‘whether it starts as a private school, or a parochial school, whether it starts as a charter school or a regular public school let’s reward excellence. Let’s encourage excellence. Let’s fund excellence …’ Approval of these charter applications will cut funding for excellence,” the board says.
Cerf has acknowledged that what he called “boutique” charter schools might not be needed in suburban districts that are “humming along.”
Speaking at a forum presented by NJ Spotlight, Cerf said: “I can certainly see, particularly in successful school districts, particularly in smaller suburban ones that are kind of humming along, that sort of marginal gain of having a school that serves a particular boutique need … the cost-benefit analyst might take you in the direction of: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Cerf said. “I can very much understand how that would be a sensible policy argument.”
Hanyu International Academy Charter intends to draw students from Livingston, Millburn and West Orange. Hua Mei would draw from South Orange-Maplewood, Union, Millburn and Livingston – fairly wealthy suburban districts.
“It appears that the contiguous districts of Irvington, Newark, Orange have been intentionally omitted from one of both of the applications,” according to the draft letter prepared by the Livingston BOE.
(At the NJ Spotlight forum on charter schools, the founders of Hua Mei said the state’s application says a charter can only draw from the district of a qualified founder. “We firmly believe this should be open to everyone,” said Tiffany Boyd-Hodgson, a Hua Mei founder, explaining they tried to find a founder from Irvington but were unsuccessful).
On Monday night, Brad Badgley and Nancy Chu of the Hua Mei Charter School, and Sharon Kou of the Hanyu International Charter School Academy, attended the meeting in Livingston.
“The mission of our school is to nurture students from all backgrounds to become bilingual and bi-literate,” said Kou, one of the co-founders of the Hanyu International School.
“It is important to offer this opportunity to the youth of New Jersey. I didn’t expect all of the passion and debate that would come out of it … but this is about the bigger picture and what plans we have for our children to prepare them for a world that is more competitive," said Badgley, currently a social studies teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Badgley also has previously taught in a Chinese school in China.
“Personally, in my 14 years of teaching World History and Geopolitics, I don’t see the brakes going on for globalization. So that was my reason to start a process, a long-term process, where our children get that opportunity to compete at that global level with what I’ve seen in my experience over here and abroad,” Badgley said.
“No school system in America no matter how good, should turn away the possibility of more choices in education for our children, added Nancy Chu, also a co-founder of Hua Mei.
The Millburn Board of Education passed a resolution Monday opposing the two charter school applications. Last week, South Orange-Maplewood school board members took a similar stand. The districts have until May 31 to respond.
Many Livingston residents spoke against the charter schools during public comment. One resident, John Blinderman, presented the BOE with a petition signed by more than 500 Livingston residents.
“These are the people who live here, these are our tax dollars — we want these in the public schools,” Blinderman said.
Board members urged the 120 residents in attendance to keep sending emails and letters to the governor and acting education commissioner. “Let them know we’re paying attention and we care about this,” Granatir said.
One Livingston resident did exactly that the other day at ShopRite when she approached Assemblyman John F. McKeon at the deli counter.
“I speak to you as a mom who has reached an all-time low. Yesterday, at the deli counter of ShopRite I approached Assemblyman McKeon and asked him if he knew what was happening in Livingston,” said Cherylyn Paredes.
“He had a couple of wonderful words of wisdom. He said 'Go get them' and that Livingston (residents) should be ashamed of themselves if we allow this to happen in our schools," Paredes said.
"We talked about the negativity and how this can divide our community. I happen to see something happening here -- an appreciation of what we do have,” she said.