Recently, in a series of decisions, the Appellate Division of Superior Court upheld the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) interpretation of the charter school laws concerning payment of tuition.  In Piscataway Board of Education v. NJDOE, the board challenged the requirement under the Charter School Program Act of 1996 (CSPA) and implementing regulations that it was obligated to fund charter school students who resided in Piscataway but chose to attend charter schools outside the district boundaries.

Piscataway argued that it is not obligated to pay tuition to charter schools outside its district borders because the CSPA only required it to pay where the charter school was within the “district of residence.”  The court rejected Piscataway’s argument.  Rather the court said that the term “district of residence”  refers to the district where the student resides, not to the district where the charter school is located.

The court determined that the CSPA “expressly envisions that students may enroll in a charter school, even though they reside in a district other than the district where the charter school is located.”  Further, the court noted that the regulations accompanying the CSPA were consistent with this intent, noting that the regulations expressly provide that both a charter school’s “district of residence” and the “non-resident school districts” must pay for their students to attend a charter school.

The court reasoned that if a school district did not have to pay for all of its residents to attend charter schools, then charter schools would not truly be open to all students. Students residing in districts without a charter school, like Piscataway, would be foreclosed from attending a charter school unless they could personally afford to pay to attend the public charter school, which is inconsistent with Legislature’s intent in drafting the Charter School Act.

In another case, Highland Park Board of Education v. Harrington, two boards challenged the decision of the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to permit a charter school to expand its enrollment to 75  students in kindergarten and first grade from the previously authorized 50 students per grade.

The boards argued that the commissioner’s approval was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. The boards first argued that the school’s population did not represent a cross section of the community’s school age population including racial and academic factors as required by statute.

However, the charter school showed that its racial makeup was substantially similar to that of the community in which it was located.

Further, it did not interview or otherwise pre-screen applicants based on intellectual ability, race, or ethnicity. It recruited from a cross-section of the school age population, in accordance with its charter agreement, targeting recruitment within a five-mile radius of the school, most notably in section eight housing complexes, using direct mailings, face-to-face solicitations, flyers, and television ads in English and Spanish.

It also sought to increase its diverse student population through implementation of a weighted lottery system affording preference to economically-disadvantaged students.  The court rejected the boards’ arguments.  The boards also argued that they were not obligated to pay for their students to go to a charter school outside the district boundaries.  The court rejected this argument as well, citing to the Piscataway decision above.  Thus, the court upheld the commissioner-approved expansion of the charter school.

In North Brunswick Board of Education v. Harrington, three boards of education challenged the decision of the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to permit the Central Jersey Prep Charter School to  increase its enrollment, add a satellite campus, and move its Somerset campus to a new facility.

The boards also argued that the commissioner’s decision was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.  However, the record indicated that the charter school was high performing as noted by its PARCC scores and was on a sound financial footing, as noted by its audits.

There was also a demonstrated need for expansion as the charter school had a long waiting list. The commissioner’s decision to approve the charter school’s application was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable because it promoted the legislative policy of developing charter schools and was supported by the record. Concerning the charter school’s desire for a satellite campus, the court noted that regulations permit a charter school to operate more than one satellite campus in its district or region of residence, subject to charter amendment approval.

The court noted that the total number of applications had dramatically increased over the past few years (465 for the 2014-2015 school year and 956 for the 2016- 2017 school year), and that at the time of the application, there were 628 students on its waiting list.

The boards that did not have a charter school within their boundaries argued that they should not be required to pay tuition to the charter school because they are only required to pay tuition where the charter school is within its boundaries.  The court rejected these arguments citing its Piscataway decision in which it determined that boards of education have an obligation to pay tuition for their students who want to go to a charter school, without regard to whether the school is inside or outside district boundaries. Thus, the court upheld the commissioner-approved expansion of the charter school.

In the Matter of the Approval of the Charter Amendment of Central Jersey College Prep, the Franklin Township Board of Education sought to challenge the New Jersey Commissioner of Education’s decision to amend its charter to increase its enrollment, add a satellite campus, and move its Somerset campus to a new facility, a similar case concerning the same charter school as the North Brunswick case above.

In the College Prep case, the court found that the commissioner’s decision to grant the request to amend its charter was supported by the evidence. The charter school (CJCP), demonstrated that it was a high-performing school, a ranking it received from the department’s assessment of its academic performance based on the metrics set forth in the state’s Academic Performance Framework governing charter schools.

In 2015-2016, the charter school’s students ranked in the 99th percentile statewide for math on the annual PARCC assessment and outperformed their home district on the 2016 PARCC in every subject. It was also awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award in 2016 and was named a High Performing Title I Reward School in 2015, featured as a Top Performing High School in U.S. News and World Report in 2015 and 2016, and designated as a “Top Ten Middle School” by JerseyCAN in 2013.

Further, a review of CJCP’s performance data clearly supported the need for the amendment. Further, in the application and annual reports submitted by the charter school during its 10-year operation, it demonstrated that it was fiscally stable and operationally sound. Finally, the commissioner properly approved CJCP’s request to expand enrollment with the understanding that facilities would need to be identified, secured, and potentially improved to comply with the charter regulations. The court saw no need to disturb the commissioner’s reasoned determination for the amendments the charter school was seeking.

For further information about these cases, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Services Department at (609) 278-5254 or your board attorney.