Bill would let private groups build and run some New Jersey public schools

By Rita Giordano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jan. 05--A pilot program that would let private management groups build and operate a limited number of public schools in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City will be the subject of state legislative hearings Thursday.

Supporters of the Urban Hope Act would like to see the bill win passage Monday during the final hours of the Legislature's lame-duck session.

"We're trying to re-create the way education is delivered in our urban centers," said Sen. Donald Norcross, who, with Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, is a primary sponsor of the bill. Both are Camden County Democrats.

Camden could get up to four new schools under the legislation.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, is expected to be advanced by the Senate and Assembly budget committees. Critics say it needs more transparency and taxpayer safeguards.

"While the revised Urban Hope legislation is an improvement on the original, a number of serious concerns remain that make it very vulnerable to corruption and abuse at taxpayers' expense," said Julia Sass Rubin, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools New Jersey, an education advocacy group.

Last spring, Gov. Christie stood in front of a Camden school building, more than a century old, and called for creating "transition schools" that would be run by nonprofit or for-profit management companies. They could be at the sites of the failing institutions or in a newly constructed buildings.

While Christie did not promise Camden a school, the building at which he held his news conference had been slated to be replaced by a new Lanning Square Elementary School. The state had put the project on hold.

The construction was not halted to make way for a transition school, according to Christie. But many thought the implication was that Camden was in line.

Among them was Donald Norcross' brother George Norcross 3d, the South Jersey Democratic leader, insurance executive, and Cooper University Hospital chairman.

George Norcross, who attended the news conference, has become a vocal supporter of alternative education, including charter schools and private management. Cooper is a partner in a medical school slated to open next to the stalled Lanning Square site.

Not long after Christie's appearance, Fuentes and Donald Norcross introduced the Urban Hope Act, which initially met with resistance from groups including the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The NJEA opposes the privatization of public education.

Since then, there have been discussions with stakeholders, Donald Norcross said, and a revised bill for what are now being called "renaissance" schools was recently introduced. The changes have increased support.

The NJEA now backs the bill, said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the union's director of governmental relations, because it includes education and labor protections not in the original. Among the changes: Schools must have certified teachers, teachers will have collective bargaining rights if they choose to organize, and teachers can be eligible for tenure.

New Jersey School Board Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said this week that his organization had not taken a position on the bill.

"Critical for us," he said, was the legislation's new requirement that a proposed renaissance school project first be approved by the local board of education. The state education commissioner would have the ultimate say.

Save Our Schools and others, including Education Law Center director David Sciarra, who has represented Camden, Newark, and Jersey City in court cases, still see potential problems.

Though Donald Norcross said nonprofit groups must be the lead agencies in renaissance schools, for-profits could play noninstructional management roles. Approved projects may obtain public land and the schools would be publicly funded, but, critics point out, project managers would not have to comply with public bidding requirements. The bill could "open the door to profiteering," Sass Rubin said.

Some potential managers have asked for relief from "bureaucratic" requirements to get the job done faster and more efficiently, Donald Norcross said.

Sciarra called for more review of legal issues in the bill, including the transfer of public assets, and questioned the need for the legislation.

"This bill would not be necessary if these sponsors stepped up to the plate and got the Christie administration to restart the Lanning Square" project and similarly stalled construction projects, he said.

Observers have questioned what part George Norcross might play in a Camden transitional school.

"I don't see us involved necessarily with Urban Hope schools," he said.

He said his family's foundation, Cooper, and the Cooper Foundation could play supportive roles to current and future Camden charters.

The renaissance schools would be similar to charter schools in some ways. However, they would be entitled to 95 percent of the per-student aid received by the pupils' home districts. Charters are entitled to no more than 90 percent, advocates said.

Charters also are not eligible to receive state land, said Bruno Tedeschi, spokesman for the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

"We are hopeful that the legislature will give the same consideration to charter schools as it appears willing to give to renaissance schools, including equitable funding, help with facilities, a longer renewal period, and freedom from certain burdensome regulations that have nothing to do with the success of a child in a classroom," Tedeschi said.

Unknown is whether targeted districts would embrace the program.

Barbara Coscarello, a Camden school board member, said she supported "alternative routes of education," but doubted that her colleagues would be in favor of the program, partly because of the loss of per-student aid.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @ritagiordano on Twitter.

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