Our democracy is a representative one: informed representatives selected by voters resolve issues on our behalf. With few exceptions, New Jersey voters do not get to micromanage government by popular referendum at the ballot box. The most notable exception is the annual rite of school budget elections held each April. This is one of the few instances where voters have some say on how our school districts raise and spend taxpayer dollars.
Opponents of public charter schools are wasting obscene amounts of our taxpayer funds on lobbyists, lawyers, and political advisors to fight public charter schools. Their mission: preserve the current education establishment and ways of doing business, by preventing parents from creating better and more innovative educational opportunities in their towns with public charter schools.
The teachers’ union and school boards across the state have scared parents and teachers with the mantra that public charter schools are robbing their districts of revenues. They want taxpayers to believe that public charter schools are to blame for reductions and layoffs. They prefer to vilify charters and avoid responsibility for the real reforms and tough choices we need to make.
Public charter school opponents struck a popular nerve when their lobbyists and consultants began to push for local voter approval of charter schools last year. Proposed bill A1877 would make New Jersey the first to require a voter referendum as a primary means for approving a new public charter application or allowing the expansion of existing public charter schools. Their argument: voters should have a direct say in the establishment of charter schools; to do otherwise is taxation without representation, they say.
Ironically, the same education establishment that is advocating for voter approval of public charter schools just successfully advocated to take away our right to vote on “their” school budgets. Until this year, voters in New Jersey voted on their local school budget in a special spring election along with board members. This changed in 2012, when legislators passed A4394 / S3148 giving boards and citizens the option to move school board elections to the general election in November to generate more voter turnout and reduce election costs.
The law also provides that if school elections are moved to November, school budgets are no longer subject to voter approval, unless they seek more than a two percent increase over the year prior. School boards making this move thus eliminate the ability for the general public to approve or reject the annual school budget. In fact, within a month of the law’s adoption, over 400 of New Jersey’s 538 school boards switched to a November election to avoid budget votes. So how many of those school boards screaming for voter choice on charters recognized the hypocrisy of eliminating voter choice on their entire district budget? Shamefully few.
The fact of the matter is voter choice on charters is bad policy. The reality: whenever a charter threatens “their” turf and “their” budget, school boards and unions, among the best-funded special interests in the state, will campaign against the charter, effectively stopping the spread of parent-led, innovative education options that improve districts, poor and wealthy alike.
Requiring a public referendum on public charter schools is not in the best interest of our students or the general public. Whether a charter is appropriate, and whether a particular proposal is well thought out and deserving of funding, are decisions best made by education professionals, giving due consideration to local community support and concerns, but ultimately doing what is in children's best interests.
Put the creation, approval, management and oversight of public charter schools in the hands of those who know education best – nonpartisan and independent authorizing bodies who can ensure that each and every school is fulfilling its promise to students across the state. All public school students should receive equal access to resources, closing the funding gap between traditional public and public charter schools, which spend 10 to as much as 27 percent less than traditional districts.
A money-driven charter referendum process dominated by teachers unions and traditional school boards protecting their turf is not the type of education reform New Jersey needs. Over two-thirds of our school boards took their own budgets off the ballot as soon as they had the chance. Those that did should be ashamed of the hypocrisy they are teaching our children.
Paul Josephson is a Trustee of the Princeton Charter School and the Chair of the State Bar Association’s Administrative Law Section. The views expressed are his and not those of either organization.