New Jersey Supreme Court upholds past expansion of Newark charter schools

A student wearing a cap and carrying a blue tote bag walks on a walkway in front of the KIPP-NJ building.
New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state’s 2016 decision to allow seven Newark charter schools to expand, including KIPP New Jersey and North Star Academy. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

New Jersey’s high court on Tuesday upheld the state’s 2016 decision to allow several Newark charter schools to expand, rejecting a bid to reverse the schools’ growth.

But the state Supreme Court put a potential damper on future charter growth by reaffirming that the state must consider whether a new or expanding charter school would promote segregation. The court also upheld a prior ruling that the state must analyze whether charter expansion would hurt a school district’s budget — but only if the district raises that concern.

The court called the former state education commissioner’s decision “deficient” for failing to consider whether the charter schools’ expansion would further segregate students by race or concentrate students with disabilities and English learners in traditional public schools. In the future, the state must carefully consider those possibilities, the court said.

The seven schools at the center of the case include some of Newark’s largest and highest-performing charter schools, including North Star Academy, KIPP, Great Oaks Legacy, and Robert Treat Academy. Collectively, they enroll an estimated 18,000 students. 

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, which upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of the schools’ expansion, means the schools will not have to remove current students or turn away future applicants.

“As a parent and advocate for families, I am grateful the court has decided that children enrolled in public charter schools in Newark may continue to attend these high-quality public schools,” read a statement from Jasmine Morrison, a charter school parent and director of parent engagement for the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association.

However, the ruling could also mean that future requests to open or expand charter schools will face greater scrutiny.

The decision puts the state “on firm and clear notice” that it must analyze and address segregation caused by charter schools, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that challenged the Newark schools’ expansion.

ELC stands ready to continue to hold the commissioner accountable for fulfilling this obligation,” he said in a statement.

The legal battle began in 2016, when then-Commissioner David Hespe approved the schools’ request to enroll roughly 8,500 additional students. The Education Law Center filed a suit opposing Hespe’s decision, which the group said would harm district students by diverting money to charter schools and intensifying segregation.

The group, which previously won a landmark case resulting in greater funding for Newark and other high-poverty school districts, also said the state should apply extra caution before approving charter schools in those districts. 

In 2019, an appellate court rejected those arguments, ruling that there was no evidence the charters’ growth would prevent the district from providing students a “thorough and efficient” education. Last year, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of that decision in a case brought by the Education Law Center and backed by the Newark school district.

In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court upheld earlier rulings that put the burden on school districts to show that new or expanded charter schools would negatively impact their budgets. If district officials raise that concern, then the education commissioner must analyze the issue before deciding whether to approve the charter applications. (Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent did not challenge the charter schools’ expansion request in 2015.)

Today, more than a quarter of the Newark school district’s state and local funding goes to charter schools, which enrolled just over 20,000 students this school year.

While the court ruled that the former commissioner did not adequately consider how the Newark charter schools affect student enrollment patterns, it declined to retroactively deny the schools’ expansion.

“Such a remedy would severely impact Newark’s charter school students and their families, and would subvert the Legislature’s policy to expand educational opportunities,” Justice Anne Patterson wrote in the court’s decision.

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