David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Néw Jersey wrote this description of a legislative proposal that would slow or stop school closings in state-controlled districts such as Newark. The key change is that schools may not be closed without the approval of the local board.

Sciarra writes:

NJ Parents Push New Bill to Regulate School Closings

The wave of school closings continues to sweep across the nation, primarily in low income communities. In New Jersey, the State-operated Newark district closed schools last year and has proposed another round for 2014. Camden, another State-operated district, is likely to follow suit. In Newark, one shuttered school was sold to the KIPP charter group, and the State wants to let charters operate other Newark public schools after they’re shut down.

With support from parents and advocates, a bill to regulate school closings was recently introduced in the NJ Legislature, sponsored by Senator Ron Rice (D-Newark) and Assemblywomen Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Trenton).

The bill codifies and strengthens existing NJ Education Department rules requiring the State Commissioner of Education sign off before a district can close a school. To obtain State approval under the bill, a district has to demonstrate:

1) The closing is consistent with the district’s State-mandated facilities plan and will not result in overcrowding or the use of temporary space in the remaining schools

2) If the school is being closed to make way for constructing a new school, the benefits of new construction outweigh rehabilitating the school slated for closure

3) The reassignment of students to other schools will not “produce, sustain, or contribute to the unlawful segregation of student populations on the basis of race, socio-economic status, disability or English-language proficiency” and does not impose unreasonable transportation burdens on students and families.

4) The district’s school board approves the closing, including the school boards in State-operated districts

Board approval in State-run districts is crucial, since school closings and charter school expansion have emerged as a key strategy in Newark, Camden and Paterson under Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner Chris Cerf. Under existing law, the school boards of these districts, while elected, are advisory, with no binding voting power. This bill creates an exception, authorizing boards in these communities to decide whether to close neighborhood public schools.

The bill is pending in the NJ Legislature. Parents and public school advocates are pressing to have the legislation move forward.

Closing a neighborhood school is a dramatic step, one that has serious short and long term impacts on students, families and neighborhoods. School closings can shred the very fabric of the public education system in disadvantaged communities. This legislation provides critical safeguards to ensure these decisions are based on sound reasons, with community support, and only as a last resort.

David G. Sciarra, Executive Director
Education Law Center
60 Park Place, Suite 300
Newark, NJ 07102
973-624-1815, ext. 16
973-624-7339 (fax)