Chairwoman Lampitt and members of the Committee:
Thank you for taking testimony today on the amendments to A4496/S3247, which will make
greatly needed reforms to the school construction program in our State. My name is Paula White, and I serve as the Executive Director of JerseyCAN. I have spent more than two decades serving children and families in education – as a classroom teacher, public charter school founder, principal coach, and chief executive in charge of public school improvement for the New Jersey Department of Education. I have also led education advocacy work in New Jersey, where my focus has been on advancing equity for learners in all public schools.
In late October, JerseyCAN testified in support of A4496/S3247, and we’re here today to
comment on the amendments that will strengthen and clarify several aspects of the bill. As you will recall, we are highly supportive of the inclusion of charter and renaissance schools in this bill, particularly since charter and renaissance schools have never received state support for school construction (with the exception of recent small funding streams for emergent projects). This means that over the course of the last 20 plus years, while the State has invested over $17 billion in school construction funding for SDA districts, Regular Operating Districts (RODs), and vocational schools – and billions more in debt service aid for RODs – charters and renaissance schools have not received any of those funds.
This bill seeks to rectify this inequity by including charter and renaissance schools as eligible entities for future school construction funding. The bill accomplishes this by creating a new fund for charter and renaissance schools’ future projects, which will ensure that charters and
renaissance schools are not competing with SDA districts, RODs, or vocational schools for their funding or projects. In fact, creating this separate fund for charter and renaissance school projects is the same type of structure and approach that has been used for vocational schools since the initial stages of the school construction program and funding in New Jersey.
The inclusion of charters and renaissance schools in the State’s school construction program is critically important because charter and renaissance schools in SDA districts are serving
students with the same needs and backgrounds as the SDA district schools, as evidenced by the fact that 91% of charter students in SDA districts are Black or Hispanic and nearly 80% come from low income families. 89% of the 60,000 public charter and renaissance school students in New Jersey attend a school in an SDA district. These are the same children living in the same communities facing the same challenges as those served by traditional schools, and in many cases, they are siblings and neighbors. They are all public school students and as a way to close the opportunity gap, deserve to have access to safe, secure, and healthy school facilities like their traditional district school counterparts. The inclusion of public charter and renaissance schools in A4496/S3247 is a matter of fairness and remedies the longstanding inequity created by excluding these students over the past 25 years.
On the amendments specifically:
- We are pleased to see that the SDA will now consult with NJDOE on the charters’
applications for school facilities projects, given that the NJ DOE has been the sole
authorizer of charter schools in New Jersey since their inception.
- With respect to the amendment that would change the priority order for types of projects such that maintenance of existing school facilities would be given first priority (followed by new construction and then major renovations), we would like to see new construction prioritized, followed by renovations. New construction, and then renovation, would provide greatly needed capacity to accommodate the increased number of students being served by charter and renaissance schools.
- Lastly, as you know at JerseyCAN we are focused on ensuring that all students across the State have access to high quality schools particularly low-income students. This means that we support equitable access to school construction funding for both district and charter schools. To that end, we applaud the inclusion of the amendment that calls for no less than 50 percent of future direct funding for school facilities projects to be
appropriated to SDA district schools. We recognize that there are tremendous needs in
both the SDA districts and the charter and renaissance schools located in SDA districts.
As noted above, both district and charter schools in SDA districts are serving students
with significant needs, and this provision will help to ensure that a significant portion of future funds for school construction are dedicated to SDA districts’ needs.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today and for your leadership on these important