School district must pay for students who attend out-of-town charter schools

The superintendent of the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District said he disagrees with a recent ruling which compels the district to pay the tuition for students who live in Manalapan or Englishtown, but attend a charter school in another town.

Several years ago, the Manalapan-Englishtown Board of Education passed a resolution supporting the Highland Park School District in Middlesex County when it decided to participate in an appeal that involved the Hatikvah International Charter School in East Brunswick.

The board directed its attorney, the firm of Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri, Jacobs, LLC, to participate as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in support of the positions asserted by Highland Park in its appeal.

The case centered on the use of district funds to pay for children who lived in Highland Park, and other communities, to attend the Hatikvah charter school. The public charter school is in East Brunswick, but enrolls students from several school districts, including students from the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District.

The state Department of Education requires a public school district to pay tuition for students who reside in the district and attend Hatikvah.

The board’s resolution stated that Hatikvah had recently applied for and received permission from the Department of Education to expand its enrollment to include grades six through eight and as a result of the expansion, additional students and funds
would be removed from the Manalapan-Englishtown district to support Hatikvah.

Highland Park filed an appeal in the matter regarding Hatikvah’s expansion application approval by the state and in addition to challenging Hatikvah’s expansion, the appeal also challenged the Department of Education’s requirement that public school districts pay charter schools not located within their borders for students who attend the charter schools, according to the resolution.

The board members said the Manalapan-Englishtown district would benefit greatly if Highland Park was successful in its appeal and that is why they decided to become involved in the case.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), the school districts lost the case. In a June 19 release, the NJSBA said the Appellate Division of Superior Court upheld the New Jersey Department of Education’s interpretation of the charter school laws concerning payment of tuition.

In Highland Park Board of Education v. Harrington, two boards challenged the decision of the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to permit a charter school to expand its enrollment to 75 students in kindergarten and first grade from the previously authorized 50 students per grade.

The boards argued the commissioner’s approval was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. The boards first argued that the school’s population did not represent a cross section of the community’s school age population, including racial and academic factors as required by statute.

However, the charter school showed its racial makeup was substantially similar to that of the community in which it was located.

Further, the school did not interview or otherwise pre-screen applicants based on intellectual ability, race or ethnicity. It recruited from a cross-section of the school age population, in accordance with its charter agreement, targeting recruitment within a 5-mile radius of the school, most notably in Section 8 housing complexes, using direct mailings, face-to-face solicitations, fliers and television ads in English and Spanish.

It also sought to increase its diverse student population through implementation of a weighted lottery system affording preference to economically disadvantaged students. The court rejected the boards’ arguments.

The boards also argued they were not obligated to pay for their students to go to a charter school outside the district boundaries. The court rejected this argument as well, citing a decision in another case. Thus, the court upheld the commissioner-approved expansion of the charter school.

Asked to comment on the outcome of the case, Manalapan-Englishtown Superintendent of Schools John J. Marciante Jr. said, “I support the concept of charter schools when there is evidence the public schools have failed the students in their community.

“The Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District is a high-performing school district. Four of our elementary schools on the recent school performance reports were within the top 11% of the state’s approximately 2,000 public schools.

“There is no reason why tax dollars from Manalapan and Englishtown residents should be sent to a charter school, especially one that is in another county. I completely disagree with the court decision,” Marciante said.

In 2015-16, $91,255 in taxpayer funds from Manalapan and Englishtown was paid to Hatikvah that otherwise would have been used to educate Manalapan-Englishtown students, according to the superintendent. Seven students from the district attended the charter school.

In 2016-17, $28,418 in taxpayer funds was paid to Hatikvah. Four students from the district attended the charter school.

In 2017-18, $31,455 in taxpayer funds was paid to Hatikvah. Three students from the district attended the charter school.

In 2018-19, $38,985 in taxpayer funds was paid to Hatikvah. Six students from the district attended the charter school.

For the 2019-20 school year, Manalapan-Englishtown administrators are projecting the district will pay $46,435 to Hatikvah. Four students who live in the district are expected to attend the charter school in East Brunswick.

For comparison purposes, during the 2018-19 school year, the North Brunswick School District in Middlesex County had 322 students who would have attended North Brunswick’s public schools instead attend charter schools outside the district.

North Brunswick taxpayers paid $4 million to send those 322 children to four charter schools in Middlesex and Somerset counties.