Two Groups Ask For Closure Of Township’s Charter Schools, Federal Investigation Into State’s Charter School Policies

Gov. Chris Christie visits the Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School in May 2016. Two groups have asked the state Department of Education to close TEECS and Central Jersey College Prep Charter School for alleged civil rights violations in their enrollments.

Two groups – including one based in the township – have asked the state Department of Education to close the township’s charter schools for alleged “segregative” policies.

The groups, Franklin Community Advocates Revitalizing our Education System (Franklin C.A.R.E.S.) and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, have also filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, alleging that the charter schools – Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School and Central Jersey College Prep Charter School – do not reflect in their enrollment the township’s percentage of learning disabled and English language learner students.

The groups also charge that TEECS’s student enrollment does not reflect the township’s population of some minority students, and students who live in poverty.

The groups are asking for a federal review of state policies regarding charter schools, and the enrollment policies of the two township-based charter schools.

“We respectfully ask the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to conduct an investigation into the discriminatory impact of New Jersey charter school policies on Franklin Township and across New Jersey,” the groups said in the complaint. “We respectfully ask the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to take any and all steps necessary to reverse the segregation (by demographics, economics, and funding) at CJCP and the Thomas Edison Charter Schools.”

Both actions were announced Feb. 10 in a joint press release from the two organizations.

The actions represent an escalation in the efforts of several groups – including the township Board of Education – to stem the growth of charter schools in Franklin and, in the school board’s case, to mitigate the effects the charter schools’ expansion have had on the district school budget.

In New Jersey, charter schools, which are considered public schools, are funded by taxpayers who live in the towns which send students to the charter schools.  The school district this year sent nearly $10 million to charter schools attended by township students, and that figure is expected to increase over the next few years.

The school board last month passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools and on expansion of current charter schools until their effects on traditional public schools can be studied.

In September 2016, after a contentious hearing, the school board voted to ban charter school students from playing on township schools’ sports teams.

TEECS and CJCPCS are the only two charter schools currently in Somerset County; a third, Ailanthus Charter School, has been given provisional approval to open in the township for the 2018-19 school year.

In a Feb. 10 letter to state Department of Education acting Commissioner Kimberly Harrington, the Latino Coalition’s director, Frank Argote-Freyre, said his group and Franklin C.A.R.E.S. “believe the charter schools and the state policies supporting them are systematically violating the civil rights of the vast majority of students in the Franklin Township Public Schools.”

Argote-Fryre asked the state DOE to reject an application by CJCP to double its student enrollment, and to “suspend the charters of CJCP and Thomas Edison because of their inability to represent the demographics of Franklin Township in their enrollment.”

A representative from TEECS did not immediately respond to  request for comment.

Namik Sercan, CEO of CJCPCS, said he would reserve comment until he has had time to review the complaint.

“Charter schools are supposed to educate all the children in their given districts not a select demographic,” Lazaro Cardenas, spokesman for the LCNJ, a civil rights organization, said in the release. “The data is striking. The Franklin charter schools have failed to enroll representative numbers of Latinos, African-Americans, low-income students and students with disabilities. They are using taxpayer funds to run segregated schools.”

Franklin C.A.R.E.S. spokesman John Felix said in the release that one of the strengths of Franklin Township and the school district is its “diversity and the myriad of world cultures represented in the community. The charter schools do not represent that diversity. The enrollment polices of the existing charter schools clearly demonstrates that they are unjustly segregating the children of Franklin Township based on ethnicity and presumed ability to learn. Because the ethnic composition of both NJCP and TEECS student body does not mirror that of our district schools, their students are denied the essential and important experience of being educated in a diverse and vibrant environment.”

In their civil rights complaint, the groups said that taken as a whole, the Franklin Township charter schools are “one of the worst cases of … segregation” they say is caused by state policies that have “fostered the creation of segregated charter schools across the state.”

“We request that the federal Department of Education and the federal Department of Justice investigate the implementation of New Jersey charter school policies and the impact they have had on creating segregated learning environments across the state,” the groups said in their complaint. “We also ask that the federal DOE and the federal DOJ investigate and take action on the specific cases in Franklin Township in Somerset County New Jersey involving Central Jersey College Prep [CJCP] and Thomas Edison Energy Smart Charter School [TEESCS].

In the complaint, the groups charge that CJCPCS’ policies “are skewed in that its student body does not adequately represent the children of Franklin Township, vis a vis English Language Learners [ELL] and Special Education students.”

“The New Jersey Department of Education 2014-2015 report of School Performance, which provides a metric for students’ preparations for college and careers, shows that CJCP’s enrollment of Students with Disability is 7% compared to 14.9% at FTPS,” according to the complaint. “The data for English Language Learners is even less representative; CJCP did not admit any students in the 2014-2015 school year; whereas 5.6% of FTPS students were ELL.”

“Our complaint is predicated on the undeniable fact the CJCP has an abysmal track record with enrollment of English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with Disabilities,” the groups said in the complaint. “The data strongly suggests that CJCP is in violation of federal law and Article 1, Section 5 of the New Jersey Constitution, which guarantees that no person shall be segregated in public schools because of race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

The complaint also attacked CJCPCS’s application to double its student base.

“(T)here is no question that the CJCP is causing segregation among various cohorts of students in Franklin Township,” the complaint charges. “It’s obvious that the approval of CJCP’s application for expansion would be tantamount to rewarding discriminatory practices and the continued separation of our students.”

“By means of comparison, the Franklin Township Public Schools (FTPS) educates at least twice the (percentage) number of students with disabilities as does CJCP during the same time period, and in one of its nine schools, the percentage of students is a high as 20%,” the groups say in their complaint. “The data for ELLs is just as daunting. During the period of 2012-2015, the enrollment of English Language Learners in FTPS was at least 5.5%; whereas, during that same time period CJCP failed to educate any of the district’s ELLs. And during the 2014-2015 school year, the ELL student population of one FTPS elementary school was 36%.”

The groups also charged in their complaint that TEECS enrollment data “strongly indicates that its enrollment policies play a major role in segregating the students of Franklin Township.”

“The demographic profile for Franklin Township consists of 20% Asian Americans, yet TEECS’ enrollment of Asian students is a whopping 67%, compared to FTPS’ 17%,” according to the complaint. “The African American and Hispanic population of Franklin Township is 26.5% and 12.9% respectively; FTPS educates 38% African American students and 30% Hispanic students compared to TEECS’ 13% and 4% respectively. Likewise, only 8% of the Thomas Edison Charter School’s students qualify for free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty, while 45 percent of the students in the Franklin Township schools qualify for the nutritional program.”

“Additionally, TEECS does not educate special education students; on average, FTPS educates at least 16% of this cohort of students,” the complaint charged.

In February, 2016, an application for enrollment expansion by TEECS was modified by then-DOE Commissioner David Hespe, citing his “concerns” over the school population’s “lack of diversity.”

Hespe drastically cut the number of students TEECS would be able to enroll over the next five years, and ordered that the school “develop a comprehensive school recruitment plan to further diversify the school that includes the implementation of a weighted lottery. This recruitment plan must demonstrate that the school is committed to serving a cross-section of the school’s community age population.”


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