When School Choicers Start to Behave Like the Establishment: Charter Schools Protecting Turf Against Another Charter School

This is a guest post by Bob Bowdon, the Executive Director of Choice Media, an education news service, website and smartphone app.

Is it possible for charter schools to protect their turf at the expense of educational choices for children and families — just like traditional district schools? Say it ain’t so, Joe.

After being approved to open this fall by the New Jersey Department of Education, the new College Achieve Charter School of Asbury Park encountered some unlikely opponents: Two other local area charter schools with similar names: Hope Academy Charter School of Asbury Park and the Academy Charter School of Lake Como (which also enrolls kids from Asbury Park, according to its website). The two existing charter schools’ problem with the new charter school has nothing to do with pedagogy or child safety. They hired lawyers to appeal the zoning certificate for College Achieve’s new location. And here’s the bigger jaw-dropper — the new school’s location for which they’re appealing the zoning is actually Hope Academy’s old location. It’s a “you can’t run a charter school at that location, even though we did” move.

The zoning challenge says College Achieve’s recently obtained Certificate of Zoning Compliance for the building located at 700 Grand Avenue isn’t valid because after serving as home to Hope Academy for many years, the building was then used for a few years as a church and a community outreach center to serve the indigent. The building’s interim usage, the appeal claims, should nullify the previous Certificate of Occupancy, and therefore the zoning officer was wrong to grant the Compliance Certificate to the new-to-town College Achieve. In their words, “…the previously issued Certificate of Occupancy to Hope Academy has been abandoned, leaving no basis to issue the Zoning Certificate of Compliance on the stated grounds.”

Do the existing charter schools cite changes to the building since Hope Academy itself operated there? No. Do they say there’s anything wrong with the building at all? No. The documents reveal a purely procedural blocking maneuver underpinned by no substance — a municipal zoning dispute that could have been initiated by anyone, but happens to be coming from two other charter schools that recruit from the same parent population. If they’re successful, they will block the formation of a school that would provide more desperately needed educational options to the kids of Asbury Park and Neptune and other nearby towns.

Sure, College Achieve would be eligible to apply for a variance to operate a school there again, the appeal maintains — after 197 kids whose parents have chosen College Achieve Charter School are forced to enroll elsewhere for this school year.

Interestingly, the existing charter schools’ zoning board appeal wasn’t even filed within the 20-day window required by statute for anyone objecting to a decision by a zoning officer. Nevertheless, the zoning board will apparently consider the appeal anyway at its upcoming meeting, after the existing charter schools’ attorneys submitted a letter citing “the ambiguity as to when that 20-day period starts….”

Adding another layer to it all, while this dispute involves College Achieve’s 700 Grand Avenue location only, the new school had also hoped to rent a second location at 508 Third Avenue which would have provided enough space to educate the 276 students that the NJ Department of Education had approved. But the Third Avenue campus is being held up by the same zoning board. In this case, the board says the problem is that College Achieve hadn’t conducted a traffic study for cars picking up and dropping off kids — something they never requested until the August 8th board meeting. The surprise traffic study requirement forced College Achieve to postpone its Third Avenue location and reduce its enrollment from 276 to 197.

Calls to both Hope Academy Charter School and Academy Charter School were not returned. Sources say they justify the attempt to block the new school by alleging workers recruiting families for the new school disparaged Hope Academy and Academy Charter and employed other recruiting practices that the existing charter schools considered unfair.

Schools having autonomy over how they spend their money is a good thing. But usually those decisions take the form of computers versus textbook purchases, or a new science lab versus field trips. What’s dumbfounding is to see the Hope Academy and Academy Charter schools spend their limited funds not on educating children, but on hiring lawyers to prevent another school from getting off the ground.

Do Asbury Park families need new educational options? Decide for yourself. According to the NJ Department of Education’s most recent data, students at Asbury Park High School meeting the ACT college readiness benchmarks for English, Math and Science are 11%, 4% and 4% respectively. Eleventh graders meeting the state standard for English proficiency: 16%. This despite the district spending a dizzying $35,632/student. Imagine a classroom of 25-kids. Now realize that over $890,000 of mostly state taxpayer money is being spent on every such classroom in Asbury Park — for those results.

Sadly, it’s not exactly unheard of in New Jersey to see school districts sue to prevent better charter schools from expanding, as districts have done in places like Hoboken and Princeton. But what’s not clear is whether there’s ever been a precedent in the entire 26-year history of the national charter school movement of one charter using education funds to hire lawyers to block the launch of another. It’s happening right now in New Jersey. Parents who’ve picked College Achieve charter school for their children may soon face the irony that their school choice may have been blocked by other charter schools.

The new school year, of course, has already begun — teachers have greeted students; lessons have been taught. Will a challenge to a zoning certificate force 197 kids to find a new school? The next Asbury Park zoning board meeting is scheduled for September 12, 7pm. Separately, a special hearing about whether the Hope Academy and Academy Charter School waited too long to file their zoning appeal is set for September 19.

What do you think?

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