NEWARK - In response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU-NJ, the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) has released public records containing the names of outside persons brought in by the DOE to review applications from schools seeking charters from the Commissioner of Education. The documents were released nearly one year after the initial request was filed by the Education Law Center (ELC).
The ACLU-NJ filed suit in March 4, 2011 on behalf of ELC, which has advocated for more transparency and accountability in the charter school review and approval process.
According to the documents that were released (1.4mb PDF), some of the reviewers are advocates for expanding charter schools and private school vouchers in New Jersey. Others are, or have been, affiliated with organizations that promote and support charter schools. ELC is analyzing the list further to determine whether the individuals brought in are qualified to make decisions about charter school applicants on behalf of the state.
"Even a cursory look at the list of charter reviewers raises a red flag about the ability and qualifications of these persons to give DOE objective input on whether an applicant meets the legal and education standards to open a charter in New Jersey," said ELC Executive Director David Sciarra.
ELC filed a public records request for the information on November 24, 2010. In addition to seeking the names, ELC also asked for training materials that were used to train reviewers, including a Power Point presentation. The DOE responded to the request on December 22, 2010 and refused to release the materials. Although it released emails between DOE employees and volunteers, the department redacted the identities and email addresses of the DOE volunteers. The state later agreed to release the requested training materials after the lawsuit was filed.
The lawsuit charged that the state violated the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) by refusing to release the names of outsiders who play a role in determining which schools receive a charter and public funding.
"Charter schools have a mission to serve the public and in turn the public has a right to know who is involved in making these decisions," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner. "Releasing the list of outside reviewers sheds more light on how decisions are being made. It's time now for the DOE to take the next step and release the actual reviews, along with the reasons for the Commissioner's final decision to approve or deny a charter application."