Under a bright early evening sun in front of the South Brunswick Municipal Building on Tuesday, chants of "save our schools" and"pass the reforms" rang out from a crowd who gathered to push the state legislature to pass charter school reform bills.
Over 100 people gathered in South Brunswick at one of three concurrent rallies, with the other two in Highland Park and Millburn, by the grassroots organization Save Our Schools to demonstrate bipartisan support for the proposed reforms.
"SOS is not just for Save Our Schools, SOS is also for save our state," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15). "If we save our schools then we'll save this state and save our children, because they are our future."
The rally was held in support of bills A-3852/S-2243 which would require voter or board of education approval before charters could open in any school district, and A-3356, which would require charter schools to have greater financial and educational transparency and accountability.
Turner was joined by fellow Democrats state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), 16th District Assembly candidate and current South Brunswick Councilman Joseph Camarota, 16th District Assembly candidate Marie Corfield, of Flemington, and 16th District Senate Candidate Maureen Vella, of Hillsborough.
The 16th District's Republican incumbent State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, of Somerville, was unable to attend the rally but sent a statement in support of the charter school reform bills. Sen. Bateman also said he would co-sponsor the bills, according to SOS spokeswoman Lisa Rodgers, of Monmouth Junction.
Save Our Schools member Julia Sass Rubin said the group isn't against charter schools, but is for increased transparency and the right for communities to have a say in whether charter schools are needed in their district.
"Charter schools don't have the same percentages of special needs students, poor students and students with limited English proficiency," she said. "These are the most expensive students to educate, so this creates financial problems and segregates our society."
In response to the Save Our School rallies, the New Jersey Charter Schools Association sent out a response saying that charter schools are intended to fill a void in the traditional public school curriculum.
“Requiring a referendum on charter schools is not only bad public policy, it undermines the entire premise of a charter school," said president and CEO of the NJCSA Carlos Perez. "It’s a reaction to a challenge of the status quo by the entrenched education establishment to stop the thriving charter school movement in New Jersey in its tracks.
“Charter schools are unique public schools founded by parents, teachers, educational institutions, and community organizations that are dedicated to providing high quality public education options to all students, regardless of where their address. New Jersey’s charter school law was never intended to exclude children in the suburbs.”
Rubin said the reform bills are simply a matter of letting citizens have a say in how their tax dollars are spent.
"My daughter attends a charter school so this really isn't about destroying charter schools," she said. "The charter school supporters are just worried that this will make it harder for them to get started, and that's not what they want."
One of the main themes of the rally was increased accountability. Camarota said charter schools don't face the same scrutiny as the Board of Education, which must gain public approval for their budgets and whose members are elected.
"In South Brunswick, almost 70 percent of our property taxes goes to fund schools," he said. "Why shouldn't we have a say in what happens and how it happens?"
South Brunswick Board of Education member Daniel Boyle, speaking as a private citizen and not as a representative of the board, said citizens should have a voice when legislation needs to be modified. Hillsborough Board of Education member Judy Haas offered similar sentiments.
"What we see so far from charter schools is no accountability, both financially and educationally, to the communities that support them," she said. "Once they exist we don't get a say in their finances."
Corfield pointed out that charter schools are being rushed through the approval process without a proper long-term study to determine their viability.
"Why is taxpayer money being spent on educational reform that doesn't have a definite proven track record of working?" she asked.
Residents in attendance said charter schools have their place, but aren't needed in high performing districts.
"I'm a big supporter of fiscal responsibility and I'm against unfunded mandates," said Eric Schlesinger, of Monmouth Junction. "What the state is doing with charter schools is just an unfunded mandate. They're taking money away from the school district without considering what the impact is."
Sen. Turner said charter schools exacerbate the problem of high property taxes and the schools lack proper oversight from the state.
"The Department of Education is not monitoring these schools and they're not scrutinizing the charters before we grant them," she said. "Because you can't vote to approve them, charter schools are nothing more than taxation without representation."
Following the rally, the South Brunswick Township Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the charter school reform bills.