NJ Supreme Court Upholds NJDOE Authority on Charter School Approval

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The New Jersey Supreme Court on December 16 rejected a charter school applicant’s challenge to how the state decides on whether to grant a charter.  The court unanimously upheld the state Department of Education's exclusive authority to approve or reject charter schools, provided its decisions are not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.

"There is no right to operate a charter school," the unanimous Supreme Court said in IMO Proposed Quest Academy Charter School of Montclair Founders Group. "There is only the opportunity to apply for approval to operate if the application demonstrates proper merit."

The Facts

Quest Academy Charter School first applied for a charter in 2010 but was rejected for a number of reasons, including incompleteness of application and deficiencies in programming.  In total, the group was denied a charter five times by the state. In response, the charter applicants decided to challenge the state’s process for deciding on which charters get green-lighted

According to court documents, Quest founder Tracey Williams submitted an application to the state Department of Education in October 2010 seeking to open the school for the following fall. Williams and her cofounders cited worsening student performance in the township's public schools. It was Quest's third application.  Williams sought to establish a technology and arts curriculum for 250 high school students. 

That December, Montclair Schools Supt. Frank Alvarez told the department he opposed the proposal, claiming it would divert $2 million in funding from the district. He panned the application as lacking a clear vision.

Quest amended its application and met with department officials, but in January 2011 Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks denied it with little explanation.

Lower Court Proceedings

The applicants then appealed to the Appellate Division, and Hendricks submitted to the court an amplification of reasons, calling Quest's education plan weak and undefined, and the proposed strategies and the founders' qualifications questionable.

Hendricks, relying on her own experience, questioned the effectiveness of standalone charter schools and Quest's ability to attract enough students. She also cited Alvarez's concerns—community opposition, Montclair's standing desegregation order and a potential negative impact on Montclair High School offerings.

In May 2012, an appeals panel upheld Hendricks' decision, finding it based on valid considerations and not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable—the standard by which agency decisions are reviewed, the court said.  The panel rejected Williams' claim that the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires approval of charter schools in districts needing academic improvement.

In her petition for certification, Williams claimed the Appellate Division was obliged to consider if Hendricks' decision was supported by "substantial credible evidence" and failure to do so was a violation of due process rights.

Supreme Court Weighs In

But, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the propriety of the arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable standard.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the opinion said that test, "although deferential, does not lack content," noting that courts must ensure that the agency followed the law and acted on substantial evidence.

The Court found Hendricks' decision "amply supported by the record" and based on appropriately considered factors.

The decision stated that there was "no error in the Commissioner's consideration of unsolicited letters from local citizens or her reliance on her own expertise."

It also noted that courts have "recognized the value that administrative expertise can play in the rendering of a sound administrative decision."

Next Steps

Quest filed two more unsuccessful applications after the one at issue in the December 16 ruling, and has another appeal pending before the Appellate Division.

Source: NJ Law Journal