New Jersey’s high court on Monday 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 ruling was more bad news for the proposed school, Quest Academy in Montclair, whose proponents envision a technology- and arts-based curriculum for high school students, but have failed repeatedly to gain approval.
According to court documents, Quest founder Tracey Williams submitted the application to the state Department of Education in October 2010 seeking to open the school for the following fall. Williams and her co-founders cited worsening student performance in the township’s public schools.
It was Quest’s third application.
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.
Williams 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 stand-alone 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.
But the court on Monday reaffirmed the propriety of the arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable standard.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia said that test, “although deferential, does not lack content,” noting that courts must ensure that the agency followed the law, acted on substantial evidence and did not err in reaching a conclusion.
Still, the Charter School Program Act of 1995, which authorizes charter schools, does not guarantee a hearing.
The parties had debated whether Hendricks’ decision was a quasi-judicial or quasi-legislative function. In the end, the court said, it doesn’t matter—each is subject to the same standard.
LaVecchia noted the department’s challenges in receiving “batches” of applications—Williams’ was one of 45 filed in 2010—that must be reviewed before the next school year.
As for the Quest application, the court found Hendricks’ decision “amply supported by the record” and based on appropriately considered factors.
LaVecchia saw “no error in the Commissioner’s consideration of unsolicited letters from local citizens or her reliance on her own expertise.”
She noted that courts have “recognized the value that administrative expertise can play in the rendering of a sound administrative decision.”
Assistant Attorney General Michelle Lyn Miller argued for the department.
Division of Law Director Christopher Porrino says the court’s ruling “is based on its thorough analysis of the legal standard of review for evaluating final decisions by the State’s Departments and agencies.”
It “affirms…longstanding practices in evaluating charter school applications, and properly upholds the specific determination with regard to Quest Academy,” he adds.
Quest’s counsel, Michael Confusione of Hegge & Confusione in Mullica Hill, declines comment.
Williams didn’t return a call Monday.
Quest filed two more unsuccessful applications after the one at issue in Monday’s ruling, and has another appeal pending before the Appellate Division.