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Norcross, Fuentes ‘Urban Hope Act’ Approved By Budget Committees

Pilot Program Would Allow for ‘Renaissance School Projects’ in Camden, Newark, Trenton

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes to create a permissive, state-monitored pilot program that would provide students in three failing school districts access to new, quality public schools in their communities was approved today by the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees.

The ‘Urban Hope Act’ would provide additional educational opportunities to students attending chronically failing districts in the state’s urban areas, where despite additional state aid school districts have been unable to improve student achievement, increase graduation rates or provide greater student readiness for college and gainful employment. The legislation (S-3173/A-4426) would create a pilot program that would designate Camden, Newark and Trenton as “renaissance districts.” In each district, nonprofit entities – upon receiving local school district approval – could apply to the state Commissioner of Education to create up to four new public school projects, called “renaissance school projects,” which would be operated and managed by the nonprofit. The projects would be constructed with private funding. Both the local school district and the state Department of Education would need to approve each such project.

“Too many students are confined to failing districts where they are being deprived of the opportunity for a quality education,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester). “In areas where schools are failing our children, it is our obligation as a state to provide students and their parents with access to improved educational options. At a time when school construction has been halted and alternative educational opportunities are out of reach for many of our students, this gives our local school districts the ability to partner with nonprofit organizations within the community to provide new hope to our children for success.”

Preference for enrollment in the renaissance school project would be given to students who reside in the local attendance area identified through the project. The bill would permit the New Jersey Schools Development Authority or the renaissance school district to lease or sell land to the nonprofit entity for the construction of a new school. In such cases, students residing in the attendance area of the school would be enrolled in the new renaissance school project, unless parents or guardians decide to opt out of the new school. Students would be selected for any remaining slots through a lottery system.

“The fact that thousands of students in our state are being forced to attend failing schools, which are located mere miles from high performing districts, is tragic,” said Assemblyman Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester). “It is incumbent upon us as public officials to do everything in our power to provide them access to good schools in their communities that will provide them the skills they need to be successful in college or in the workforce.”

Finally, renaissance school projects would be subject to ongoing reviews and assessments by the commissioner. Five years following the date of the third renaissance school project opening, or 10 years after the first school opens, whichever comes first, the Department of Education would be required to commission a review of the efficacy of the program conducted by an independent education researcher or research organization. The commissioner would be required to report on the results of the review and on whether additional renaissance districts would be authorized, and if so, how many.

The Senate Budget Committee approved the bill by a vote of 9-0-3; the Assembly Budget Committee voted 11-0 to approve the measure. The bills are scheduled for a vote in both houses Monday.