Norcross, Fuentes, Wilson-Sponsored ‘Urban Hope Act’ Heads To Governor

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

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross and Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Gilbert “Whip” Wilson 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 today received final legislative approval, sending it to the desk of Governor Christie.

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 measure would do this by facilitating the construction of new schools in three pilot cities where projects have been stalled under the state’s Schools Development Authority. Specifically, 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.

“Students in Camden, Newark and Trenton are being forced to attend failing schools where they are deprived of the quality education they deserve,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester). “It is our responsibility to provide them with access to better educational options. With school construction projects at a standstill and alternative educational opportunities out of reach for so many, this allows local school districts to partner with nonprofits to provide new hope to our children for success.”

“The fact that thousands of students in our state are trapped in failing schools is shameful,” said Assemblyman Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester). “It is incumbent upon us as public officials to do everything we can to provide them access to good schools in their communities that will give them the skills they need to be successful in college or in the workforce. With construction of schools in these cities stalled, this bill creates a mechanism to allow for new projects to go forward with the use of private funding.”

“Students and parents in the City of Camden have repeatedly been promised new facilities that the state has failed to deliver,” said Assemblyman Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “The Urban Hope Act will finally provide a means to get shovels in the ground for new schools, the construction of which will be funded with private investment.”

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.

Under the provisions of the bill, the nonprofit entity operating a renaissance school would receive an amount per pupil equal to 95 percent of the local school district’s per pupil funding. 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.

“School construction has virtually come to a halt in this state,” added Senator Norcross. “We need bricks and mortar, but more than that we need new schools that will give our students the type of education they need to graduate and be successful in college or in their career. This bill provides an innovative way to make that possible.”

“This truly is about creating a renaissance in cities like Camden,” said Assemblyman Fuentes. “It’s about providing long-promised schools to our students and giving them hope that they will have a chance to obtain a good education, to go to college and get a good-paying job.”

“I am proud to sponsor legislation to offer our students quality educational opportunities, which for too long have been inaccessible to children in Camden City but provided to their peers in schools across this state,” added Assemblyman Wilson. “New, quality institutions will help students establish a strong foundation for their futures and give them a chance to compete not only statewide, but to go on to college and compete in a global economy upon graduation.”

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 35-3; the Assembly voted 56-17-1 to approve the measure. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.