Feds investigating N.J. charter school over discrimination complaint

RED BANK -- A New Jersey charter school that has divided a community over the issues of school funding and segregation is now under federal investigation as a result of a civil rights complaint, one of several filed against local charter schools. 

The U.S. Department of Education last month began a probe of the Red Bank Charter School to determine whether its enrollment and recruitment practices discriminate against Hispanic students and students learning English as a second language, according to federal documents.

The investigation stems from a complaint that the charter school, in comparison to the Red Bank School District, serves a disproportionately low percentage of students who are Hispanic, low-income or learning to speak English. The complaint asks for the school to be closed. 

"The concern is that they are using this school as a tool of segregation for a certain demographic in this town," said Lazaro Cardenas, deputy director for The Latino Coalition of New Jersey. "We find this unacceptable."

Charter schools dispute segregation claim

The charter school dismissed the complaint, filed by the Latino Coalition and a local parent group, as meritless. 

"We are confident that when the U.S. Department of Education actually takes a closer look into these unsubstantiated allegations, they will find Red Bank Charter School to be a model for how districts can create an academically high-achieving integrated school in a racially diverse district," the school said in a statement. 

The Red Bank Charter School, which opened in 1998, serves 200 students from pre-K through eighth grade. In 2015-16, the makeup of its student body was significantly different than the student population in the school district, according to state data. 

About 39 percent of the charter school's students were Hispanic, compared to about 81 percent of students in the school district. About 50 percent of students at the charter school were white, compared to about 7 percent in the school district. The charter school had about 3 percent of students with limited English proficiency, whereas the school district had about 38 percent.  The charter school had about 41 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, whereas the school district had about 89 percent. 

The charter school, however, has countered its demographics are more closely in line with census data for Red Bank, which shows that just 39 percent of school-age children are Hispanic, according to the school. Red Bank Charter School also recently began weighting its lottery to favor economically disadvantaged students. 

The complaint argues that Red Bank Charter School has had a similar enrollment pattern for years, despite promising to change its demographics. In doing so, the school violated state and federal law that the school most serve a cross-section of its community, the complaint said. 

Meanwhile, the charter school was able to spend more money per student than the school district because Gov. Chris Christie has refused to allow districts to lower payments to charter schools even if they reduced their own spending, the complaint adds. 

"Red Bank residents are powerless to reverse this segregation, and yet they are forced to subsidize it," the complaint says. 

Rodolfo Ramirez, a parent of two Hispanic children at the charter school, said he never felt that the school tried to discourage him from enrolling his sons. The school tries to recruit students from all parts of the Red Bank community, he said. 

"These allegations don't make any sense," Ramirez said. 

The civil rights complaint is one of four already field against New Jersey charter schools with more likely to come, said Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Latino Coalition. The other complaints are filed against Central Jersey College Prep and the Thomas Edison Energy Smart Schools, both in Franklin, and the Unity Charter School in Morris Township. 

"There is a bigger picture here," Argote-Freyre said. "Red Bank is the tip of the iceberg." 

Staff writer Erin Petenko contributed to this report

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClark. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

 

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