Jan 26, 2021 at 5:29 pm EST

Newark is tightening restrictions on applying to charter schools. Now families have to prove they live in the city before applying, and some have even received home visits to verify their addresses.

The new policy is a break with the past when families did not have to prove their residence until they were assigned to school. The Newark School District, which oversees enrollment at some charter schools, tacitly changed the rule this fall, though it only recently attracted attention.

District officials say the new rule will ensure that out-of-towers don’t get seats for Newark residents and that schools don’t have to de-register residents later. However, proponents of charter schools say the policy has created inappropriate barriers for families wanting to enroll their children in schools outside of the district.

“Newark families deserve a fair and equitable opportunity to choose where to send their children to school,” said Barbara Martinez, spokeswoman for North Star Academy, Newark’s largest network of charter schools. “We reject the new hurdles that make it difficult for families to choose charter schools.”

The dispute is the latest focal point in a series of clashes between the Newark School District and the city’s charter schools – publicly funded but privately owned schools that teach more than a third of Newark public school students. District chief Roger León has urged the state to close several Newark charter schools and made changes to the enrollment process that advocates of the charter have opposed.

Much of the tension has centered on an enrollment website called Newark Enrolls, which families can use to apply to any traditional public school or participating charter school. The district manages the system and therefore controls the application process.

The district’s new policy adds an extra step to the process. To apply for charter schools, families must provide three documents showing they live in Newark, including a driver’s license, utility bill, or rental agreement. In the past, families only had to submit residence documents after the application process had been completed and were compared with the schools.

The new requirement appears to only apply to families wishing to enroll in charter schools or who are new to the district – not families wishing to stay in district schools.

In addition, the district has sent some of its attendance counselors to the homes of families applying to Newark schools to see if they live at the addresses provided. The home visits are apparently aimed at families who have applied to charter schools, say proponents.

“We have received several reports from multiple charter schools of complaints from mostly Spanish-speaking parents about the presence of district advisors in their homes,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based advertising nonprofit School choice. One charter school received 15 complaints from parents about the visits and another eight complaints last week, he added, calling the visits “heavily armed, invasive tactics against parents”.

The Newark Teachers Union, which represents attendance counselors, filed a complaint with the district last week about the home visits. The consultants should not have to conduct Charter School Residency Reviews in addition to their normal duties, the complaint states.

A district spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new registration requirements or the home visits.

The stricter residency check comes after a Snafu enrollment last year that saw the district assign some non-Newark residents to Newark charter schools. The mistake led to a state investigation, as state law only requires most charter schools to enroll students from the communities in which they are located.

District officials say the new policy will prevent students outside of the district from being matched to Newark schools that are later no longer enrolled. They also say the New Jersey Department of Education approved the policy change. (A state spokesman could not immediately confirm this.)

However, proponents of charter schools claim the policy violates state guidelines for licensing charter schools. The guidelines state that initial application forms can only ask for basic information such as a student’s name, current school and address – “no proof of residence, vaccinations, interviews or school visits required”.

“Proof of residence can only be requested after a lottery has been run and the students have been brought together,” Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, said in an email. “Residence verification documents, such as birth certificates and utility bills, are difficult to collect even in a typical year. In the current climate, this is nearly impossible.”

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a vocal opponent of charter schools, said it “makes perfect sense” to require families to provide proof of Newark residence before enrolling. The policy will prevent the district from sending money to charter schools for students who live outside of Newark and are therefore not eligible for district funds, Abeigon said.

“Why not nip in the bud when you enroll?” he said. “Personally, I think it’s long overdue.”

However, parenting advocates say the new policy places an additional burden on families.

In recent years, families have had time to track down residence documents until the start of the new school year, noted Jasmine Morrison, parents and attorney for the charter school. They could also get help uploading the documents to their assigned schools.

Now families have to upload the documents themselves by the application deadline on January 29th. Morrison said this was a challenge for many of the parents she spoke to, including those forced to move in with friends or relatives during the pandemic, which made it harder to prove residency in Newark.

“If we make it a requirement at this point, it’s especially difficult at a time when we don’t need anything else to be tough,” said Morrison, who has two children at North Star Academy. She is also a member of a higher-level organizational group called Unapologetic Parents.

Tafshier Cosby agreed. As a staff member at a charter school whose children were attending the Newark charter schools, she said the district should relax application rules during the pandemic – not add any new requirements.

“Give the parents some grace,” said Cosby, co-CEO of Newark-based advocacy group Parent Impact. “You already have enough of what you’re going through – don’t make it harder.”

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a non-profit news organization dedicated to public education. Sign up for your newsletter here.