Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 14
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
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Authors Argue That Choice of Schools Supports, Encourages Educational Excellence

Ellen Gilbert

“Parents are the primary educators of their children,” write James Deneen and Carmen Catanese in their upcoming book, Honoring the Dream. As a result, they argue, giving “parents the option to choose schools that exemplify the educational values they instill in their homes makes sense.”

With charter schools in Princeton and elsewhere being disparaged by many — including local school boards — for purportedly siphoning off money from annual budgets, the message of Honoring the Dream is a timely one.

Competition, the authors say, is a good thing. “If you don’t measure up, you’re out of business,” observed Mr. Catanese. By the same token, he adds, there are particular reasons, often involving a sense of dissatisfaction, when a parent seeks alternatives to traditional public schools.

Mr. Deneen pointed to the continued success — and sheer number — of private schools in the Princeton area. “Princeton is a privileged community with many educational resources,” he observed. “The people here have a high commitment to education, and we need more than one kind of school.” With a number of Princeton youngsters already knowing how to read or write before they even get to kindergarten, the potential for creating a “world class school system” can only be enhanced, he believes, by the presence of a variety of educationally rigorous schools. “This community is big enough, and affluent enough, to encourage alternative possibilities. The Princeton Charter School and the new Princeton International Academy Charter School are real contributions to the community. How can anyone object to change for the better?”

Both Mr. Deneen and Mr. Catanese said that they welcome the new Arts and Education Center opening on the site of St. Joseph’s Seminary, where the American Boychoir School, the French American School of Princeton, and Wilberforce Academy will be housed. “They will enjoy economies of scale,” observed Mr. Catanese.

To those who criticize magnet schools for “taking the best students,” Mr. Deneen suggested that if the other schools were doing well, “kids wouldn’t be leaving them in the first place.” He also discounted arguments about the paucity of special needs students in charter schools. Like any other public school, he notes, charter schools must accommodate students with special needs. “Charters are accountable,” notes Honoring the Dream. “They require systematic assessments of learning outcomes and financial management.” And, added Mr. Deneen, “taxpayers are paying for kids in a public school — whichever school it is.”

Another argument for school choice, said Mr. Catanese, has to do with children’s different learning styles. “How many times have you heard someone say ‘my kid consistently got lost in the shuffle. She was languishing in a public school, but she lit up when she got to Stuart.’”

Subtitled “Crisis and Revolution in Urban Schools,” Honoring the Dream hearkens back to Mr. Deneen’s previous book, Schools that Succeed, Students Who Achieve, also published by Rowman & Littlefield. The sheer costliness of running failing schools, particular in urban areas, is a pervasive theme. “People don’t have a clue about how bad it is in Trenton, how expensive it is to support these failing schools,” he observed.

Mr. Catanese and Mr. Deneen encourage parents and taxpayers to think in terms of “our community,” rather than “our district.” Proposed legislation that would give voters an opportunity to choose whether or not a charter school should be allowed to open is misguided, noted Mr. Deneen. “It’s a line item in the budget. So are administrators’ salaries. Would they like people to vote on those?”

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