Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 33
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
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Charter School Suit Is a “Milestone”

Ellen Gilbert

Discussion of the recent petition submitted by the Princeton International Charter School (PIACS) asking the State Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf to enjoin area school districts “from spending public funds and using their governmental positions to further impede the opening of the school” escalated in recent days with the release of a statement from the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. In the statement, the organization’s president and CEO Carlos Perez described the suit as “a significant milestone for the charter school movement in the state.”

“We don’t believe public school districts should be using valuable taxpayer money to fight to keep other children from having high-quality public school options,” observed Mr. Perez. “It’s unfair that a start-up charter school is forced to spend its limited resources fighting a public school district instead of using that money to educate children.”

In a recent interview, PIACS Co-Founder Parker Block pointed to a sizable batch of papers that document lawyers’ fees to the Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional, and South Brunswick school districts for their near-daily telephone and email queries regarding the legitimacy of PIACS. Mr. Block noted that the papers, which were obtained under the Open Public Records Act, represent just three months’ worth of lawyers’ fees.

PIACS has faced opposition from the three districts it hopes to serve from its actual inception more than two years ago. Indeed, reported Mr. Perez, New Jersey school districts have a history of imposing long, expensive legal action against charter schools dating back over a decade. “All this legal action did was burn precious dollars that should be spent in the classroom, and create animosity between entities that should be working together in the same community in the best interest of students,” he added.

“The school districts’ questions and concerns were taken into consideration by the commissioner during the application approval process,” said Mr. Block. “Moreover, after the commissioner approved the PIACS application the school districts failed to appeal the decision.” PIACS has twice had to postpone its opening as a result of technicalities regarding zoning applications, first in West Windsor-Plainsboro, when the school was interested in using St. Joseph’s Seminary as its home, and then this year, in South Brunswick, where an alternative building had been found.

Mr. Block explained that with the arrival of three other schools at the Seminary this fall, a PIACS presence there would be less than optimum. Although PIACS founders are “still looking at potential alternatives,” their current choice for September, 2012 is a building at 12 Perrine Road in Monmouth Junction.

“We didn’t do this lightly,” emphasized Mr. Block. “We engaged many different parties at different levels, and were encouraged by everyone to make this added investment for ourselves, and to set a precedent.” With its proposed Mandarin immersion curriculum and eventual adoption of the International Baccalaureate program, PIACS promises, he said, to “teach 21st century skills.” School districts’ focus on the local achievement gap, he reported, has deflected attention away from the international achievement gap, which affects “all students, even top students. It’s all about global competency.”

In the meantime, said Mr. Block, the districts are diverting taxpayer money from educational uses to fight a legal battle that is not within their purview. The use of local schools’ PTOs (Parent Teachers Organization) to carry the message, and appearances by Princeton School District Superintendent Judy Wilson and School Board President Rebecca Cox at meetings opposing charter schools around the state are similarly inappropriate, he suggested. “Their message is ‘run out the clock; dig into your bucket of public funds and challenge them left and right.’”

A joint press release from the Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick School districts, dated August 10, asserted that it is “the Boards’ duty to not only be sound stewards of public funds but certainly to also ascertain and ensure that children are traveling on safe bus routes, attending schools housed in suitable facilities with appropriate health and safety standards in place and being provided the promised curriculum.” In point of fact, Mr. Block said, bus service is the sole shared concern of the district and a charter school; any other health and safety issues are monitored by the state.

Describing the current state of affairs as “a guerilla war,” Mr. Block said that the public is being given the mistaken perception that charter schools are “the bogeyman that’s killing public education.” He believes that a lot of “misinformation” is behind the public’s “emotional” response to prospective charter schools. In the meantime, he added, “public resources that need to be dedicated to the education of children in the district are being used to pay lawyers.”

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