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Vol. LXV, No. 44
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
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Princeton SOS Defines Its Role in New Jersey As Seeking Quality Education for All Children

Ellen Gilbert

“Charter school reform is not really our raison d’être,” observed Julia Sass Rubin in a recent interview about the whys and wherefores of the Princeton area Save Our Schools (SOS) association.

Recent discussions about the fate of the proposed Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS), she suggested, have focused attention on that particular aspect of SOS’s concerns, but there are others. In addition to charter school law reform, she said, the original impetus for the group’s formation in August 2010 was concern over a proposed voucher system, and potential changes in New Jersey’s funding formula for schools.

Right now vouchers are at the forefront for the group, which began as six people in someone’s living room and now includes about 400 members. The local organization is part of the state-wide “Save Our Schools” movement (see www.saveourschoolsnj.org), which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of parents and other concerned residents who believe that all New Jersey children should have access to a high quality public education.”

“Grass roots organizations are so rare that people try to find affiliations,” said Ms. Sass Rubin, one of the group’s founding members. “Our schools are in grave danger; that’s why we formed.”

Concern about changes in New Jersey’s funding formula for schools is based on the wish to preserve the current system of using tax dollars from more affluent communities to support schools in poorer districts.

Proposed State legislation for a voucher system has “no logic,” said Ms. Sass-Rubin. “They’re unregulated and encourage low quality schools.”

“The experience of other states demonstrates how devastating this would be for New Jersey’s public schools, starting with the concentrated poverty districts that would be the first to lose $16,000 in funding for every child that receives a voucher to attend an unregulated private or religious school,” notes an SOS position paper. Describing it as “an ideological issue,” Ms. Sass Rubin said that Princeton voters should be sure to check the SOS New Jersey website before next week’s election, to see where local candidates stand on the voucher question. She was not, however, aware of any support for vouchers in Princeton.

There is, of course, both opposition and support for charter schools in Princeton. “We don’t have one point of view” on charter schools, said Ms. Sass Rubin, noting that some SOS members — including herself — have children in the Princeton Charter School, which was created in 1997. “We probably have members who have submitted applications to PIACS,” she added. “Our goal is to improve the charter schools.”

Currently, charter schools must be approved by the state’s Department of Education, a process Ms. Sass Rubin described as “non-transparent.” The state does not reveal the identity of application reviewers, nor do they offer any feedback. This withholding of information “makes it look like something is being denied,” said Ms. Sass Rubin. In an effort to make the process more transparent and “goal-oriented,” SOS Princeton is endorsing proposed legislation that would put the question of creating new charter schools to local voters instead. Both Township Committee and Borough Council have endorsed this legislation.

“Carlos Perez is in a very similar place,” said Ms. Sass Rubin, referring to the current head of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “They also feel that charter school legislation isn’t working.”

While Mr. Perez agreed that greater transparency is needed in the charter school approval process, he said that implementing a public referendum system would be the death knell of charter schools.

“We believe that, for the most part, charter schools change kids’ lives and are a central part of the way we can reform education,” said Mr. Perez. “We don’t believe that they’re a panacea to improve everything, but are an important element. For years the DOE has not effectively done a good job of evaluating, monitoring, and overseeing charter schools; in that sense we believe that the system that supports charter schools is broken. We believe that we do need to reform the way we approve and oversee charter schools and that includes expanding the capacity to oversee them.”

Mr. Perez said that he looked forward to “having a clear road map in order to put our resources behind developing a great pipeline of schools.”

Ms. Sass-Rubin concurred with a recent conversation in which Rebecca Cox and Tim Quinn, Board of Education President and Vice President, emphasized that SOS Princeton has no connection with the Princeton Regional School District. Nor does SOS have a position in the current PIACS lawsuit against the three school districts it hopes to serve. PIACS believes that these offices are using public funds to pay for legal advice that would block their existence.

SOS and School District efforts to keep each other informed about events and opportunities do not link SOS Princeton with any school district, Ms. Sass Rubin reiterated. “I know what reality is.”

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