February 22, 2017

More Flare-Ups Intensify PCS Expansion Dispute

Acting State Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington is scheduled to render a decision by early March on the Princeton Charter School (PCS) request to add 76 students.

Both PCS and Princeton Public Schools (PPS) face related law suits in the state courts over violations of the open public meeting act (OPMA, the sunshine law); both PCS and PPS have filed opposition statements, responses, and additional statements with the commissioner in making their cases, some before and some after the January 31 deadline for public comment; the conflict has raged in the media, with many letters to the editor and paid ads on both sides of the argument; and the commissioner has received petitions and thousands of letters from both sides, as well as a resolution from Princeton Town Council opposing expansion. 

And in the latest flare-up, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, based in Freehold, claimed, in a February 16 letter to Ms. Harrington, that the Charter School has violated civil rights laws and “has fostered a segregated learning environment in Princeton with regards to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency, and students with special needs.”

The PCS application for expansion includes a request to implement a weighted lottery to help increase enrollment of economically disadvantaged students, but the Latino Coalition charges that such a lottery is not likely to be effective and that PCS has no strategy for increasing the number of special needs students or students with limited English proficiency.

In what Latino Coalition Director Frank Argote-Freyre stated is their sixth letter to the commissioner without response, he goes on to assert that “the persistent and egregious segregation” in enrollment at PCS suggests “that the school’s environment is hostile to students with special needs, students who are English language learners, students who are low income, and students who are black and Latino.”

Citing DOE statistics showing that PCS serves a significantly smaller population of each of the above groups, Mr. Argote-Freyre’s letter called on the commissioner to reject the expansion proposal and “to close the facility because of a pattern of segregation spanning a decade,” claiming that “the state of New Jersey and the Christie Administration have failed miserably at enforcing state laws that require charter schools to reflect the demographics of their respective school districts.”

PCS Head Larry Patton categorically denied the Latino Coalition charges, describing them as “unsubstantiated allegations” and “frivolous claims.” He stated, “PCS enrolls its students through an open lottery system in full compliance with the Department of Education regulations. We are exceptionally proud of our diverse student population and the outstanding academic outcomes our school achieves.”

Going on to describe Mr. Argote-Freyre’s letter as a “baseless complaint,” Mr. Patton stated that the Latino Coalition has filed similar attacks on other charter schools. “This tactic is clearly designed to improperly influence the department’s decision on the school’s expansion request while defaming the school and its families in the process.”

Seeking to get in his own last word and hoping to raise “the quality and character of the discourse in our community about these issues,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane made his final arguments last Friday in a seven-page letter to the commissioner.

He accused PCS of seeking “to obfuscate the issues and disparage individuals,” in their February 10 appeal to the commissioner. He went on to emphasize his concerns about the negative financial impact of Charter School expansion on the district’s schools, again refuting the PCS argument that the proposed expansion would help to address the district’s rising enrollments.

Pointing out “dramatic differences in student demographics” between PPS and PCS, Mr. Cochrane also asserted that PCS claims of superior student performance on standardized tests were unwarranted.

“My goal, and that of our Board,” he concluded, “continues to be to unite our community around our students and around the most effective educational use of limited tax dollars.” Noting that the “expansion application has placed us at cross purposes,” Mr. Cochrane continued to hold out hope for resolution and a decision “that will unify our community rather than divide it.” He pointed out that PPS and PCS have “a recent history of working together collegially and cooperatively,” but meetings and discussion between leaders of the two schools have not taken place in recent weeks.