January 18, 2017

Charter School Controversy Intensifies

Despite impassioned appeals on both sides, along with expressed commitments to work together, Princeton Charter School (PCS) and Princeton Public Schools (PPS) remain entrenched in their opposition over the question of a PCS expansion.

Princeton Charter School’s board voted unanimously last Wednesday to support their application to the State Department of Education for expansion, and Princeton Public Schools continued their efforts to block that move. 

A flurry of letters to local media (see this week’s Mailbox), to representatives in Trenton, and to New Jersey Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington, who in the next two months will be deciding on the PCS application, illuminate the conflict, with PCS seeking approval to expand its enrollment by 76 students, and PPS claiming that the cost to the District would have a “devastating impact” on the public schools. PCS and PPS do seem to have found a small piece of common ground on a second part of the PCS proposal, to implement a weighted admissions lottery to increase the economic diversity of the school.

In his appeal to the Charter School Board last Wednesday, PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane, accompanied by a contingent of supporters, asked PCS to “do the right thing for the children of this community” and withdraw its proposal. “Your proposal to expand enrollment may have been well-intentioned,” he said, “but it will have a devastating impact on the Princeton Public Schools for years to come.”

The $1.2 million that the District would be obligated to give PCS, he argued, would force the schools to cut personnel and programs. “Sadly,” he added, “many of the cuts we will have to make will come from the high school. Your expansion proposal will hurt the very school to which you send most of your students.”

Mr. Cochrane went on to express his hope that PCS and PPS could come together, “that we can find creative ways to combine our resources and our knowledge to save money for this community and to enhance learning for all our kids.” He added, “As educational leaders in the community, we cannot be operating at cross-purposes. They are all our children. Let’s treat them that way.”

Cross purposes, however, seem to be the defining characteristic of the charter school debate, with its battle for limited resources locally and throughout the country. Disputing Mr. Cochrane’s arguments about the disastrous effects of a Charter School expansion, PCS Board President Paul Josephson explained the Charter School’s position.

“We spent a particularly long time discussing the claim that this modest, phased-in enrollment increase would have a significant detrimental impact on the school district,” he said. “After thorough examination and consideration, our Board determined that it would not, and that claims to the contrary are exaggerated.

“PCS has expanded gradually for nine out of the 20 years that it has been in existence. During the past two decades as PCS gradually expanded its enrollment, PPS has not been adversely affected but has continued to increase its faculty size and add to and strengthen its many and varied academic and extracurricular offerings. We expect the same will happen if PCS’s current expansion application is approved.”

Explaining that the expansion, along with the weighted lottery, would allow PCS to admit more economically disadvantaged students and more accurately reflect the community, Mr. Josephson stated, “Additionally, the expansion will ensure the long-term sustainability of PCS, which has been operating with a completely flat budget for the past eight years, as well as allow the Princeton students currently on our waiting list a greater opportunity to attend the public school of their choice.”

He added that the expansion is also critical to allowing the school to maintain high quality health coverage and appropriate compensation for its faculty. Mr. Josephson reiterated his desire to continue the dialogue with PPS in hopes of finding ”a win-win solution.”

PPS information meetings at John Witherspoon Middle School last Wednesday and Thursday were well attended by School District, Charter School and community members. Mr. Cochrane described “a healthy exchange of ideas and a thoughtful, always respectful, posing of questions.” He further noted, “The group seemed to coalesce most around the undemocratic nature of a process that allows the trustees of the Princeton Charter School, who are unelected by the public, to make a decision that would dramatically affect the use of tax dollars for an entire community.”

The District has not yet received a response to its complaint to the State that the trustees of Princeton Charter School violated the open Public Meetings Act on November 28 when they approved their petition to expand. Mr. Cochrane reiterated, however, “the Board and I believe we have a fiscal and educational responsibility to our students, our staff, and our community to pursue both legal and political solutions.”

Representatives from the District and the Charter School continue to seek opportunities to meet and talk in hopes of finding common ground.