Princeton Charter School expansion: the battle continues

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graphic by Avery Hom

In the coming weeks the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Kimberley Harrington, is slated to make a decision about the Princeton Charter School expansion. Despite the conflict beginning in December, the legal battle persists between the Princeton Public Schools and Princeton Charter School Boards.

There is no set date for the announcement of Harrington’s decision— based on previous district lawsuits estimates suggest sometime in late February or early March. The PCS expansion is not Harrington’s only proposal to consider as Harrington has more than twenty other decisions to make as charter schools statewide anticipate a 2018 administration with more anti-charter policies.

If approved, the expansion proposal would allow PCS to add 76 students to its current 348, primarily by adding an extra class from grades K–2. To increase the number of students with special needs, those in underrepresented minorities, and economically disadvantaged students, the PCS Board also plans to implement a weighted lottery.

According to PCS headmaster Larry Patton, the proposed lottery to double-weight certain minority and English Language Learner students would allow PCS to become more diverse. The expansion proposal includes a request to amend the PCS charter so that the weighted lottery is allowed.

Chiefly, PCS argues that extra seats and the weighted lottery will allow it to diversify, while also accepting overflow K–2 students as the Merwick-Stanworth and AvalonBay housing projects are completed. PPS in response has stated that PCS’s homogeneity should not be rewarded and the expansion will not help with rising enrollment.

Despite PPS resistance to the weighted lottery, some PCS students feel that a more diverse student body would be an asset to the school.

 “I believe every school benefits from having a diverse population of students. Any initiatives to promote diversity should be encouraged, and their success can be evaluated over time,” wrote Orie Bolitho, a current PCS student, in an email.

Additionally, PPS contests the capabilities of the expansion method and draws attention to the existing “sibling preference” program, which routinely fills 10-12 kindergarten seats, leaving less than eight spots to be selected by random lottery. Patton does not foresee eliminating this practice.

“If we have more economic diversity then sibling preference helps because it works for everybody. The problem is you have to have people in the school to begin with—and so if we can get a toehold of students who are economically disadvantaged here, then their siblings will come when they come in … I am reluctant to get rid of the sibling preference because it’s just rough to have a family not have the same educational experience for both children,” said Patton.

According to the PPS BOE’s statement released on January 30, the BOE does not feel the expansion will address the issue of a growing student body.

“The proposed expansion may actually serve to compound the issues associated with growing enrollment,” said the Board.

The PPS Board has stated the proposed expansion will siphon nearly $1.2 million per year from the PPS budget, meaning that nearly the entire 2% tax that PPS can levy to fulfill budget increases will be put towards paying for PCS—a total equivalent to the PPS athletic program or performing arts program. PCS says these claims are overdramatized and highlights the need for distinction between budget devastation and inability to reach goals.

According to Board President Patrick Sullivan, the majority of cuts will come from the PHS budget, where the vast majority of PCS students matriculate. However, the BOE has not yet decided exactly where the cuts in PHS would come from should the expansion be approved, instead preferring to concentrate efforts to fighting the expansion proposal.

Resistance to the proposal has been shown on the community and state level. At a January 23 meeting, the Princeton Town Council passed a resolution urging Harrington to reject the proposal. The following day Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, sent Harrington a letter with a similar message.

Mayor Liz Lempert, who presides over Town Council, separately criticized the proposal. The Princeton Town Council, Zwicker, and Lempert cited financial difficulty for the PPS district if the expansion is to become a reality, a primary reason PPS has been urging Harrington to reject the proposal.

graphics by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Avery/" title="View all of this person's work">"Avery</a></span>

graphic by Avery Hom

Keep PPS Strong, a parent-led movement, began organizing with the goal of keeping district parents informed on expansion-related news and ways to fight the proposal. Since then, the group has collected 3,473 signatures on a petition opposing the expansion and has urged parents to call, send letters, and email Harrington.  

PPS parents have attended public meetings, forums about the expansion’s harms, and a January press conference in Trenton opposing the expansion. Keep PPS Strong has been mobilizing parents to hand out flyers throughout locations in downtown Princeton.

Sullivan claims that the expansion would actually hinder ongoing educational innovations and improvements already happening.

“[The PCS expansion] would actually reduce -even eliminate- the creation of an early literacy center for parents of very young children, the establishment of an Equity Fund, and the creation of a Diversity Council comprised of teachers, administrators, older students, and community resource providers.”

PCS has also been gaining support for the expansion. PCS has invited all families to send letters to Harrington, citing that 280 have been sent, compared to only 240 families at PPS.

Despite some charter families in support of the expansion, not all members of PCS are in favor of the expansion.

“I believe the expansion will come to inevitably hurt PCS.  [The expansion] may enable PCS to have their charter declined instead of reunited, and that I am utterly against. If Princeton Charter School is successful with the expansion, it will have won the battle, while making the war with other Princeton Public Schools, much worse,” wrote Katherine Martin, a current PCS student, in an email.

PCS has pointed out that its high test scores and school ranking highlight the educational benefits of the school new students would receive and therefore the need for expansion.

In a board statement made on January 30, PPS claims that the reason for high academic achievement is due to its lack of variety within the student body.

“Performance data from PCS is skewed by the school’s lack of diversity. PCS should not be rewarded for its segregation with a $1.2 million annual windfall at the expense of the Princeton community and its children,” the BOE said.

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