The first part of the district’s plan for handling charter schools—gathering information—brought three parents from the Princeton School District to last night’s Board of Education meeting.
Princeton Board of Education Members Andrea Spalla and Dorothy Bedford and Save Our Schools member Julia Sass Rubin attended last night’s board meeting, to share their experiences with the charter school in their district.
“The charter school threat to Hillsborough is imminent in that we’ve been advised that there are two charter schools heading our way for which we will have to give up a substantial part of our budget without any accountability and any idea of the types of programs they’ll be offering,” Judy Haas, who invited the women to speak at the meeting, said.
Haas met the women after a meeting with the 16th district’s representatives and concerned districts last week, she said.
According to the Princeton residents, the schools present multiple problems, from splitting the community to cost problems.
“It really fragments communities,” Spalla said. “We talk a lot about consolidation, sharing services and cost responsibilities. Charter schools . . .are contrary to that. They are less cost effective overall. . .They essentially create a district-within-a-district and that district draws money from the public school district.”
“But there is no accountability for how that is spent,” she added. “There is no accountability to the community, to the taxpayers or to the board of ed.”
Princeton’s charter school began in 1995, with about 200 students and a bill of about a quarter of a million dollars, and prior to tax levy caps Spalla said. By 2010-2011, the payment ballooned to 4.5 million dollars for an enrollment of 340 students in grades kindergarten through eight, according to Spalla. Meanwhile, the regular public schools serve 3,500 students in grades kindergarten through 12.
“It might not look like a terribly burdensome obligation for your district the first year, but you have to look at it ten years down the road,” Spalla said. “If your per-pupil costs continue to grow at a rate around 2 percent, that charter school obligation is also going to grow. And it’s going to increase with the students enrolled in that charter school.”
In addition, Spalla noted that charter school obligations remain static, even when a district’s budget gets voted down—meaning the district will have to pay the same tuition regardless of whether voters approve local school costs.
“The funding structure is fundamentally unfair,” Spalla said. “When you think about it’s there’s 4.5 million dollars being taken off of the Princeton Public Schools budget to educate 340 students.”
Spalla noted that the students educated in the charter school do not reflect the demographics seen in Princeton’s public schools. Instead, the school does not have as many economically disadvantaged students, Special Needs students, and students with limited English skills.
“They’re a much less expensive group to educate,” Spalla said. “ . . .At some point enrollment increases and your budget growth constraints tighten to the point where you are actually cutting programs and staff in order to maintain your charter school payment obligation. We’ve actually reached that point and are past that point.”
Since charter schools are funded at a particular percentage of a district’s per-pupil costs, districts with higher costs because of in-house education services may end up paying more in tuition—though the charter schools may not serve the students receiving those services, Bedford said. In Princeton, many of the district’s Special Education services are handled in-house, contributing to its per-pupil costs, though its charter school does not handle the same number of Special Education students.
“Our charter school is able to get 90 percent of those dollars even though they are not educating those kinds of students in that school,” Bedford said. “I was a charter school parent for two years; I have a hearing-impaired daughter. We had to bring her back to the regional schools because the charter school was just not prepared to address her physical disability.”
For Save Our Schools, the mission is to give communities a say in whether a charter school can open nearby, and to increase local control Sass Rubin said. She cited the Princeton Academy Charter School, a Mandarin-immersion school drawing from West-Windsor Plainsboro, Princeton and South Brunswick, as an example of a school facing vocal community opposition.
“The way that the current law works is that communities that do not have any control over whether a charter school can open in their community,” Sass Rubin, whose daughter attends Princeton Charter School, said. “It’s caused a lot of anger and hostility and tensions across the state.”