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Letter to the Editor: PIACS Co-Founder Responds to Charter School Debate

Parker Block, a co-founder of the Princeton International Academy Charter School.

Editor's note: Patch recently published a series of articles examining the role of charter schools in well-performing suburban school districts. Parker Block, a co-founder of the Princeton International Academy Charter School (www.piacs.org), sent us the following response:


As the current debate about charter schools in urban and suburban districts unfolds, it is important to recognize that charter schools are intended to be laboratories of innovation that provide, according to the Charter School Program Act, “a mechanism for the implementation of a variety of educational approaches which may not be available in the traditional public school classroom.”

It is common and understandable for school districts to find innovation too difficult to implement in the face of institutional inertia and entrenched parochial interests. In so-called “top performing” suburban school districts, the bureaucratic instinct to defend the status quo is buttressed by data which seemingly justifies intransigence.

Compared to state averages, suburban schools are not under-performing; they are “humming along.” As long as the “local achievement gap” exists, suburban school districts are under no pressure to innovate and improve.

Despite the fact that the most tragic situations in public education capture media attention, business leaders, policy makers, progressive educators and parents are increasingly aware that in the 21st Century, our students are not going to be judged in comparison to local standards, but by international benchmarks.

To that end, New Jersey became one of the lead states in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p21.org), an organization working to infuse 21st Century skills into public K-12. The Partnership was a key resource in the development of New Jersey’s revised Core Curriculum Standards in 2009.

One of the reasons for the increased focus on 21st Century skills, according to the Partnership, is the fact that “for the past decade, the United States has focused nationally on closing achievement gaps between the lowest- and highest-performing students –a legitimate and useful agenda – but one that skirts the competitive demand for advanced skills. Equally important is the global
achievement gap between U.S. students — even our top-performing students — and their international peers in competitor nations."

The comparison to local standards may serve suburban school administrators well, but not suburban students. Nonetheless, those who propose innovative, ambitious programs are often summarily dismissed by local school officials with phrases like “nice to have, but not necessary” or “wait until the economy improves."

President Obama consistently reminds us, however, that continuous innovation, even in times of budget constraints, is necessary if we are to remain economically competitive. Yet, even in Princeton, the president of the school board equates programs that will increase proficiency in math with learning to play bagpipes, and says that fluency in a strategic world language like Mandarin is like learning Gaelic.

This exemplifies the complacency, arrogance and protect-the-status quo mentality which has plagued public education for decades and gave rise to the need for charter schools in the first place.

Critics deride schools such as those offering dual-language immersion programs as “themed, boutique schools,” implying that the scope of the education is somehow limited.

The intent of a charter school is, according to the law, to offer programs which are differentiated from the program already available in the traditional public schools. If these points of differentiation are considered “themes,” then there is no such thing as a “non-themed” charter school.

Some believe that charter schools only serve a small number of private school families who simply want to have their tuition paid by tax dollars. First, in the case of the charter school of which I am a co-founder, three out of four applicants are already attending a public school within the respective school districts.

These are public school parents who simply want forward-thinking programs that better prepare their children to compete in the 21st Century. Second, if the school is successful on a smaller scale, these innovative programs can and should be replicated in traditional schools for the benefit of the larger community.

In her endorsement of high quality charter schools, New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian states that “it is critical that successful schools of all types share their successes so that other students can benefit from the best practices in all of New Jersey's public schools."

Innovative programs always require first-adopters before the larger populace is ready to endorse them. Yet public school officials are reluctant to acknowledge charter school successes out of fear of a domino effect; if one succeeds, there will be others.

This Cold War-era paranoia greatly underestimates the difficulty of getting a charter school authorized and established. If parents in the community don’t believe in the school, it won’t survive.

In smaller municipalities like Princeton, the school districts are the most powerful political force in the community, controlling huge budgets, payrolls, and a bully-pulpit from which the politics of fear can be employed to get initiatives passed or killed.

This is why the charter school law established “a new form of accountability for schools” by providing parents and educators the opportunity to apply directly to the state Department of Education for the authorization to open a charter school.

The same body, which is ultimately responsible for the curriculum standards and public education throughout state, oversees the evaluation and authorization of innovative, high-quality charter schools and holds them accountable to agreed upon targets.

Students in New Jersey who happen to be on the right side of the “local achievement gap” will find themselves on the wrong side of the “global achievement gap” unless the innovation provided by high-quality charters is available throughout the state.

President Obama chastises the complacent official who puts parochial interests ahead of progress: “China is not waiting. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place.” The competition our children will face is not just “humming along.” They are pushing ahead. So should we.

--Parker Block

Charlie Valan May 19, 2011 at 01:56 PM
I think there seems to be a level of confusion over the issue regarding the objection to Charter Schools, so let me try to clairify. No one is going to debate the value of an extended learning pattern being made available. It's the rational for a parents and ultimately a student's decision to select Yale over Harvard, Rider over Rutgers, and maybe even a job over school all together. But the key here is the matter of choice. And with choice becames sacrafice. That sacrafice can be divided in many factors as well either financial or education offering. But the bottom line is it's an individual choice where no one is sacraficing but the person making the choice. And that's called "Private", not "Public". If an individual wants to select an educational pattern for their children, it shouldn't come at the expense of other children not interested in the same opportunity. If a parent wants a child to go down a certain road towards their future, then they should send their child, at their expense, to a private program. Where I grew up, you had Hightstown High School and you had Peddie. Peddie being the private place of innovation and opportunity and parents paid for their children to go there. That's all that's being said here. Have whatever you want to say is innovation. And what is innovation. What you say it is? I think our schools are doing a great job at innovation. Let's stop calling this about innovation. It's about choice. And that's a private decision.
Parker Block May 19, 2011 at 07:07 PM
Additional relevant info: http://www.state.nj.us/education/chartsch/cspa95.htm http://asiasociety.org/education-learning/policy-initiatives/national-initiatives/rep-rush-holt-language-legislation http://www.thelanguageflagship.org/business/what-business-wants https://www.cia.gov/news-information/press-releases-statements/press-release-2010/foreign-language-summit.html http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/competitiveness/nsli/nsli-preliminary-results.pdf http://asiasociety.org/education-learning/world-languages/-american-schools/secretary-arne-duncan-importance-languages http://www.p21.org/documents/21st_century_skills_education_and_competitiveness_guide.pdf http://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2009/final.htm
PublicMoney for PublicSchools May 19, 2011 at 10:26 PM
Charter School Program Act of 1995 18A:36A-2. Findings, declarations relative to establishment of charter schools The Legislature finds and declares that the establishment of charter schools as part of this State's program of public education can assist in promoting comprehensive educational reform by providing a mechanism for the implementation of a variety of educational approaches which may not be available in the traditional public school classroom. Specifically, charter schools offer the potential to improve pupil learning; increase for students and parents the educational choices available when selecting the learning environment which they feel may be the most appropriate; encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods; establish a new form of accountability for schools; require the measurement of learning outcomes; make the school the unit for educational improvement; and establish new professional opportunities for teachers. The Legislature further finds that the establishment of a charter school program is in the best interests of the students of this State and it is therefore the public policy of the State to encourage and facilitate the development of charter schools. L.1995,c.426,s.2. (http://www.nj.gov/education/chartsch/cspa95.htm)
Lisa Rodgers May 20, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Hey Parker --- I just want a vote ...... I don't want you telling me it's what my kids need .... charter schools have a place, we believe in that..... but as an AMERICAN who values the democratic process --- I have a right to a vote...........stop the nonsense already!
Charlie Valan May 20, 2011 at 04:53 PM
LMR.......... Think you have three key points here.......... 1) Stop telling us "what we need"...... 2) Give us a right to vote on what we need since this country was founded on the principle of voting for representation of decisions.......this is like taxation without representation....... 3) Parker, if I was fighting for something that was a "financial benefit for me", I'd probably be throwing the kitchen sink at this too as you are doing. Still have an issue with the "narrow delivery with public dollars". Again, that's what Private Schools are suppose to deliver. NOT PUBLIC!!!!
Kris May 20, 2011 at 05:22 PM
If the charter school communty is so sure about this is what is needed, and wanted, then they too should be amenable to voting for it. I never understand why the few are rewarded over the masses. Let's get the chance to VOTE!!! P
Lisa Rodgers May 20, 2011 at 06:00 PM
Thanks Charlie --- We need everyone to understand -- it is not "us vs. them"... Call your Senator / Assembly person and tell them that you support Senate Bill -2243 that is up for discussion on Monday May 23. Legislation is currently proposed at the New Jersey State Assembly (Assembly bill 3852) and the New Jersey State Senate (Senate bill 2243) that would require approval of any charter schools by general referendum of all townships it serves. If passed it would allow voters a say. The pro-charters will have you believe "it could spell the end of charter schools in New Jersey" -- which is not true
TruthSeeker May 20, 2011 at 10:20 PM
@Parker Block: We can all agree on the need for our schools to continually change and grow.Where we disagree is how this change and growth should be managed. Honestly, I don't see how splitting our resources by creating mini districts that duplicate administrative functions present in public schools is an efficient use of tax dollars. Spending $5 million to educate about 360 students in boutique private-style schools in Princeton while core courses at Princeton High School are overcrowded due to staff cuts caused by lost state aid just doesn't make sense to me. I've observed suburban charters for the past eight years and here is what I've learned: charters don't share innovations because they're not particularly innovative; they don't outperform regular schools; they don't seem to play a key role (or any role) in boosting the overall achievement in a district; and they don't share anywhere near majority support in towns that have good schools that continue to get better. Even Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who in a previous career ran his own charter school company, has acknowledged that "boutique" (his word) charters might not be necessary in suburban districts that are "humming along." Is there a public school district "humming along" better than Princeton's? Does Mr. Block think that students at Princeton High School students should be taught in overcrowded classroom so a few kindergarteners can have a Mandarin-immersion experience. Don't the PHS kids matter, too?
TruthSeeker May 20, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Mr. Block has spent a lot of energy spreading his message in online forums throughout the state, only to have each of his points disputed in towns where citizens are more interested in maintaining and improving the quality of their already-great schools through local control than creating small, unaccountable school districts that will educate a few students while duplicating service . He has gone so far as to criticize another charter parent who is pushing for transparency and local control, accusing her of "crucifying other parents." You can read one such exchange here: http://bit.ly/joLOmG In his single-minded pursuit of a private-style education at taxpayer expense, he conveniently ignores facts, shifts arguments and continues to cite "policymakers and business leaders" instead of educators. He distorts the record of the existing charter school in Princeton, even though a comparison of similar groups of students shows no difference in achievement. http://bit.ly/ldPKDH He insists that Princeton schools were somehow substandard before the existing charter opened, when a pre- and post-charter examination of SATs scores at Princeton High School shows his claim has no validity. http://nyti.ms/mEFHKv Through his attacks, his reluctance to acknowledge facts and his refusal to answer one simple question — Why not have voters decide if charters are needed in districts with good schools? — he has continued to lack credibility.
TruthSeeker May 20, 2011 at 10:21 PM
If Mr. Block's attitude is indicative of those of other suburban charter supporters, it's no wonder people in towns such as Princeton, West Windsor, Millburn, Livingston and South Orange are up in arms over what they rightly perceive as a threat to their fine public schools. A fundamental belief of suburban charter supporters is this notion that the public schools in towns such as these are somehow broken beyond repair because they don't offer the precise speciality the charter supporters desire. Instead of working within the system to make a case for their area of interest, they just end-run the whole process and start their own school at taxpayer expense and to the detriment of the schools they chastise. Those who have children in charter schools and support transparency and local control are considered traitors; those in the public school community who question this use of taxpayer dollars are branded as hopelessly out of touch or resistant to change. Neither of these is true. All we're asking for is a vote.
CH May 21, 2011 at 03:41 AM
I would love for Mr. Block to explain how teaching Mandarin in K -2 is such a unique forwarding thinking idea that is worthy of a Charter School. There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Based on these facts and Mr Block's thinking shouldn't we rush to start at least, 4,500 charters to be forward thinking and shoot to be #1? Dear god we are behind, we need to rush these charters through before we become a 3rd world nation! I am not totally opposed to charter schools, in fact I believe that there are teaching methods that I feel are worthy of charters. I just feel that the charters and the school creation should be handle and voted upon in a democratic fashion. We currently have a system where "weak or non value added themes" are given charters and tax payer money used to create a school without a vote. If the idea or "theme" upon which the charter is granted is a good one, then why would that charter school be fearful of letting the town vote on it?
TruthSeeker May 21, 2011 at 02:40 PM
@PublicMoney for PublicSchools: Here is testimony about the start of the charter movement by education historian Diane Ravitch: "Charter schools were first envisioned in 1988 by two men who didn’t know one another. Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had the idea, as did Professor Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts. Both of them thought that public school teachers could get permission from local authorities to open a small experimental school and then focus on the neediest students. The school would recruit students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out. It would seek new ways to motivate the most challenging students and bring whatever lessons they learned back to public schools, to make them better able to educate these youngsters. The original vision of charter schools was that they would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them. By 1993, Shanker turned against his own idea. He concluded that charter schools had turned into a form of privatization that was not materially different from vouchers. From then until his death in 1996, he lumped vouchers and charters together as a threat to public education and a distraction from real school reform."
TruthSeeker May 21, 2011 at 02:45 PM
@PublicMoney for PublicSchools: It's worth noting, too, that Ms. Ravitch, when undersecretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration, championed the idea of charters. Now, she sees them as an impediment to real reform. So the guy who had the idea and a foremost authority on education both changed their minds about charters. This is true for many people who really take the time to study charters, particularly in suburban districts. What looks at first like a good idea upon closer inspection turns out to be a bad idea. Perhaps this is why suburban charter reformers don't want people to examine this issue in, say, the run-up to a referendum on the question.
morrigan May 22, 2011 at 07:13 PM
I wish there was a 'thumbs up' button on these discussions! Thumbs up especially to Charlie and Truth Seeker. EVERYONE -- parents, educators, boards of education and students old enough to take in adult fare -- should read Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System -- the one Truth Seeker quotes. Excellent public schools provide the foundation for American democracy. There are corporate and political entities out there who want the short-term benefits of a populace that is less educated and easier to control. And they see education as a fertile, untapped source of profit.
morrigan May 22, 2011 at 07:27 PM
Like others here, I believe that parents who want a specialized school for their children have every right to send them to a private school that provides that experience. Taxpayer money needs to remain with public schools only -- to maintain and continue to improve an American institution that exists to serve us all. “for the past decade, the United States has focused nationally on closing achievement gaps between the lowest- and highest-performing students –a legitimate and useful agenda – but one that skirts the competitive demand for advanced skills. Equally important is the global achievement gap between U.S. students — even our top-performing students — and their international peers in competitor nations." I need to add that for the past decade, No Child Left Behind has caused great harm to American public schools in general. Congress should repeal Bush's version of NCLB and revise the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to reflect 21st century concerns. Schools, administrators and teachers need autonomy to respond directly to the needs of their communities and the freedom to innovate without having to jump through a gazillion hoops. Perhaps ALL public schools should 'go charter' so they too can take advantage of the flexibility that is offered to charter schools!
unc12345 May 23, 2011 at 12:26 PM
How many country using Mandarin from member of united nation or on earth?
TruthSeeker May 23, 2011 at 01:01 PM
@unc12345: I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here.
unc12345 May 23, 2011 at 01:35 PM
Because I like like to know how important and how internationally recognize Mandarin is I like to compare with other language option.
TruthSeeker May 23, 2011 at 01:55 PM
@unc12345: No one here is doubting the importance of teaching world languages and I'm not debating the merits of Mandarin over other languages. Most of the opposition to this charter is about allocation of tax dollars and local control: whether we want tax money to be spent for the benefit of a few students at the expense of the many. Is it fair for our children to be in overcrowded classrooms for history, math and science in high school so a few students can have a private-school experience studying Mandarin?
unc12345 May 23, 2011 at 02:32 PM
Could be Mandarin charter school is correct way to go if many country using Mandarin. So, How many country using Mandarin from member of united nation or on earth where we live?
TruthSeeker May 23, 2011 at 08:33 PM
Good news, South Brunswick: The Assembly Education Committee just approved A2805, which would require a public vote of approval prior to the establishment of a new charter school. http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/A3000/2805_I1.HTM
Plainsboro Parent May 23, 2011 at 08:58 PM
@TruthSeeker, Yes that does seem like good news for new charter schools. But are we stuck with PIACS because they were already granted a charter? Maybe we will get lucky and they will fail the zoning meeting, won't get their CofO prior to June 30 and will have to reapply for the Charter? Fingers crossed.
Lisa Rodgers May 24, 2011 at 03:49 PM
Let me see if I can help here re: unc12345: Based on a study by author George Weber, the piece is called "Top Languages" The World's Ten Most Influential Languages". He looks at various areas, including top language spoken in most countries, top language by population, etc. Chinese is a very influential language, no doubt about it, but is it more so than English? Clearly not. The number of speakers is relevant but quite insufficient for a meaningful ranking of languages in order of current world-wide influence, the stress being on the word "world-wide". There are many other factors to be taken into account and this is what George Weber attempts to do. So lets look at some of the results: He created a formula to calculate the importance of each language and some of the findings include: Chinese is the number one language spoken in terms of POPULATION and as we know China has the greatest population. However when you look at the language spoken in most countries the ranking is English -1st French -2nd, Spanish - 3rd... Mandarin Chinese comes in 6th. In terms of the most influential language it is English, French, Spanish 1-3. Again Mandarin Chinese comes in 7th. Next: Secondary speakers- people who speak one or more languages in addition to their first (home, mother or primary) language. The more secondary speakers a language has, the wider its influence in the world tends to be..First is French, Second is English and Third is Russian! Chinese is 7th. Continued below:
Lisa Rodgers May 24, 2011 at 03:49 PM
English is the most obvious example of a language on the way up. It has survived the fall of the British Empire without even slowing down, it has now gone beyond being the language of the world's only remaining superpower (which in the long run would be a liability), becoming the first truly world-wide lingua franca. International English has become independent of any one English-speaking country, even the USA. A Korean manufacturer in an Athens hotel meeting the Brazilian buyer of a Swiss conglomerate will not only negotiate but order dinner from his room service in English. There may not be a single native English speaker in the hotel, but all non-locals staying there communicate with each other in English - as a matter of course. From, a certain level upwards, in business, sport, politics, science and many other fields, a knowledge of English has become not a matter of prestige but of necessity. Also: the level at which this occurs is moving ever downwards. In science and technology the grip of English is complete. With growing computer sophistication it is becoming easier to put even the most awkward languages and script on screen but that does not alter the big picture. The Chinese trader, scientist, manufacturer who wants to talk to his foreign contacts is not helped much by even the most carefully presented Chinese characters on his screen. He has to tell his non-Chinese customer in English. continued:
Lisa Rodgers May 24, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Chinese is a language whose speakers are noticeably disinterested in spreading its use outside their own people. Although Chinese is not really one but several languages held together by a common script, we shall disregard such finer distinctions here and call all these Chinese languages (usually and misleadingly called dialects) Chinese. It is a tenet of the language business that in order to penetrate a market you have to know its language. This may apply to most markets but China is different. Like any other people, the Chinese appreciate it if a foreigner makes the effort to learn their language, but they do not appreciate it if the foreigner succeeds. To tell the Chinese that their language is fiendlishly difficult and practically impossible to learn, cheers up their whole day. Everybody may feel proud to have mastered something that is too complex for most others. The Chinese have elevated this feeling into a national art form. A foreigner who speaks or (worse still) writes excellent Chinese is regarded with grave suspicion. Foreign visitors to China, diplomats as well as businessmen, have been known to pretend to a far lower knowledge of the language than they actually possessed. Not unlike the Japanese, the Chinese prefer to deal with foreigners in English. continued:
Lisa Rodgers May 24, 2011 at 03:53 PM
All this information is located in George Weber's piece : You can find the whole thing at http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/reprints/weber/rep-weber.htm So the way I see it, is that any company worth their weight in gold, will spin data to meet their marketing needs...which by now we all know that happens.... However, when it comes to education... there should be no “spin”...and any parent that transfers their child to another school, charter, public or private should do research about the school and the values, morals and character that is involved. I for one favor having children learn a secondary language...I think it makes perfect sense, however we need to look at how they all can benefit, not just a select few.
Plainsboro Parent May 24, 2011 at 05:30 PM
LMR, Nice one. Thanks. I often use this link to wikipedia whenever the defense that we should all be learning Mandarin comes up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most-widely_spoken_languages_(by_number_of_countries) But of course there are also a number of 21st Century links that will be cited to defend the need to learn Mandarin. Everyone's got a link when they need it.
TruthSeeker May 24, 2011 at 05:40 PM
@LMR and Plainsboro Parent: It's also worth noting that making curriculum decisions based on the vagaries of the world economy might not be in the best pedagogical interest of students. I remember the late '70s and early '80s, when we were told that our children would have to learn Japanese in order to compete in a global economy.
Emily May 26, 2011 at 02:37 AM
I don't think learning languages will be so important in the future, since there are digital translators now (like the ones for the ipod touch) and we will probably just use that in the future instead of learning languages. by the way only 2 country use Mandarin(China and Taiwan) Hong Kong people use Cantonese, actually Taiwan people use Taiwanese more daily base.
Plainsboro Parent May 26, 2011 at 03:27 PM
@TruthSeeker. I agree that the arguement for a school based on China's economic potential seems weak.

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