Segregating Suburbia: A Princeton Story

Others around me have for some time been raising concerns about the emergence of boutique, suburban charter schools. Until now, I’ve largely blown off those concerns in part as I’ve questioned just how much sorting a charter school can achieve in a relatively homogeneous suburban area.

Suburbs have their own unique portfolio of schools.  One might find in any leafy suburb near a major metropolitan area a very fine local public school district, perhaps a private catholic school in certain regions of the country and in many areas, an elite private independent day school or two – oft named “day school” or “country day school.” These portfolios have been in existence, in some cases, for centuries.  At some future point, I may discuss more extensively the public private balance issue and the role that elite, and less so, private schools play when embedded in otherwise elite communities that also have relatively elite public school systems.

Rarely would one expect to find the charter school movement trying to infiltrate this environment, adding that other element to the portfolio. And if and when this does happen, what niche do they try to fill? On the one hand, one might try to establish a charter that handles the “difficult” cases from the local school system – those that might not fit particularly well in either the public system or have access to appropriate private schooling.

But, I’m reminded… though I can’t find the link right now… of a Palo Alto, CA charter school that had basically established itself as the equivalent of a publicly subsidized elite private school. [Found! By a commenter below] It’s a rather clever financial model. If elite private school tuition is running at about $30k per year per child…and per pupil cost of a quality private education program about $32 to $35k… one could either pay that price, or gather a group of close friends, and apply for a charter, where each child might receive an allotment of $10 to $15k from the local district and then parents could quietly agree to chip in the other $15k to achieve similar quality schooling to  the private option – at half the price.

Of course, there are many additional costs of getting that ball rolling, including finding and leasing space for start up years, and running capital fundraising campaigns for future years. By establishing a charter school in this way, these parents really couldn’t officially exclude others from their school or obligate private contributions within their “club”… but they sure could make any free-rider, or other resource drain on their schooling model feel uncomfortable enough to leave.

On the one hand, it might not be considered that problematic for a group of parents with “average children” in the local district to require (via establishing a charter school) that district to subsidize their quasi-private endeavor.  I would argue that it becomes more problematic when an above average income group in the community, with relatively low need children (by usual classifications), obligates the local public school district to subsidize their segregationist preferences. That is, asking those less well off than you to subsidize your quasi-private school alternative.

But, just how much sorting can a suburban charter school achieve anyway? And can a suburban charter school establish itself as a quasi-elite-private school in a market  where there are already several private schooling options. That is, would parents of advantaged children actually seek to establish a school that taxes those less well off than them, to subsidize their charter school, instead of paying the full price of tuition at local private schools?  Evidence from Princeton, New Jersey suggests that the answer to this question may in fact be yes!

Let’s take a look.

Here’s the lay of the land… from the broad viewpoint… with district housing values in the brown shading.

Princeton GlobalPrinceton is the dark area in the middle of the picture, with very high average housing values. Princeton also is home to numerous… and I mean numerous private independent day and boarding schools, many of which (along a single road) serve a large portion of school aged children from Princeton and surrounding communities and many of which have been around for a very long time. Princeton is also known for having and exceptionally strong local public district. To the south and west is Trenton, with high poverty schools including high poverty charter schools (yellow stars). Notably, in Princeton the lowest poverty “public” school is Princeton Charter School. Princeton Public Schools each have much higher rates of children qualified for free or reduced priced lunch.

Here’s a zoom in on Princeton:

Princeton ZoomWhile many of the triangles (private schools) in other parts of the state are preschools, etc., many in  Princeton are actually relatively large elite private day and boarding schools.  Rather amazingly, Princeton Charter School appears – at least by exclusion of low income children – to be positioning itself as a publicly subsidized alternative to the elite private schools and not as a more broadly accessible charter alternative.

Here’s a breakout of the details on the Princeton Charter population compared to the district:


And here’s the composition of the special education populations:


That is, PCS has only the mildest, lowest cost children with disabilities.

Put bluntly, these figures show that the parent population of Princeton Charter is obligating the parents of much less advantaged children, including parents of children with special education needs, subsidize their preference to have a school more like the private day schools along Great Road.

While I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this… it does concern me.

It also ought to raise questions for leaders of private school alternatives in these communities. On balance, I’ve never seen the charter school movement as a particular competitive threat to private independent day schools, as charters have often been primarily urban, serving minority populations and employing “no excuses” strategies that most parents in leafy suburbs would not find palatable for their own children.

Urban charter schools have arguably taken their toll on urban catholic school enrollments, but that’s another story.  But, to the extent that state charter policies permit the type of school establishment and segregation going on in Princeton, more an more parents may find ways to organize quasi-private-elite schools to serve their needs – effectively seeking taxpayer charity to support their country club preferences. This indeed may pose a threat to financially less well endowed private schools.

In a twisted sort of way, it’s rather like asking your local public parks department to pay for your membership to the local private country club – thus reducing the quality of services to others who really don’t have access to the country club (even if it proclaims it’s open to all comers).

Much more to ponder here… but the numbers on Princeton Charter School certainly raise some serious red flags.

Note: In New Jersey and elsewhere, there are numerous other taxpayer subsidies that support private schooling, ranging from property tax exemptions and exemptions on charitable gifts, to textbook subsidies (loans from local districts) and transportation reimbursements. So, to an extent, all private schools and privately schooled children are receiving some level of subsidy at taxpayer expense. But, that level increases dramatically if/when the local public district is also required to hand over the full annual operating expense per child.


16 thoughts on “Segregating Suburbia: A Princeton Story

  1. Not only would East Brunswick be a great district for you to look at for another comparison of student populations between a boutique charter (Hatikvah) and its host district, but it also speaks to your point about the impact on private schools. It does seem that the opening of Hatikvah led to the closing of a blue-ribbon day school in town.

    “Kamens blamed the school’s closing on a “perfect storm” of factors, including demographics, a poor economy causing more students to ask for tuition assistance as fund-raising efforts faltered, and competition from other day schools and the Hatikvah International Academy Hebrew-language charter school in East Brunswick.” Source:

    1. Indeed Hatikvah and other Hebrew schools have been on my radar for some time… with somewhat different emphasis – the religious separation issue… and indeed their threat to similar religious private schools. I think it’s actually easier to create that feeling of compulsory giving – tithing so to speak – within a close religious community… and thus combine the public subsidy with the private tithing to have substantial resource base. The Lakewood Yeshiva’s, while private not charter, have already figured out through control of the local board of ed to tap every possible private school subsidy – especially transportation – draining the public district of resources.

  2. “……. would parents of advantaged children actually seek to establish a school that taxes those less well off than them, to subsidize their charter school, instead of paying the full price of tuition at local private schools? ”
    Yes, because there’s no free market evolved choice (snark) here, only the corrupt cronyism of Gresham’s dynamic at it’s finest. This is just a way of pushing the mentality/methodology of creating wealth inequality further down the income scale and making it available as an option to the common man.
    Also, the suburban charter model you describe has a lot in common with the externalization of costs as done by the fast food industry and Walmart and others. In those cases it’s their workers who must seek additional financial supports just to get by, in the suburban charter model that’s flipped around by parents adding their fund raising to the public contribution and getting a charter school that one would assume is unburdened by the reformist bureaucracy afflicting public schools.
    By Jove Bruce, I think you’ve stumbled onto their game plan!

    1. Certainly the incentive exists… and I had previously pondered submitting a sarcastic charter proposal in my own district laying out this game plan in great detail. It’s no surprise – it’s a pretty straightforward model. But it takes a real cast of self indulgent characters to actually pull this off – to decide they are willing to forcibly obligate the charity of those less well off than them – to subsidize their segregationist preferences.

  3. I am a Princeton resident with children in the public school system. The fact that PCS receives average per capita district spending for each of their enrollees has always made me, well frankly, furious. As your piece shows, they do not educate the average student, so they really are taking more than their fair share. Add to this the fact that many of their 8th grade graduates (I’m not sure of the percentage – that would be interesting to know) go on to a private high school and you get the distinct impression, as your piece contends, that this is a tax payer subsidized private school.

    1. That’s actually a piece of information I’d love to find – matriculation to private high schools. It had come to mind that this is a possible way to save on K-8 private schooling costs so as to improve chances of admission to elite private high schools – which are plentiful in Princeton. In NYC, there’s actually a bit of a reverse approach parents use – paying the price for elite private K-12 schooling in order to be better positioned for admission to elite public high schools. It certainly strikes me that at least one of their goals is to increase likelihood of admission to private high schools. This also explains why their middle school athletics schedules mostly include area private independent schools (Hun, PDS, Princeton Academy, etc.). It’s about exposure for their kids.

      1. The Charter School in that link is actually in Los Altos (next to Palo Alto), and it’s worse than you think, because under California law the district is legally obligated to provide facilities to the charter school as well as per student funding, so the wealthy parents get to avoid the capital campaign altogether and potentially force the closure of an existing district school, no matter how high-performing it might be.

  4. I’m pretty sure you could find plenty of examples of this in Arizona. Elite charter schools exist in most suburban areas where there are also expensive private school options. It’s well-known among affluent and educated parents that you can essentially get a private school education for your child in these suburban charters if you can figure out how to win the entrance game. Not sure if there is a trail to suggest parents are starting their own schools, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Families often open charters to give their own kids a better choice. This is how BASIS charter schools started, though, they began in an urban area in Tucson. Now BASIS charters are popping up like mushrooms in the suburbs in Tucson and the Phoenix metro area. In my Phoenix suburb, the newest BASIS campus now tempts parents whose kids already attend the local elite charters, the parents whose kids would normally attend private schools, and of course the neighboring middle school and high school which many affluent parents fear are on a downward spiral as far as demographics go. We also have open enrollment in Arizona which means our suburban schools on the borders tend to serve children from other areas including less privileged areas. This increases the levels of segregation between elite charters and district schools which serve many more kids with disabilities. Hope you will continue research into this topic!

  5. Why couldn’t the amount of money allocated to a student who is attending a charter school reflect the marginal cost as opposed to the higher average cost? Also why couldn’t you means test the amount received based on the family income?

  6. “In a twisted sort of way, it’s rather like asking your local public parks department to pay for your membership to the local private country club”

    So what we have now is a system of exclusive parks, that are only open to those who live nearby. These parks do not have fences, but if you get caught using them you could go to jail. Some areas are opening more exclusive gated parks with the best park rangers and the most beautiful facilities, but they only allow in only the best of the best and deny admittance to most of its own residents (i.e., magnet schools).

    Of course everyone in the state helps to pay and maintain those parks and highly exclusive gated parks.

    Charters are parks that anyone can use. Period.

  7. To be fair, Bullis Charter School (BCS), which operates in the Los Altos School District (LASD), was formed in response to their neighborhood school being closed over their strenuous objections, not because they wanted a publicly funded private school. That came later when they figured out they could get their cake at half price, and have, as well, taxpayers pay for the facilities they think they deserve. To that end, Bullis has waged a ten year war in the courts to get the LASD Board to provide them with facilities.

    But not any old facility will do; they need their own campus. The irony is that Bullis wants LASD to … wait for it … close a neighborhood school so they can take it over completely. Little thought is given to the 600 or so students they would displace. (Bullis parents have a sense of entitlement that is quite out of the ordinary.) And Bullis is unwilling to avail themselves of state funds that have enabled other charter schools to build their own campus. Bullis is intent on inflicting on LASD what was inflicted on them.

    California law requires school districts to allocate facilities to charter school students which are “substantially equivalent” to those enjoyed by regular school district students. Bullis maintains that nothing short of their own campus qualifies as “substantially equivalent”, but fortunately, the law does not require a separate campus. That hasn’t stopped Bullis from suing LASD about 10 times. The courts generally have not been sympathetic to their cries of “It’s unfair!” and it costs LASD about $2M per year to defend itself.

    Now, Bullis’s quest might well have been morally defensible if they served an under-served population (they do not), if they accepted all English language learners, low income and special needs students who applied, or at least accepted them in the same proportion as their surrounding district (they do not), if they didn’t “counsel out” English language learners, low income and special needs students (they do), if they didn’t effectively make it a requirement to “voluntarily donate” $5000 per child per year to the school (they did, until they started taking major flak), and if they didn’t engage in PR stunts whose only real purpose is to make the LASD look bad (they do).

    Three years ago I was essentially neutral in the BCS/LASD dispute and felt that both parties should negotiate a solution in good faith. The parties did hold secret mediation sessions where a tentative agreement was hammered out. But when the tentative agreement was made public, LASD parents completely rejected it. All options ended up with BCS taking over a neighborhood school.

    I now think of Bullis as a metastasizing cancer on the LASD body politic which needs to be extirpated immediately. Because they are a charter school, they’ve been able to wrap themselves in the school reform movement, and they have skillfully used the California Charter School Association to further their agenda. (Their lawsuits are done for the good of all California charter schools, for instance.)

    But, don’t be fooled: The last thing Bullis wants is to become a charter school serving underprivileged kids. Yuck! Imagine having to hobnob with folks who are only in the top 10% income bracket. I mean, those people don’t even have their own private jet! and have to travel packed like cattle in Economy class. Ick!

    Unfortunately, Bullis has very deep pockets: Ken Moore, a founder of BCS and currently Chair of the BCS Board of Directors, is the son of Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. The Moore family’s foundation has assets of over $5B.

    So here we are, Year Ten, and BCS has just filed another lawsuit.

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