Are we asking the right questions about public schools? On March 14, ‘Prince’ contributing columnist Sarah Dinovelli ’18 published an op-ed regarding Princeton Public Schools’ budget. In light of this piece, I want to engage in dialogue about the broader themes of public education and Princeton schools in particular.

Dinovelli criticizes initiatives such as additional funding for a psychology intern and an elementary-school gardening program. Criticism of these fund allocations for not “greatly impact[ing] students’ learning” is imprudent in its attempt to narrowly define education.

First, even in a high-achieving area like Mercer County, N.J., students in K-12 schools face extreme academic pressure. This has garnered national media attention, with extreme examples of students as young as 10 years old worrying about having “nothing to put on [their] résumés.” Funding for psychology interns in K-12 schools provides counseling to students and supports their mental well-being. We at the University can attest to the dire need for more counseling services, given the perennial push for expansion of Counseling and Psychological Services funding and counselors.

In addition, hands-on learning programs like school gardens improve student learning outcomes and creativity. Children who have access to free play in school experience cognitive, social, and physical benefits. Just as well, these programs provide a respite from high-stakes testing instruction and academic stress. One study by Kontra et al. (2015) at the University of Chicago and DePaul University showed that hands-on learning experiences improved students’ grasps of concepts in physics. I have worked in the School District of Philadelphia myself, liaising with school principals and teachers and teaching after-school programs in a smaller role, I have seen the importance of less-structured play to students’ learning and mental wellness.

Second, Dinovelli’s criticism of the Princeton School Board’s budget stems from a proposed deficit of 0.4 percent ($400,000 out of $95 million). By combining this issue with references to teachers’ unions and the proposed Princeton Charter School expansion, which will cost the Princeton Public Schools $1.16 million annually, Dinovelli attempts to imply fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the Princeton School Board on par with the magnitude of these issues. This is not a compelling argument. The spending issue in question amounts to a tiny fraction of the overall school budget; reducing this spending would not affect teachers’ contracts, nor would it ease the burden of charter school expansion.

That said, we should consider the broader issue of Princeton’s raising taxes and potentially pricing out lower-income families. Given the township’s above-average median income (estimated at $114,645 according to the United States Census Bureau), and the municipality’s current lawsuit against increasing its “fair share” affordable housing obligations, the lack of access to excellent schools like Princeton’s replicates economic inequalities on a greater scale. And based on the recent national attention paid to the University’s need for greater socioeconomic diversity in the student body, we should also be talking about the significance of ensuring quality education for all students.

Nevertheless, Dinovelli’s original concern with Princeton Public Schools is not about economic inequality or access to education, but rather programs she deems “superfluous.” Arguing that “the children of Princeton can survive without learning how to grow carrots” in the name of “efficiency” underestimates the strength of the educational resources that attract families and students to Princeton. Having interviewed dozens of students from Princeton-area high schools, I have seen the positive impact of highly well-resourced schools that invest in students’ personal and academic growth.

Public education is a public good. It requires community investment and good faith by taxpayers. Princeton-area families move here specifically so that their children can attend nationally-ranked public schools, just as many of our parents did for us, if they had the choice and finances to do so. Denouncing the Princeton School Board for spending on psychology interns and innovative programs attempts to force education into a box, limited by narrow ideas on what educational goals should be. We came to Princeton to receive a liberal education. Should we begrudge Princeton K-12 students the same opportunities?

Vivian Chang is a second-year Master in Public Affairs student in the Wilson School from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at vivianc@princeton.edu.

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