I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Ten Years of Jersey Jazzman

I'll keep this short, I promise...

Ten years ago, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the nonsense I kept reading and hearing about schools, teaching, and public finance.

Here in New Jersey, a newly elected Republican governor began what was to become an eight year war against my profession, the union that represented me, and public education in general. This governor had run on an explicit promise he made to the state's teachers: "I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor."

That, of course, turned out to be the first in a string of betrayals against public workers -- and, specifically, teachers -- by Chris Christie, a governor who would go on to become, at the end of his term, the least popular in America.

Ten years ago, Christie was just beginning his crusade against those of us who chose to pursue a career that would never make us rich, but would at least command some level of respect among the public and politicians. A few months into his first term, it was increasingly obvious that Christie's casual relationship with the truth, massive self-regard, and belligerent rhetoric (remind you of anyone else these days?) would plunge teacher morale to uncharted depths in the Garden State.

And so, this angry teacher started a blog. At first, I thought its only purpose was to save my marriage ("Would you please stop yelling about editorials in the Star-Ledger?!"). I honestly didn't expect anyone would read anything I had to say about how badly public schools and public school teachers were getting shafted. To this day, it still surprises me a little when I meet someone and they say: "Oh, you're that Jazzman guy..."

Chris Christie was eventually exposed as the fraud he is. A few years ago, as he sunk into decline, I decided the state didn't need an angry teacher-blogger like it once did. More useful was someone who had a decent command of statistics and first-hand knowledge of how schools actually work. That's been the focus of this blog over the past few years: it's a place where I can debunk myths, present facts, and unashamedly advocate for well-resourced public schools for all children, in New Jersey and across the county.

I've had a lot of support and encouragement over the years, and if I tried to name you all, I would inevitably omit and offend someone. I don't want to do that, but I do want to give thanks to a few folks and organizations who have been especially encouraging:
  • Bruce Baker
  • Julie Borst
  • Darcie Cimarusti
  • Marie Corfield 
  • Diane Ravitch
  • Save Our Schools New Jersey, especially Julia Sass Rubin
  • The National Education Policy Center
  • The Shanker Institute, especially Matt DiCarlo
  • The New Jersey Policy Perspective
  • The Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
I also want to thank the NJEA, my union, which always let me know that they would defend my right to express myself about important policy issues affected this state.

Most of all, thanks to Mrs. Jazzman, who decided to stick with me through all the ranting, and the Jazzboys, proud products of New Jersey public schools.

Every blog anniversary, I take stock and try to figure out what I'll be writing about over the coming year. But I never quite know what to expect -- that's obviously more true than ever. I can only tell you I remain proud to be a New Jersey public school teacher, a union member, and an action researcher who works to improve public education.  

Stand by...

More to come!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Education Policies We Should Stop Right Now: An Incomplete List

ADDING: Here's another one for the list: I am against school vouchers, especially the way they are (not) regulated these days. However, in a time of crisis, children need stability. If a family has received a voucher in the past and the school is legitimate, OK, continue the voucher (unless they didn't need it in the first place). We can revisit this after the crisis is over -- and we're going to need to, because given the upcoming recession (or worse), we're not going to be able to waste money on "choice" policies that are inefficienct and ineffective.

But as for the immediate future: no voucher program should be expanded this year, and no voucher should be used at a school that does not meet basic educational standards or discriminates against students based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.

I mentioned last time that there are no good reasons to have annual, standardized state tests this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But that got me thinking... there are a whole bunch of things in the K-12 sphere we ought to stop immediately. In some cases, they are pointless in the wake of massive school closures; in others, keeping them going this year may cause actual harm to our schools.

In no particular order, and with the understanding that this list is far from complete:

- Statewide Standardized Tests. Again, they're just pointless right now: it's impossible to get even a minimal level of "standardization" in the tests' administration, and students' opportunity to learn, already inequitable, is now even worse. Plus, putting pressure on teachers, students, administrators, and families is the last thing we need to be doing. We're not going to learn anything useful from this year's tests -- scrap 'em.

- Graduation Exams. Most states don't have a graduation exam exit requirement, but some do. I've never understood what good could come of denying a kid a diploma when they've done all the work and passed all their courses but can't pass some noisy standardized test that has dubious validity to begin with. But it makes even less sense now: are policymakers really prepared to make a student jump through all kinds of alternative assessment hoops when they get back to school -- if they get back this year at all? Or do they think it's a good idea, with a looming recession (at least), to make those students pay extra for alternative tests, or to pursue a GED?

If a kid didn't do the work, no diploma: most people will agree on that. But skip the test, at least this year.

- Student Growth Percentiles/Value-Added Model Outcomes. I've spent a lot of time on this blog over the years explaining why SGPs and VAMs are poor measures of teacher or school quality. In many cases, these measures have inherent properties that penalize schools or teachers whose students may show growth but remain low-achieving. And the premise that a teacher or school is solely responsible for a students' growth is wrong to begin with.

But even if you set all that aside: growth measures require a valid and reliable measure of student achievement both before and after the period when growth is being measured. Even if you think the pre-test is valid for use in a growth measure, there's no way the post-test is during a pandemic, given the wild differences in opportunity to learn and test administration -- even within the same classroom-- that are due to our response to Covid-19.

The whole point of using SGPs/VAMs in teacher evaluation was that teachers are so important to student learning that we need multiple sources of evidence about their effectiveness. Again, growth measures really aren't good sources of evidence -- but even if they were, why would we employ them at a time when student learning is less impacted by teachers than if schools were open?

- Student Growth Objectives/Student Learning Objectives. These are the "non-tested" growth measures, generally thought up by districts or individual teachers. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that these are valid and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness. It's clear to me the only reason states use them is to make teacher evaluations that employ growth measures in tested subjects seem more "fair": if the gym teacher has to do an SGO, maybe the math teacher won't complain as much about their SGP...

We should have ended these a long time ago. Now, they are just a waste of limited time and resources at precisely the time we should be judicious about both.

- edTPA. Another education policy based mostly on nothing. edTPA is a series of hurdles put in front of student teachers that is supposed to measure their abilities in the classroom. But the program's reliability and validity is highly questionable (Pearson, of course, denies this). And it's onerous; I say this having watched, first-hand, student teachers struggle with its detailed requirements.

Are we really going to insist that student teachers spend their time trying to meet edTPA's demands while simultaneously figuring our how to implement distance learning? Are we going to delay allowing these prospective teachers the opportunity to go into the job market when the need for qualified teachers is growing? (More on this later in the year...)

Pearson, the company behind edTPA, seems to think it's perfectly reasonable to force student teachers to wait up to 18 months to submit their portfolios. When will those prospective teachers know if they passed? Pearson isn't saying...

This is a no-brainer: suspend edTPA requirements, at least for this year. Afterward, states should take a hard look at whether forcing student teachers to go through this program, even without a pandemic, is worth it.

- Mandatory Grade-Level Retentions. I know I'm opening up a can of worms here, because there are plenty of folks completely entrenched on either side of this. For what it's worth: in my opinion, there is little evidence supporting mandatory retention policies in K-12 schools, and recent limited evidence from one state is not enough to change my mind.

That said, I've been working in schools long enough to know that some students may benefit from retention. But the decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis, with plenty of evidence collected and analyzed. I'd argue no single year's test outcomes are enough evidence to trigger a mandatory retention -- but that's especially true this year, when there isn't time to create student portfolios or pursue alternative pathways to promotion.

Individual student retention decisions, with parental consultation and based on multiple sources of evidence -- OK. Mandatory retention based on state test outcomes? Bad idea, especially now.

- Charter School Expansions/New Charters. Look, I know there are schools that were looking forward to opening and expanding -- but this is the wrong time. The state-level DOEs are going to have their hands full this fall, assuming schools are open; if they aren't, those DOEs will probably be even more busy. Charters should not be opening and/or expanding without adequate oversight, and the last thing host districts need is the uncertainty charters bring to their budgeting process.

You can wait a year.

- AP/IB Exams. This one is tough and I am very much open to being persuaded I'm wrong. But the inequities in how schooling is being delivered make it very likely some students will be at a relative disadvantage to others when it comes to preparing for and taking these exams. It just strikes me as fundamentally unfair to many students who were studying hard before Covid-19 hit to force them to take these exams when the most important preparation time for these courses has been stripped away.

I don't know what the answer is here. It's a big hit to a student to have to pay for a college course they could have received AP/IB credit for. Some sort of alternative testing schedule over the summer? Portfolio submissions directly to the colleges that would accept the credits?

This is a chaotic time for K-12 schools, the students who attend them, and the staff who work in them. Policymakers need to ramp down requirements, especially if those requirements were of questionable value to begin with. Let's make things easier for schools and do away with policies and programs that make things more difficult, at least for the remainder of the school year. It's the least we can do.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why Scrapping School Testing This Year Is a Good Idea

During yesterday's (insane) news conference, Donald Tump made some news on the K-12 education front:
It’s official: U.S. students won't have to take annual state tests this year.
The Education Department will waive federal requirements for state testing for K-12 students, due to unprecedented school shutdowns to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday.
Normally, federal law requires schools to administer exams in English and math to students in third through eighth grade, and once in high school. The results are used to examine how students are progressing and how well schools are performing.
Students usually take state tests in the spring – and school closures are likely to continue through the testing window.

Now, I've got some serious reservations about giving the SecEd broad powers -- especially when that SecEd is Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly shown she is not up to the job. But the crisis we're now facing has obviously created a huge problem for the nation's K-12 schools, and we ought to be looking at whether current federal policies are helping or hurting. That starts, to my mind, with canceling our regular springtime battery of state tests.

It's useful to step back and think about why annual testing was implemented in the first place. No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush's signature education law, was designed under the premise that testing would hold schools accountable for educating students. If a school was not showing, through test outcomes, that its students were learning, it would face consequences that included closure.

The problems with NCLB have been well documented over the years. Making schools the unit of accountability -- as opposed to districts or states -- assumes that schools alone can change their policies and practices and improve student outcomes. On its face, that just isn't true: if a school doesn't have the resources it needs to educate its students, for example, it can't unilaterally change its condition.

In addition, holding schools accountable for the academic progress of their "subgroups" when many schools, due to class and race segregation, don't even have the same subgroups also makes little sense. And using standardized tests in two subjects (math and English Language Arts) to measure student achievement was always going to be troublesome, given the nature of the tests themselves and the pressures they put on schools to narrow the curriculum and "teach to the tests."

NCLB has been revised over the years, but the testing provisions have remained. In my opinion, there is a place for testing in our schools. The problem with federal policy was never the tests themselves*, but how we use them, and the extent to which we administer them.

The truth is that many of the school funding lawsuits that have led to meaningful reform could not have occurred if we didn't have some evidence that disadvantaged students were being denied equal educational opportunities compared to their more advantaged peers. This alone is reason enough for the nation to continue to administer tests, even if we should decouple school- and classroom-level consequences from them and administer them less frequently.

But tests are only able to provide meaningful information to policymakers if they are administered in ways that yield valid outcomes. And there's just no way we can do that now.

Start with the obvious: a "standardized" test has to be administered in a standard way. If some students receive the test in different platforms, or in different environments, the test is no longer standardized. Of course, there were already huge differences between students in these factors... but Covid-19 has made things far worse. There's just no way to even come close to standardizing the conditions for testing in the current environment. Will the students be at home, in school but "social distancing," in regular school, somewhere else... we just can't say.

Next, we have always had big differences in students' opportunity to learn -- but now the differences are greater than ever. Again, there are huge variations among students in their access to qualified educators, high-quality facilities, adequate instructional materials, well-designed curricula, and so on. The best use of test results was to make the case that the variation in these things was creating unequal educational opportunities, and that public policy should focus on getting resources where they were needed the most.

But in a quarantine, we now have to add all sorts of other inequalities into the mix: access to broadband, parents who have the ability to oversee students' instruction, schools' ability to implement distance learning, etc. Why implement these tests when inequities within the same classroom -- let alone between schools -- have grown so large?

Which gets to the best reason to cancel the tests: we aren't going to learn anything new from them, so why burden students, families, and staff with them during a crisis? As Rick Hess (yes, we do occasionally agree) puts it:
The best reason to scratch the tests? Complying with federal guidelines regarding mandated assessments is the very last thing educational leaders should be thinking about right now. They should be focused on the safety of students, educators, and communities; developing alternative instruction; supporting parents; feeding and aiding kids in need; and thinking about what it'll take to reopen schools.
Testing is going to be a big burden in the middle of a pandemic; focusing on it takes away from focus on things like student well-being. That trade off could conceivably be worth it if we were going to gain new knowledge...

But we aren't going to learn anything from this round of testing we didn't already know: primarily, that students in disadvantage and with learning needs will score lower, on average, than other students. Why, then, would we shift the focus away from meeting students' and families' needs and towards a test that isn't going to give us any new information?

Again: I think there's a place for standardized testing -- even if we're currently using test results in irresponsible and invalid ways. But there's no good reason to administer tests this year. Just scrap it.

* To be clear: that doesn't mean these tests haven't had their own problems -- many times, they've been crappy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Edu-Blogging In the Age of COVID-19

Just a quick note:

At first, it seems kind of ridiculous to be blogging about education policy at a moment like this. I don't think we've had a national crisis of this magnitude since WWII. Why would we debate school policy now?

But the more I think about it, the more it seems we should be engaging on K-12 policy at exactly this moment. We have, for all intents and purposes, shut down our nation's schools. That's not the same as shutting down schooling, of course. But we are still being presented with a moment where we can step back and think carefully about what we should expect from our schools, whether we've set them up for success, and what "success" might really mean.

So I'm going to continue blogging about education, and not always through the lens of COVID-19's consequences. Because this crisis will pass at some point, and we ought to be ready then to go back to school with the goal not of returning to normal, but returning to something better.

Stand by...

Sunday, March 8, 2020

NJ School Nurses: A Data-Driven View

UPDATE: I forgot to include this: I left "special services" districts out of the analysis. These districts, which have specialized needs due to their student populations, shouldn't be compared to others, and I have reason to suspect the data isn't set up to make comparisons anyway.

In my last post, I note that one in five U.S. public schools has no nursing coverage.

Given the COVID-19 outbreak, this is disturbing. School nurses are on the front lines of pediatric care, and a critical part of any response this nation will have to a pandemic. Every American child deserves access to a qualified, well-trained school nurse.

Ed Fuller at Penn State (as big an edu-data geek as yours truly) has tweeted out some graphs showing the distribution of nurses in Pennsylvania schools.

What do we see? In PA, nursing coverage decreases when poverty rises, in elementary, middle, and high schools. In other words, at a time when the coronavirus threat is looming, Pennsylvania's neediest children are less likely to get the medical care they need at school.

Given all this, I thought it would be useful to take a look at how New Jersey's school nursing situation stands. I've got the particulars about the data below, but for now: I used two different data sources from the NJ Department of Education, and got very similar results from each.

My unit of analysis is a school district, rather than a school. New Jersey has a lot of small districts with only two or three buildings, often feeding into a regional high school with several other small districts. It's possible these buildings share a nurse, but the time between buildings isn't correctly divided in the records. With my method, a nurse assigned to any building in the district counts for the entire district.

My measure for these graphs is "students per nurse": in other words, how many students, on average, are there in a district for every nurse in the records? Let's start by looking at how districts with different levels of student economic disadvantage compare.

I've divided all NJ districts into five groups, ranging from those with the fewest students who qualify for free lunch (a proxy measure of economic disadvantage) to those with the most. I was, to be honest, surprised to see this: in New Jersey, school nursing care is distributed quite equally. The student load for nurses in the most disadvantaged districts is, on average, close to the load for nurses in the least disadvantaged districts.

Of course, an equal distribution isn't necessarily "fair." We can safely assume many of the students in high-FRPL districts don't have adequate medical outside of school. If we want children to have an equal chance for school success, we'd want to see a lower student load in the most disadvantaged districts.

That said: at least the coverage isn't flipped, like in PA. And the average load is under the recommended ratio of 750:1, as suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, a good start from New Jersey... but we probably can and should do better.

Let's look at distribution by race next:

Here I'm combining Black and Hispanic students, but I did run the numbers separately for each group, and the results are similar. The distribution of nurses is quite equal across race and ethnicity in New Jersey; there's really no evidence of meaningful bias. Given the correlation of race and income, however, we would like to see smaller student loads for nurses in districts with higher concentrations of students of color if we want to achieve equal educational opportunity. But, again, we're not Pennsylvania, and the student loads, on average, are below recommended guidelines.

New Jersey has many different types of districts: smaller, larger, some only K through 8, some K through 12, some regional high schools, etc. Vocational-technical districts and charter schools are also considered their own districts. So how does nurse coverage vary across these different district types?

Now we're getting some variation. As I said, NJ has a many small K-8 only districts: these districts, it appears, hire nurses for their schools, even if the student populations are small. K-8 districts with under 400 students have a student:nurse ration of 238-1; but K-8 districts with more than 750 students have a ratio of 435-1.

A perpetual topic of conversation in New Jersey education policy is how we have too many undersized districts that are inefficiently small. I think the fiscal pressure this creates has often been exaggerated; nonetheless, there are some real inefficiencies that come from having undersized school districts, and this may be one of them.

The regional high schools (7-12/9-12) have, on average, much higher student loads for their nurses. Is this a problem? I don't know... intuitively, it makes sense to me that we'd want more nursing services for younger children, who are less able to participate in monitoring their own health care. But we should note the vo-techs, which are basically high schools, have a considerably lower nurse-student ratio than the regional high schools. If it's good for those kids, why not others?

Which brings us to the charter schools, with much higher student loads for their nurses. The majority of the charter population in New Jersey consists of K-8 students, but there are a significant number of high school students in the charters. Still, even if we accept the premise that older students don't need as much nursing coverage as younger ones, the high student load for charter nurses stands out.

What's driving the difference? According to state records, there are many charter school students who have no nursing care available.

29 percent of New Jersey charter school students do not have a school nurse in state records listed as on staff for their school. Now, we shouldn't immediately jump to a conclusion that they don't have access to nursing care. Maybe the charter contracts out its nurses and doesn't list them as staff. It's worth noting, however, that the "preparedness review" process for charters doesn't explicitly call for a review of nursing services.

As Bruce Baker has noted, charter schools are usually small and, therefore, more likely to induce inefficiencies. We can actually see this here: very small K-6 & K-8 districts are more likely to not have a school nurse in the records than larger districts. Is the size of these districts, and the charters, precluding students from receiving nursing care in their schools?

Also: two-thirds of NJ's charters are located in the boundaries of the least-affluent school districts. It could be that the lack of charter school nurses is inflating the average student-nurse ratios for schools with larger concentrations of disadvantaged students (more on this later).

We should know all this for sure: part of the oversight process for charter schools (and all schools) should include documenting access to school nurses. All students deserve nursing care in their schools, and school boards -- whether for districts, vo-techs, or charters -- must be held accountable for whether nurses are available for their students.


I used the NJDOE staffing files for these graphs, linked to enrollment and other files, for this analysis. I checked my results against the NJDOE's School Performance Reports, which also track student-nurse ratios at the district level. The results from the two analyses were very similar.

If there was no record of a nurse on staff, I assumed any students in that district/charter had no nursing care. The averages across race/ethnicity, FRPL, and district type reflect this assumption.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Many U.S. Schools Have No Nursing Coverage; How Will They Handle a Pandemic?

As the coronavirus threat increases in the United States, policymakers are assessing our nation's capacity to handle a pandemic. One of our first lines of defense -- and one I've yet to see discussed -- is our school nursing workforce.

Ask anyone who has worked for a while in a school, and they will tell you how valuable it is to have a good nurse on staff. This is because school nurses do a lot more than put bandaids on boo-boos. They are, in many cases, a primary healthcare provider for school-aged children. They disseminate information to staff, students, and families. They monitor the health of school buildings and ensure employees and students follow good sanitary practices. They administer medicines to younger students who need supervision. They provide vision, hearing, and dental screenings. They are first responders in emergencies, and the liaison between trauma care providers and the school.

And, as I've seen time and again in my career, they are often the first adult a child trusts when that child is in crisis. Countless tragedies have been avoided because a school nurse was there to hear a student's cries for help.

In the face of the looming coronavirus threat, I think we need to take a minute and ask about the current state of our school nurse workforce. Luckily, there is a very good paper from 2018 that conducted a survey on school nurses. Surveys like these are tough for a variety of reasons, but my read of the paper is that this is a high-quality piece of research that aligns with previous work on the topic.

I made these charts based on tables in the survey.

One in five American schools has no nursing coverage. And another one in five has less than full-time coverage. The breakdown by region suggests to me that part of the issue is that we've got a lot of rural schools in the West that are probably too small to be able to sustain a full-time nurse. That said, you'd think these schools would find a way to share nurses so they'd get at least part-time coverage. But the data suggest a lot of schools can't make this work.

The breakdown by urban/rural supports this idea: 17 percent of urban schools have no nursing coverage, while 30 percent of rural schools have no coverage. Still: how did we get to a place where one in six urban schools have no nurses?

You might think that districts, facing budgetary constraints, would choose to put more nursing staff into elementary schools. But there's really no evidence of that.

So, is our school nursing coverage adequate to deal with a pandemic? I'm completely unqualified to say... but it seems to me that if 63 percent of schools have a full-time nurse equivalent, there must be some consensus that school nurses are important.

As of now, I can't say whether nursing coverage correlates with class and/or race. But given how often we've seen funding adequacy tied to student demographics, it wouldn't surprise me at all if many of the children in schools without nurses were students of color or in economic disadvantage. 

The time to have been thinking about all this, of course, was before the coronavirus threat. We're going to have to hope we've got enough school nurses who are up to the task this time... but we should take this opportunity to think carefully about whether our current school nursing coverage is adequate to meet our students' needs.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Sorry, NJ Charter Schools -- You Can't Have It Both Ways

Some news on the NJ charter school front this week*:
The state Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a lawsuit that had challenged the expansion of charter schools in Newark, arguably the state’s nexus for the alternative schools with more than a third of its students enrolled in them.
By apparent coincidence, a group of charter school parents and the sector’s association on the same day filed to become “friends of the court” in a separate case before the high court regarding the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. 
In that case, the charter schools are trying to get in on a challenge seeking what would surely be billions of dollars in new school construction aid for 31 needy districts statewide. 
The confluence before the court of the two cases comes at a time when charter schools face increasing fire from traditional school districts, largely over the public money that charter schools draw from the other districts. But while those battles have been fierce in several communities, including in Newark, they have largely stayed out of the courts in recent years.

This was a long time coming: the Christie administration happily encouraged the expansion of charter schools without seriously thinking about appropriate oversight, regulation, and funding of the sector. Now the state has to contend with a system that imposes fiscal burdens on school districts that host charter schools, even as those districts have no meaningful say on charter school proliferation.

The fact – which I have validated empirically – is that charter school expansion is not a revenue-neutral policy. As school districts lose students to charters, they are unable to adjust immediately to enrollment declines, because districts have fixed costs like buildings and personnel that can’t be quickly scaled back. 

But charter operators appear to be unconcerned with this reality; repeatedly, they have demanded they get everything they think they are owed, even when school districts are facing serious financial pressures. During Christie’s time, this meant charter budgets weren’t touched, even as host districts’ were slashed.

It’s also meant that charter advocates have continually complained that they should be receiving additional funding for their facilities:
Separately, the Abbott v. Burke case is arguably a bigger one for the state, given the money that would be spread across nearly three-dozen districts if the court agreed with the argument that the state is obligated to spend significantly on new school construction in needy districts.

And now the charters want to get in on that case, saying that one in five students in Abbott communities go to a charter or hybrid “renaissance” school.

“It is really important that the court look to funding all the public schools, not just district schools,” said Harold Lee, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “Just because a family decided on a charter or renaissance school, it doesn’t mean that their safety and security go away.”

School building needs have long been the bane of charters in New Jersey, as they are not permitted under law to use public funds toward the costs of facilities. “It’s the biggest challenge to operating a charter,” Lee said, explaining it can represent 10% to 15% of their costs.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard New Jersey charter school operators and advocates make this point: we should get facilities funding just like any other “public” school.

Unfortunately, they always seem to leave out a critical point: In New Jersey, charter school buildings – paid for with public funds -- are almost always NOT owned by the public.

As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron pointed out years ago, charter school regulations like New Jersey’s lead to an absurd situation: the public pays for school buildings that many times used to be owned by a school district – in other words, the public – but wind up in private hands. Sometimes those hands are nonprofits aligned with the charter school; sometimes they are for-profit companies, paying off their mortgages with funds the charters receive in per pupil payments from hosting school districts.

In either case, the public is paying for a building that the public will never own. And in most cases, these are buildings that are paid for, at least in part, with local funds, even though the state is the entity that gets to decide whether charters will be granted or renewed.

This lunacy is at the heart of the serious conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, and just generally bad policymaking that surrounds New Jersey's charter school facilities. If you haven’t yet read northjersey.com’s outstanding series on these problems, you really should. That series has led to, among other things, a grand jury investigation of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark for financial shenanigans involving charter school facilities:
Amid scrutiny by a federal grand jury, the state is holding up critical financing for the non-profit support group of one of Newark’s oldest and largest charter schools — cash needed to pay off $21 million in loans coming due on its high school. 
Officials at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority have so far refused to issue bonds to cover that debt on the Marion P. Thomas Charter School’s Sussex Avenue location. 
In addition, the EDA recently confirmed that two “prior bond financings" it issued to the school "are under review.” 
One involves the purchase of two former Newark public school buildings that were flipped at a markup of close to $10 million. That transaction has been the focus of a federal grand jury, which issued subpoenas first to the 1,500-student Marion P. Thomas Charter School in July and then to the Newark Housing Authority in October. 
The other bond issue, from 2014, is related to the construction of the high school. It, too, features an unusual land deal: The private, non-profit Friends of Marion P. Thomas Charter School sold property it purchased to one of its subsidiaries at a $1.8 million markup. 
In both cases, the price hikes are being covered by taxpayers.

ven if the grand jury finds no criminal activity, transactions like these are just bad policy. Why should real estate markups for charter schools be covered by the taxpayers? What possible justification is there for these policies?

And then there’s this, from the same story:
The IRS had been looking into discounts on similar bonds issued on behalf of TEAM Academy in Newark, according to financial records. In one case, a TEAM support group received a notice of proposed issue from the IRS, indicating that tax rules may have been broken. 
TEAM Academy officials denied a public records request by NorthJersey.com for documents related to the IRS review last year, saying they are part of an “investigation in progress by a government agency” and that “disclosure of such records would be detrimental to the public interest.”

Steve Small, the chief financial officer of KIPP New Jersey, which runs TEAM Academy, said Wednesday night in an email that he could not "provide any specifics related to the review in progress."
Again, how does this make any sense? How can it possibly be “detrimental to the public interest” for the public not to know how its money is being spent?

The legal status of charter schools has always been open to debate, but it’s clear at this point that they are not government actors. As such, they can claim immunity from oversight regulations that other governmental entities, such as school boards, must abide by. Why, then, should the taxpayers simply turn over revenues for charter facilities when they won’t even know who, if anyone, is profiting off of this system?

There are a lot of aspects of charter school policy we can debate, but this one if clear: If the public pays for a school building -- including a charter school building -- the public should own the building. If New Jersey’s charter schools want more funding for their facilities, the price to be paid is that those facilities stay in public hands, with public oversight and complete transparency.

If you think I’m wrong, I’d love to hear your argument. But it seems clear to me that New Jersey's charter schools can't have it both ways: if you want public funding, you can't have privately owned buildings.

ADDING: If we're going to get into NJ charter schools and their misconduct around real estate, let's take a moment to remember Bob Braun's excellent reporting from 2018:
The New Jersey state education department has refused to release public documents that might  shed light on former Gov. Chris Christie’s loan of $10 million in state funds to a failing Newark charter school and its partner, a private, for-profit real estate developer that was receiving more than $800,000 in public funds as annual rent from the school.
The state’s  action, in response to a demand filed under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), contributes to a stifling veil of silence covering up the details of the unusual $10 million loan—a loan granted by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) despite the lack of any collateral that could be used to repay the loan if the school defaulted.
The school, Lady Liberty Academy Charter School, did close and no longer receives the state aid it needs  to pay its rent to the developer, BWP School Partners, LLC.  Under the unusual terms of the loan agreement between the NJEDA and BWP,  the state has limited its ability to recoup the loan from the developer  to finding a new charter school to take the place of Lady Liberty. The school is now boarded up and so, this year at least, that won’t happen.
The existence of the unusual $10 million loan was first disclosed by this site last month but the continued refusal by the NJEDA, the state education department, the Newark school district and private sources to discuss details has added to the mystery of why the state would loan $10 million to a charter school that faced problems since 2003, when it was opened as part of Newark’s New Community Corporation’s social outreach efforts. Lady Liberty was placed on probation by the state three times and finally closed this year after  Christie left office

* All emphases in this post are mine.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Correcting the Facts About NJ Charter Schools and My Research

I'm trying to keep this short because there are many other things that deserve my attention. But I feel compelled to respond to mischaracterizations of my work when they are directly affecting public policy, especially in my home state.

Last month, Newark Public Schools superintendent Roger León called for the NJ Education Commissioner, Lamont Repollet, to deny the renewals of four charter schools in the Newark city limits.

I'm going to hold off expressing any opinions about these specific renewals, or León's arguments about their impacts on the finances of NPS. Suffice to say that there is plenty of empirical evidence that small school districts -- which are, for all intents and purposes, what NJ charter schools are -- are not as efficient as larger ones. There is reason to believe, therefore, that small charter schools with redundant systems of administration can produce fiscal pressures on hosting public school districts, which have the obligation to fund charters. My own work in New Jersey shows how this pressure manifests, although the issue is complex. Again, we'll save a discussion of all this for later.

For now: León's letters to the commissioner refer to several pieces of research on charter schools, including a brief I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin: New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View - 2018 Update, Part I (2018). Here's how León characterized our work:
Research conducted at the Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Policy shows that the proportion of special needs students has historically been far lower in charter schools than in district public schools. According to the Bloustein School's report, New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, the percentage of students with special needs in Newark's District schools is approximately 40% higher than in Newark's charter schools, and the percentage of Newark students with high-cost disabilities is approximately 17% higher in District schools than in the District's charter schools. Even more startling, according to the same report, the percentage of students identified as English language learners is approximately 11 times greater in Newark's District schools than in the District's charter schools.
With all due respect to Superintendent León, let me correct him: the percentage of classified students with high-cost disabilities is 17 percentage points higher than that percentage in the charters.

Why does this matter? Federal law delineates 12 classifications of learning disability types. Of these, empirical research commissioned by the State of New Jersey shows that at least two of these types -- Specific Learning Disability (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairment (SPL) -- are "low-cost."* 

Imagine two school districts, each enrolling the same overall proportion of special education students. But one of the district's population of these students has higher-cost needs; in other words, they have the same percentage of classified students, but more of those students are designated as "autism" or "emotional disturbance" or "traumatic brain injury" than the second district. That district is obviously going to have more fiscal pressure to educate its students, because the cost of educating their students is greater.

As Julia and I showed in our report, this is exactly what's happening in Newark (and other NJ school districts).

Obviously, this is going to be a concern for NPS, which has to bear the costs of educating these children with higher-cost needs. It's an obvious point and it should be no surprise that Superintendent León is making it. So what's the problem? 

Well, a couple of pro-charter advocacy groups have stepped in to object to León's letters to the commissioner. And one of their objections, from the New Jersey Children's Foundation, calls into question our report.
Second, the report by anti-charter activist Julia Sass-Rubin, has already been discredited as under-counting high-need special education students at charter schools due to data suppression rules, and is not a disinterested academic paper, but rather was funded by anti-charter foundations.
That's it; that's everything in the letter attempting to debunk our work. The sole objection -- aside from our funding, which has nothing to do with our analysis itself -- is that we are "under-countin​g​ high-need special education students at charter schools​ due to data suppression rules."

Is it true?

I invite everyone to go to the 2016 Special Education Data page at the NJDOE website. You will, indeed, find a notification that data cells of 10 or less are suppressed. What you won't find is any specific notice of how this rule is applied -- and that's important.

Because if you drop down and click the "By Disability" link under the "Ages 6-21" column, you will get a spreadsheet that clearly does not suppress any cells, no matter how small the number is in those cells.** This is the dataset Julia and I used for our paper. I see no reason to doubt the veracity of these data: they are figures published by the NJDOE, available to all. What NJCF is asserting in their letter is not true -- we did not under-count high-need special education students at charter schools​.

Let's step back a minute from this minutia and instead think carefully about the issue. NJCF is saying that Julia and I are incorrect in stating that NPS's special education population has more students with high-cost needs than the special education population enrolled in the charter schools. The logical conclusion, then, is that the Newark charters*** are enrolling just as many kids with high-cost needs as NPS.

Does that make any sense to you?

NPS has a school specifically set up to serve deaf children, the Bruce Street School. No Newark charter school has anything even close. The Camden Street School has a series of programs for  Newark students with high-cost special needs that allow them to be integrated as much as possible with general education students, while still maintaining class sizes of 5 to 6 for instruction delivery that can't be done in a mainstream setting. There's no way small charter schools that were designed to enroll a mostly general education population could deliver the same services.

This is a rational policy choice on behalf of NPS: when a large district like Newark has children who have special needs that can't be met within a mainstreaming situation, bringing them all together from across the district makes sense. School districts do this all the time. But it's impractical to think a relatively small charter school can provide the same sort of instruction geared toward special education students with profound learning disabilities.

Let me be clear: that's not a knock on the charters. Of course we don't expect charter schools to serve students with the higher-cost learning disabilities. Of course we wouldn't expect the parents of the students with those disabilities to enroll them in schools that can't serve their needs. Why would anyone dispute this? Why is NJCF wasting its time arguing this very obvious point?

The question in NJ charter school policy is not whether charter schools will ever enroll the same proportion of Limited English Proficient or special needs students as hosting public school districts -- of course they won't. The question is whether the state -- which has the sole authority to grant or deny charter school applications or renewals -- is imposing the fiscal burdens of charters on districts without fully accounting for those burdens.

When the state calculates the payment a district like Newark must make to a charter school, it makes that calculation based on a student's special education status. But the only type of disability that changes a payment amount is speech/language impairment. Which means the state demands a district pay the same amount for a charter student who has a mild reading disability (which may not even require an intervention in a smaller general education classroom) as they do for a student who has a traumatic brain injury.

So if the charter is enrolling more students with lower-cost needs, there is an additional fiscal burden on the district. How much? No one knows... because the state came up with its charter funding formula on the basis of no empirical evidence. The 90 percent calculation in the charter funding formula is based on nothing, so far as I've been able to tell. So are the weights in the charter funding formula: instead, they assume the weights used in the state's district funding formula, SFRA, are relevant to charters. But we don't know if that's true (frankly, we don't even know if the SFRA formula is valid in this day and age of higher standards, more school security, more technology, etc.).

It's not "anti-charter" to point this stuff out. And you can agree or disagree with Superintendent León, or the charter advocates, or the charter skeptics, or whomever. But we are very much in need of a real conversation about charter school policy in this state, and that conversation has to be supported by the facts, and by logical, rational analysis.

I'm human, and I've made plenty of mistakes. If I get something wrong, I'll correct it. But the NJCF critique of my work with Julia is not accurate, nor is it logical. I'll be happy to accept their apology.

ADDING: There are a lot of other questionable assertions made in the NJCF letter, and the NJ Charter Schools Association letter, that I've discussed before.

ADDING MORE: Just remembered: the 2014 disability data are also not suppressed. So it's not like 2016 was unprecedented.

* I've recently come to the conclusion that Other Health Impairment (OHI) should be included in the bin of "lower-cost" disabilities. There's further evidence that educating an OHI student has costs that are closer to SLD and SPL students than the other classifications. OHI tends to include students who have asthma or ADHD, which is often treated at no cost to the district. I'm continuing to study the issue and, in formal reports, will back up any changes in my methods with an explanation.

** As of the writing of the post, Sunday, January 12, 10:00 AM. And let me add this:

I take the privacy rights of students, especially special needs students, very seriously, as both a researcher and an educator. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that suppressing these data is necessary to protect those rights. If there has ever been a case of a student's or family's privacy rights being impacted by the release of these data, I have yet to hear it.

If the NJDOE insists on suppressing these data, however, there should be some mechanism where researchers can obtain them for limited use. Other education datasets are available to researchers under these terms -- these data should be available as well.

*** By the way: what does the aggregate charter school special education rate -- or, for that matter, the aggregate test outcomes, LEP rate, etc. -- have to do with the specific applications for renewal of the four charters in question? Why defend the renewals of these specific charters with aggregated data for the entire Newark charter sector?

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Hoboken, NJ Charter Schools: An Update for 2020

Long time readers know I have always thought one of the most interesting charter school sectors in New Jersey, if not the United States, is in Hoboken. A small city across the Hudson from Manhattan, Hoboken has undergone a period of extraordinary gentrification over the last several years. As detailed in a great book by Molly Vollman Makris --  Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City; Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity -- Hoboken's charter schools have become an alternative system of schooling for affluent parents in a city that still has large numbers of children living in public housing and experiencing economic disadvantage.

I interviewed Molly back in 2015, and she made an important point: segregation is not an issue that can be laid entirely at the feet of Hoboken's charter schools. There are, in fact, many factors involved in why Hoboken's schools enroll the student populations they do. But the charters, as Molly put it, are part of the reason the city hasn't been able to adequately address the realities of segregation:"So I don’t think the charters and intra-district school choice are creating segregation so much as inhibiting desegregation. I think we all could do a better job."

Other than a few visits with family, I haven't been back to Hoboken much since I did that interview. But I've kept my eye on the city, if only because I think it's a unique case study in the annals of school choice. So my spider-sense buzzed a bit when I came across this (all bolded emphases in this post are mine):
At a Hoboken Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, the board voted 8-0-1 in favor of a resolution opposing Elysian Charter School's request to the state to add 36 students in K through fifth grade. 
The resolution approved 8-0-1 states, "Imposing increased charter school costs on the Hoboken Public School District, in addition to the aforementioned loss of state aid and on top of normal and expected annual cost increases, will result in further budget reductions and program cuts in the district schools to the detriment of the district academic programs."
It also charges that the charter schools have an "increasing segregative" effect on students, saying that Elysian educates a "disproportionately low number of economically disadvantaged students."
I'm going to stay away from the funding issue now, although I promise I'll be coming back to the topic later this year (I've got a few things cooking on the NJ school funding front, and work on charters and school funding is later). But the issue of segregation on Hoboken's charter schools is worth looking at more closely.

Elysian CS says it is not having a segregative effect; here's their response from the school's website:
Charter schools in Hoboken do not have a segregative effect. Demographic trends in Hoboken have resulted in a 23% point decline in the proportion of economically disadvantaged students in traditional district schools, falling from 71.5%in 2013 to 47.8% in 2019. If public charter schools were causing a segregative effect on the district, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students would have increased, not decreased over the last six years. As Hoboken District was losing economically disadvantaged students, overall, Hoboken charter schools were increasing the proportion of economically disadvantaged students enrolled.
If you take a minute to think about this statement, you'll realize it makes no sense. The overall population of disadvantaged students -- as measured by eligibility for free or educe price lunch -- may be decreasing, but that doesn't mean the student populations couldn't still differ greatly between the Hoboken Public Schools and the city's three charter schools.

In addition, Elysian is making a bold claim: that the charters are enrolling proportionally more disadvantaged students. Is it true? Let's start by looking at eligibility for free lunch (FL), which means a student's family has an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

The three charters are in red; HPS schools are in blue. I have Brandt School set aside as a dotted line because it is unlike the other HPS schools in that it only enrolls children up to Grade 3 (originally, the school was the district's early childhood center; there's talk it may return to that function).

What does the data tell us? Hoboken Charter School has, indeed, enrolled more FL students.* But Elysian's free lunch-eligible population has actually decreased since 2010. Hoboken Dual Language CS (also know as HOLA) has seen little change in its FL population.

What about free and reduced price lunch (FRPL) eligibility, which sets a higher family income bar of 185 percent?

Again, since 2010, Hoboken Charter School has seen a rise in its FRPL population -- but not Elysian (or HOLA). Put simply: Since 2010, Elysian's student population has been more advantaged than all other comparable schools in the Hoboken Public Schools district.

Let's look at race:

Again, if we leave out Brandt, with its uniquely young student population, we find the charters have tended to enroll more white students than most HPS schools. That's changed a bit over the last several years... except for Elysian Charter School. If anything, Elysian's student population has become more white since 2010.

Here's the data for black student populations:

And here's Hispanic:

Let's be clear: when it comes to racial segregation and schools, there's much more going on in Hoboken than just the charters. The difference in the proportion of black students at Connors is striking when compared to the charters or the other K-6 schools in the HPS district. The decline in the Hispanic population in Wallace and Calabro is also remarkable. This said, it seems very odd for Elysian CS to deny the segregative effects of Hoboken's charter sector when viewing this data.

Let's look at one more important student characteristic: special education status. Here are the special education classification rates, which are reported at the district level, for the charters (which are de facto their own districts) and HPS (sorry about the color changes).
At first glance, it would appear that Elysian is actually pulling its weight when it comes to educating children with learning disabilities: their classification rate is nearly identical to HPS's and has been for several years.

The problem is that not all children have the same disabilities.

A bit of explanation is in order. NJDOE reports the number of students classified in one of 12 different types of disabilities. But if a district has fewer than 10 students in a particular type of disability, it suppresses the data.** It doesn't suppress a cell, however, if it has "0" students. Because of this data structure, and because we can get the total number of students from other data sources***, we can extrapolate the possible ranges of "high-cost" disability proportions.

What are "high-cost" disabilities? I basically count all disability types except for three: specific learning disabilities (SLD), speech and language (SPL), and other health impairments (OHI). SLDs and SPLs are generally learning disabilities that do not require the same level of intervention as things like autism, traumatic brain injuries, emotional disturbances, and so on. OHIs can range in severity, but often include things like asthma or ADHD, which, again, usually;y require less-costly interventions.

Of course, I'm not saying these disabilities can't be profound; as an educator, I will tell you first-hand they can be. But empirical studies have shown these three disability classifications tend to cost considerably less to address than the others.

By my calculations, only 9 percent of Elysian's special education population, at most, has been identified with any of the higher-cost disabilities. This contrasts sharply with the 35 percent figure for HPS.

Let me say what I always say when looking at the data for individual charter schools: I have no doubt Elysian Charter School has great teachers, wonderful children, and dedicated families. Like all schools, its stakeholders should be proud of their school's accomplishments and successes.

But good public policy is built on solid analysis of relevant data. And state data makes one thing very clear: the students in Hoboken's charter schools are fundamentally different from the students in its public district schools.  In the case of Elysian, that means fewer students proportionally who are in economic disadvantage, or who have a profound special education need.

Again, we'll get to the fiscal issues later. But for now: I don't know why anyone would be surprised that HPS's Board of Education has serious doubts about expanding the size of Elysian Charter School.

More to come later this year...

ADDING: Back in 2015, Elysian's senior staff was making a splash with their... unique theories on school funding.

 * Hoboken Charter School is the only one of the three charters with a high school. According to Molly's book, many affluent parents do not see this high school as an option for their children, even as they enroll them in the K-8 school. The high school is actually in a separate building, quite a ways away from the K-8 school. So it's very likely that many of the students who boost HCS's overall FL percentage are in the high school.

I can't tell how the 9-12 and K-8 population of HCS differs on FL or FRPL status, however, because NJDOE data does not disaggregate this data by grade level in charter schools -- even for different school buildings, like it does for district schools.

This is a major failing of the NJDOE data I've pointed out numerous times. It shouldn't be hard at all to fix, either. So let's do that. Please.

** Contrary to the reporting of some people who really have no damn idea what they are talking about, NJDOE has, in the past, released databases that do not suppress this data. They last did so in 2016. Unless and until they say otherwise, I will reasonably assume that data is correct.

*** Age 6-21 classified student counts can be derived from the gender files, or the LEP files. Just add males and females, or LEP and non-LEP, together.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Misleading Rhetoric of School "Choice" Advocates: Wealth and "Choice"

One of the functions of this blog over the years has been to deconstruct the rhetoric of education reformers as they advocate for their preferred policies. Foremost among these is the expansion of school "choice."

"Choice," in our current discourse, comes in two basic flavors: charter schools (often sold as "public charter schools," despite the many problems with the term) and vouchers (often sold as "scholarships," although the difference is practically meaningless).

The rhetoric used to push for either or both is largely similar. One of recurring themes for both charter and voucher proponents, for example, is that "choice" is giving disadvantaged families access to the same types of schooling that advantaged families enjoy.

"Choice," you see, is the reason privileged parents can send their children to "good" schools, while less-affluent parents must consign their children to "bad" schools. Because of "choice," privileged families can move to places with "better" public district schools, or enroll their children in "better" private schools. If we offer all families "choice," the argument goes, they will enjoy the same access to "good" schools that the wealthy enjoy.

Implicit in this argument is an assertion -- sometimes overtly stated, sometimes not -- that, under a school "choice" regime, disadvantaged families will enjoy access to choices that are equivalent to the school "choices" the wealthy currently enjoy. 

The logic of this entire line of argument is dependent on the idea that charter schools or vouchers schools are offering the same sort of education that affluent families enjoy in suburban public schools or well-resourced private schools. If the argument of the choicers is not that these options are equivalent, they're not really addressing the root problem: they are essentially admitting that education, even in a choice regime, will remain unequal between the rich and the poor. Because any conception of "good" and "bad" schools is relative, they would be saying that the advantaged would still send their kids to "better" schools under a "choice" system, and the disadvantaged would be consigned to schools that are "worse."

But the rhetoric of the choicers doesn't ever suggests the choices for the less-affluent will differ from the choices for the affluent under a school "choice" system. To the contrary, their arguments are designed to have us all believe that more charter schools and more vouchers will finally give everyone the same "choices" the wealthy have.

Let's look at more than a few examples (all emphases are mine).

* * *

Reason.com: "Wealthy families have long had school choice because they can afford to move to the districts with high-performing schools. Thanks to an antiquated government school funding system that closely ties zip code to education quality, low-income families have been at a disadvantage for decades. When they're implemented at the state level, school choice programs like Arizona's aim to give disadvantaged students a chance to break free from their circumstances and attend a school of higher quality than their neighborhood public school. They're meant to be a solution to the opportunity gap, not a way to make it worse."

Cato.org: "Under the status quo, wealthy families already have school choice while low-income families do not. Wealthy families can afford to live in districts with high-performing government schools or send their children to private schools. By contrast, low-income families generally only have one choice: the local assigned government school."

The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions: "However, Beshear clearly articulates a view that limits access to alternatives to only those children fortunate enough to reside in wealthy families.

WFPL-FM reported that during this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign, Beshear said: “If you want to send your kids to private schools, that’s your right. That’s a choice that many people make and should be able to make.”

Yet by opposing a voluntary giving program which make such choices possible for many families, Beshear is really saying: You can have more choices for your children if you have the wealth which allows you to write big tuition checks to private schools. But it’s just tough luck for those families and their kids who don’t."

The Institute for Justice (Nevada): "And the fact is that wealthy families already have school choice,” House said. “This is a program to promote the choice of low-income families and the Nevada Legislature is taking away those choices with this bill."

Democracy Prep Charter Schools: "I am not only a CEO of a network of high-performing charter schools, I am a black mother. I sent one of my children to my school, Democracy Prep, for his high school education. Democracy Prep was not perfect for my son. More variety in course options and a robust coding program would have been good for him. But it was the best option for me and my family. It was a choice that we made. And I am so grateful that I was able to exercise that choice. I am grateful that we weren’t relegated to a zoned school, as so many families are. You know, where zip codes determine schooling options and children are treated as a public resource? Why should wealthy families be allowed to exercise choice, with their feet and their pocketbooks, but low-income families be told to support the traditional public school system, even when that system is failing their children?"

The Illinois Family Institute"In recent years, school choice has been a battle many parents have joined, because it should not be only wealthy parents who have the freedom to choose their children’s schools. All parents should have that freedom."

The Foundation for Economic Education: "Under the current status quo, the quality of students’ education is often determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often people of color—have few choices. Hence, they typically attend schools with the poorest math and reading scores, the worst discipline problems, and the highest levels of violence.

A ticket out of these conditions is school choice, which financially allows parents to select the schools their children attend, regardless of whether they are public, private, or charter. Sanders is “strongly opposed“ to giving parents this option. He says this is because private and charter schools are led by 'unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.'

The School Choice Movement"Opponents of school choice are loud, persistent and well funded.

But in Florida, they are not winning.

The reason is simple: the arguments for school choice are compelling.

Let’s begin with the issue of social justice. Affluent parents always have enjoyed the ability to pick their children’s schools. They can move into neighborhoods with high quality public schools. They can afford the tuition for top private schools."

The Foundation for Economic Education (again): "School choice offers a solution to this unfair reality where the rich are able to choose their school and the poor are stuck by law in a failing system. In 2016, the NAACP voted on a moratorium against charter schools, and over 160 black education reformers wrote an open letter in opposition to the declaration. They wrote: '[F]or many urban Black families, charter schools are making it possible to do what affluent families have long been able to to do: rescue their children from failing schools.'"

* * *

Now, some might argue that none of the school "choice" supporters here are outright stating that disadvantaged families will have the same choices as the wealthy. They've left open an escape hatch: they didn't explicitly say the choices would be the same for the rich and the not-rich -- only that both would have choices. So we can't really say that the "choice" advocates are claiming that the rich and the poor alike will have the same access to the same types of schooling under their plans; that would be so unfair...

Except words matter. The entire point of bringing the "choices" of the wealthy into the conversation is to make the case that vouchers will grant the less-affluent something the rich already have. And no one here explicitly acknowledges the choices won't be the same; to the contrary, the reader is guided to the logical conclusion that the advocates are calling for equality in choices between the rich and the poor. Otherwise, schooling would remain unequal -- and what's the point in changing the system if that problem remains?

If choicers really want to argue this point, however, let's look at some more examples of their rhetoric -- examples where the authors explicitly state that school choice will offer the same options for less-advantaged parents that more-advantaged parents enjoy.

* * *

Florida Parent Network"I support educational choice for all.

Educational options have existed for the wealthy for as long as anyone can remember. What’s controversial is when we suggest that those same options should be open to everyone."

Read more here: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article213232859.html?platform=hootsuite&utm_source=Unknown+List&utm_campaign=8f6ba64468-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_15_04_00&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-8f6ba64468-#storylink=cpy

The Heritage Foundation: "For students who do face adversity, the best thing we can do to level the playing field is to fix our broken public school system. Students who lack rigorous school choice options in their state must attend their assigned district public school, no matter the quality.

Restricting schooling options for families reinforces the cycle of poverty for students from poor neighborhoods, and undoubtedly affects a student’s preparedness for college.

Wealthy parents have been exercising choice for their children for decades, and it is time for state lawmakers to afford that right to all families.

The Manhattan Institute: "In the American public education system, children’s educational prospects are determined by their families’ zip codes. This system reinforces a cycle of poverty as parents living in poor districts are left with no choice besides local public schools. By giving low-income families the option to send children to higher-quality schools, school choice extends to low-income families a choice that is already available to wealthy families."

The Thomas Fordham Institute: "Why vouchers? It’s no secret that wealthier parents enjoy a greater choice of schools for their children. They can afford to purchase homes in high-status suburban districts or cover the costs of private school education.

Yet few low- and middle-income families have similar opportunities. They typically send their kids to a public school that is assigned to them based on residential address. Many times, this works out fine. But when it doesn’t, students with limited means are stuck in schools that don’t meet their educational needs.

School choice, including private-school scholarships, opens opportunities and levels the playing field for less-privileged families. In Ohio, more than 35,000 youngsters already use publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing. The overwhelming majority come from low-income and/or minority households or have a special need such as autism."

K12 Insight"To help, my colleagues and I have put together a practical guide to succeeding in a world of school choice.

[Read the guide: The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Capturing Market Share]

In it, we attempt to shine a light on the changes taking place—and help school leaders embrace a new mindset, one that levels the playing field and keeps students coming back."

Method Modern Schools: "Granting parents the freedom to send their children to the school of their choice, regardless of address, levels the education playing field. Charter schools achieve this by offering unique educational options for all families, regardless of neighborhood or income level."

* * *

The explicit message here is that the choices offered through vouchers and charters will lead to everyone having the same choices. "Leveling the playing field" is a construction that sends a clear message: everyone's choices will be equivalent; otherwise, the field wouldn't be level. 

But let's be frank: the difference between these arguments and the ones further up is, in reality, tiny. The point of all of these statements is to get the readers to believe school "choice" will give to the less wealthy what the wealthy already have. The rhetoric of school "choice" advocates is clearly designed to make the case that charter schools and school vouchers offer everyone the same "choices" as advantaged families.

Which leads us to an obvious question: is it true? Are charter schools -- particularly the no-excuses charters in urban areas, enrolling large proportions of students of color -- at all equivalent to the public district schools found in the leafy 'burbs? Are voucher schools at all similar to suburban district schools, or the elite private schools down the street?

I've spent a lot of time on this blog over the years addressing the first question, and the answer is clearly: no, in no way are "no excuses" charters like suburban district schools. I haven't spent as much time on the second question; given the pumping up of the school voucher movement since the installation of Betsy DeVos as the SecEd, it's a point that's worth exploring. 

But the fact is that school voucher amounts are generally quite small compared to the costs of educating a student in a well-resourced private school. So it's clear that no, these programs are not offering an education that is equivalent to that enjoyed by affluent families. Again: I'm planning to get more into this question over the next year.

For now, it's enough to say this: the rhetoric of those who promote school "choice" clearly attempts to make the case that charters and vouchers grant less-affluent families choices that are equivalent to those of more affluent families. If these advocates are going to continue to make their arguments in this way, they then have an obligation to show that no-excuses charter schools and voucher-accepting private schools are equivalent to suburban public schools and well-resourced private schools.

Running away from this obligation is tantamount to admitting their rhetoric is misleading. And I know they would never want to do that...