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

Monday, December 23, 2013

Are Charter School Wait Lists Really That Big?

Yesterday, I joined in with Bob Braun and shredded yet another ignorant and racially tone-deaf editorial from the Star-Ledger about Newark's schools. I'm really getting sick and tired of knocking down the S-L's ignorance; however, I want to address a point of policy I had skipped that the editorial makes:
Charter schools will play a key role in these reforms. Already, Newark families are voting with their feet to enroll at charters, especially at those run by Team Academy and North Star Academy, both of which are achieving remarkable results even with the most challenging students. At last count, about 8,000 students are enrolled in charters with another 10,000 kids on waiting lists. [emphasis mine]
You can always trust the S-L to state a "fact" in their editorials with no citation. Honestly, how hard is it to write "According to so-and-so..." or "A report from blah-blah-bah..." or "State data shows..." when you cite a "fact" like this? And if you don't want to do that, how about just putting in a link in your electronic editions? Is the S-L Editorial Board really so lazy they can't even source their talking points?

(You'll notice, by the way, that I use links and citations incessantly, as do most bloggers worth their salt. Must be a dirty hippie thing...)

So we don't know where the S-L got this "fact" from. Variations of it are to be found all over the NJ Charter Schools Association website; however, after searching around for a while, I couldn't find a source for their claims either.

So where does this "fact" come from? Well, the NJDOE does require charter schools to keep a waiting list when the school is oversubscribed. And, until 2011, the department included the number of students on a waiting list for each charter as part of its "Report Card" data. Unfortunately, I could not find the same data for 2012 or 2013, so we have to go back in time a bit to look at the numbers. Let's see what we've got:

Here are the 2011 wait list numbers for all charters in Newark that are operating as of 2013; excluded are schools that were open in 2011 but have closed since, such as Adelaide Sanford CS. There are some holes in NJDOE's data: Philips Academy Charter, for example, doesn't have enrollment numbers listed. Still, this gives us a pretty good idea of where Newark stands.

The red bar shows 2011 enrollment; the green shows 2013, the latest year available. And the blue bar shows the number of students on the waiting list.

The first thing that stands out here is the sheer disproportion of students waiting at different schools. Yes, TEAM (a KIPP school) had 4,800 students on their list - but Visions and Newark Legacy had none. 9,987 of the 10,761 names on the cumulative wait list for Newark - 93% - come from just four schools: Gray, Robert Treat, North Star, and TEAM.

So it's incomplete at best to say that there is a huge demand for charter schools; in Newark, there is really only a large demand for a few high-performing schools that have reputations for economic segregation and significant rates of student attrition.

Yes, let's go over this yet another time, just for Tom Moran's sake; here's Bruce Baker:
Let’s start by taking a look at the most recent available data on the segregation of students by disability status, free lunch status, gender and language proficiency. Now, the CREDO report is careful to point out that charter school enrollments match the demographics of their feeder schools – and uses this finding as an indication that therefore charter schools aren’t cream-skimming. That’s all well and good…. EXCEPT … that for some (actually many) reason, charter schools themselves end up having far fewer of the lowest income students. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. % Free Lunch
There's Treat, North Star, and TEAM, all with relatively low percentages of Free Lunch-eligible students (TEAM's not as bad, granted, but still...). The pattern is the same for Limited English Proficient (LEP) and special education children. As for the attrition rates:
Gets uglier each time I look at it.

One other obvious point: how many of the 2,473 students on the wait list for North Star in 2011 were also on the list for TEAM and Robert Treat? In other words, isn't it reasonable to assume that a significant number of families who were hoping to get their children into TEAM had also applied to other charters? If that's the case, there aren't "10,000 kids on waiting lists" for charter schools; there are 10,000 names, but it's quite likely many of those names are repeated.

Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should have taken some of the money he gave to consultants and hired someone to look into this (I'm available all summer, Zuck; call me, babe).

Do I think there are more children waiting to get into high-performing charters than there are seats available? Almost certainly; frankly, I'd be surprised if there weren't. Given the absolute failure of the State of New Jersey to adequately care for the Newark school facilities under its control, I'd be amazed if there weren't large numbers of families eager to get their children out of crumbling, dangerous, filthy buildings and into corporate-backed charters with shiny new classrooms.

But those parents - and the community - give up a lot to send their children to a TEAM or a North Star or a Robert Treat (assuming they can get their children in). The parents and students give up legal rights, while the community gives up governance. The students are subjected to questionable disciplinary practices, and the parents have no recourse other than pulling their children from the school. The charters are not held to account for their inequitable student populations by the state.

We don't ask suburban families to choose between charter schools over which they have no say and crumbling, dangerous public schools; why do we insist that this is the only choice available to families in our poorest cities?

The size of Newark's charter waiting lists are clearly being oversold. But how much smaller would those lists be if the neighborhood schools were as well-resourced as Newark's best-performing charters? How much smaller would they be if they were as accountable to Newark's parents and citizens as suburban public schools are to their families and taxpayers?

I guess we'll never know. For now, though, charter cheerleaders should stop looking at waiting lists, no matter their actual size, as badges of honor for charter schools, and see them for what they really are: marks of shame for the state's control of the Newark Public Schools.

Accountability begins at home.

No comments: