Cami Anderson, the superintendent of Newark schools, has taken enormous heat for nurturing the growth of charter schools, which now educate roughly 1 in 4 kids in the city.
She’s helped them raise money. She’s made space for them in district schools. She’s been heckled at public meetings for defending them.
But now she is worried, because some of the charter schools are not taking their fair share of students facing special hurdles, including extreme poverty or learning disabilities.
That rigs the game against the district. It means the toughest cases are concentrated in district schools, a segregation that makes it even tougher to get good results. And because the charters are growing so fast, the problem can no longer be ignored.
So we've got a bit of a watershed moment here: the man who controls the editorial page of the largest paper in New Jersey is finally - finally - acknowledging a basic truth: student characteristics play a major role in the "success" of "successful" charter schools. Perhaps Anderson's acknowledgement of this fact has allowed Moran to confront the notion himself; if so, great... but it's not like some of us haven't been pointing this out to Moran and New Jersey's other charter cheerleaders over and over and over again.
“The doomsday scenario is that the students in greatest need are stuck in the most struggling schools,” she says. “If you only have students who are struggling, it makes it harder. Diversity is critical.”
So we have a bit of progress here. Alas: as the piece continues, it's clear that Moran has not yet fully joined us in this sphere of reality:
Ryan Hill, who runs the TEAM Academy’s six charters in Newark, is considered a hero by many in the movement. His schools are showing remarkable results, and he takes his fair share of tough cases. The North Star Academy, which runs nine schools, is in the same class.
“We basically bombard the poorest neighborhoods with as much information about our schools as possible,” he says.
His staffers bring fliers to grocery stores and barber shops. They target mailers to low-income homes with kids and follow up with phone calls. They let families sign up any way they want — in person, online, by phone, by fax, by email. Parents are not required to attend a lottery or stand in line. Even a busy parent — or a dysfunctional one — can handle it.
On the other end of the spectrum is the most famous charter of them all, the Robert Treat Academy. A K-8 school, it is producing the highest scores in the city and beating many suburban schools as well.
“That’s why our population is what it is,” Hill says.
But it’s precisely the kind of school that worries Anderson: Just 52 percent of its kids qualify for free lunches, compared with 84 percent in district schools. Only 3 percent are in special education programs, compared with 16 percent in district schools. The same pattern holds for English proficiency. [emphasis mine]Oh, no. No, no, no, no... [annotations mine]:
Let me explain what's going on here. This chart shows a group of charter schools in New Jersey that operate in districts with student populations over 10,000. The column with the colors shows the disparity between the entire district and the charter listed in the proportion of students that charter serves who are classified as "free lunch eligible" (three year average, using latest available data): in other words, children who live in deep poverty.
If you look at the bottom of the list, for example, you'll see that Emily Fisher in Trenton served 80% more students in need than the surrounding public schools (and for their trouble, they were shut down by the state because of "poor student performance." Don't remember hearing Tom Moran complaining about that...).
In Newark, 72% of students qualified for free lunch from 2009 to 2011. Robert Treat, however, has a student population where only 45% of its children qualified for free lunch*; this, apparently, is cause for great concern.
But look at North Star - which Moran says takes its "fair share of tough cases" - with a 52% free lunch population. When it comes to diversity, is the difference between a "good" charter and a "bad"a mere 7%? And Ryan Hill's TEAM Academy, while not as bad, still serves a significantly different student population than the district's public schools. Why doesn't Moran acknowledge that?
It's all well and good that Hill's staff hands out fliers and calls people at their homes (would you pick up the call during dinner?). But the truth is, despite what may indeed be their best efforts, the populations of TEAM and North Star, just like Robert Treat, are not the same as the population of all of Newark's schools. Which means that their "successes" are not replicable.
Further, admissions is not the only way to create a segregated school population. The student population may be stable at Treat, but it is most certainly not stable at North Star or TEAM:
Where did I get this? Why, the same place I got the table of free lunch disparity: Bruce Baker. You know, the Rutgers professor Tom Moran cites in this very column:Parsing these data a step further, let’s look specifically at attrition for Black boys at North Star.Figure 9. Cohort Decline for Black BoysI’ve flipped the direction of the years here…to be moving forward in the logical left to right direction. So, reorient yourself! For grade 5 to 12, North Star had only one cohort that approached retaining 50% (well… actually, 42%). In other years, grade 5 to 12 attrition was around 75% or greater for black boys. Grade 9 to 12 attrition was about 40% in the most recent two years, and much more than that previously for black boys. Of the 50 or so annual entrants at 5th grade to North Star prior to recent doubling, only a handful would ever make it to 12th grade. [emphasis mine]
“The easiest way to get high outcomes is to get students who can generate those numbers for you,” says Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. “That’s true for charters, and it’s true for district magnet schools.”There's not a doubt in my mind that Baker explained all this to Moran. But Tom decided not to include it. Why? Because he has to prove that charters "work." He, like State Superintendent Anderson, has to believe that charters are part of the solution to Newark's chronic poverty and joblessness. He, like Commissioner Cerf and Governor Christie, has to believe that reforminess is the best possible way to fix an economic and social system that has become so unequal and so inherently racist that its problems can no longer be ignored.
Because if its true that charters and merit pay and vouchers and deunionization and gutting worker protections in schools are not going to fix things... well, that might force us all to confront some hard truths about income inequality and the corruption of our politics and historically low taxation of the wealthy and the fixing of our markets and all the other real issues this country faces but our media is loathe to discuss.
And we can't have that, can we?
The Star-Ledger Editorial Board: Do they dare to take a peek at the real world?
* Again, three year average from 2009-2011, using federal data, which explains the small descrepency with the numbers from Moran's column.
ADDING: The NJDOE holds schools "accountable" for their test results, but they do not hold schools accountable for their unequal student populations. All a school has to do is "prove" that they've tried to recruit a diverse student body - but they don't actually have to serve kids in poverty or who have special needs.
Isn't that just so super?
ADDING MORE: Paraphrasing Atrios, the comments section of the Star-Ledger is usually the worst place on the internets. But the comments under Moran's piece are hilarious:
Hey, man - you asked...