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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Charter Schools: The New Battle of Trenton

So you guys have all seen this:

On Christmas Day, 1775, George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River, starting at what is known now as Upper Makefield, PA. The general led his forces south along the banks of the river, eventually sneaking up on the Hessians, the German mercenary troops of the British who were occupying Trenton. The Germans had been partying to celebrate the season, and weren't quite in their best fighting shape when George attacked. It was an important victory.

The reason I know this is that Upper Makefield is my hometown. Every year I would get dragged out by my parents on December 25th to watch our neighbors dress up like Continental Army soldiers and reenact Washington's crossing at the very same spot. 

I always suspected that my parents' friends who volunteered for this duty were celebrating the season before the reenactment in much the same way as the Hessians did. I say this because, year after year, the Durham boats used in the pageant would wind up taking extremely circuitous routes to the New Jersey side of the river, betraying a lack of naval coordination and river-faring acumen that was likely precipitated by the consumption of copious amounts of distilled beverages.

I could be wrong, of course. But I'm not...

There's a way-too-narrow bridge now where the crossing occurred (famously described in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five) whose pylons make for a few small islands in the otherwise landless expanse between the two shores of the Delaware. In my memory, the few years when the reenactors managed to accurately recreate Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting are offset by the many years when the boats would run aground against these man-made islands as the current swept the boats downriver.

Why am I telling you this? Well, friends, sometimes I have to give you more background than you deserve before I spring my latest, desperate, reformy metaphor on you:
TRENTON Just as the city’s school board closed a $10.5 million budget gap last month by cutting administrative staff — a gap that some board members blamed in part on charter schools — two more charter applicants submitted proposals to enter the district in 2015. 
The state Department of Education announced last week that it received applications from Rising Star Preparatory Charter School and ASPIRE Academy Charter School to open schools that could eventually attract 900-plus students from Trenton. 
If approved, they would be in addition to four existing charter schools — Foundation Academy Charter School, International Charter School of Trenton; Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities and Village Charter School — and two that have been approved to open this fall, STEM-to-Civics and International Academy of Trenton. 
While officials at the charters said that they anticipate the new schools will have a positive effect in the area because they will provide what they believe will be quality options for parents and students, a number of school board members have shown resistance to the growing charter market in Trenton. 
During school board and city council meetings, members of the board and the superintendent of the district, Francisco Duran, have laid much of the blame for the district’s $10.5 million budget deficit at the feet of the city’s charters. 
School Board President Sasa Olessi-Montano has said the charter movement in Trenton has only created chaos for the district’s budget process and for students.
Yes, the charter wars have come to Trenton. Thanks to Former Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf and his former boss, formerly viable presidential candidate Chris Christie, New Jersey has seen a proliferation of charter school applications. Which means the school districts which are forced to host these charters have to come up with more money to fund more of them, often at the expense of their own programs and with no say in their governance.

You'll often hear the charter cheerleaders cry poverty, claiming that they don't get the money they really deserve. Conveniently, they neglect to mention two things: first, the public school districts usually have expenses on their books that can't be shared with charters, so the comparisons of per student spending aren't really relevant. Related to this are issues of economies of scale: for example, if you pull one hundred kids out of a public school district, you still have to light and heat the buildings where they would have gone to school.

Second -- and this is the one that the mandarins of the local press keep ignoring -- charter schools do not serve the same students as the public schools.

I'm guessing, between Bruce Baker and myself, we've now got over two dozen variations on this same graph, featuring schools and districts from all over the state... but sure, let's add one more. Here are the traditional public schools (TPSs) and charters in the Trenton area; the charters are in red. Once again, the charters do not serve the same population of free lunch-eligible students (a proxy measure for poverty) as most of the Trenton public schools.

How about special education students?

Still on the low end. Both of these comparisons need a few caveats: first, I'm mixing grade levels, which is tricky for both free lunch-eligibility and special education percentages, which can have a tendency to shift as grade levels move from elementary to secondary. Second, those special education percentages lump together kids who have mild needs (like speech therapy) with those who have severe impairments (like low-functioning autism or emotional disabilities). The tendency is for New Jersey's charters to take fewer (if any) of the children with more serious, more costly needs, but I don't know if that is the case in Trenton (more later, hopefully).

Finally: having a free lunch-eligible percentage of over 60 means having a lot of kids in poverty, even if the public schools have more. To illustrate, let's pull things back a little and look at all of Mercer County, the home of Trenton and quite possibly one of the most economically unequal areas in the entire United States.

I know some of you let your eyes glaze over when you see these scatterplots, but they really are good at getting to the heart of the matter. Let me break it down:

The vertical axis shows the proportion of students who passed the cutoff for "proficiency" on the Grade 8 NJASK language arts test in 2013. Yes, all of Princeton Charter School's eighth graders passed the test, as did the vast majority in Princeton, East Windsor, Robbinsville, and the other "outer" school districts (more on that in a sec). Of the three Trenton area charters for which we have data, only Foundation Academy had a proficiency rate over 70 percent.

So, can we replicate Foundation on a larger scale? Clearly, the answer is "no," because Foundation (and Village) have a substantially lower percentage of students who qualify for free lunch than the public schools of Trenton. We just can't make every school in Trenton have a lower-than-average poverty rate

As I've pointed out many times on this blog, peer effect is real and undoubtedly contributes substantially to Foundation's success. That's not say the school isn't doing good work and may have developed some best practices that are worth emulating; I'm only stating that there is very little evidence here that Foundation can be scaled up across all of Trenton.

Some of you might look at the variation in Trenton's public schools and see that while they all have the highest poverty rates in Mercer County, they also vary widely in their outcomes. So why can't all of Trenton's schools score at least as well as Village? Well, there are likely differences between these schools' populations that can't be reflected in the data, but wind up influencing test scores. And I'm not saying school differences don't matter; they almost certainly do, although we'd have to study this situation a lot more closely to figure out what those differences are (falling back on reformy bromides like "no excuses!" or "more class time" is not helpful in this regard).

What I'm saying is this: even if every Trenton school could emulate the results of its best schools with equivalent rates of poverty, those schools still wouldn't "close the gap" with low-poverty schools in the same county.

Which brings me to my final point (and back to my tortured metaphor):

Growing up across the river, I know Mercer County pretty well. You can think of it as three concentric semicircular rings growing out from the intersection of Route 1 and the Delaware. The first ring is Trenton itself. The second is from roughly the city line to the loop made made I-95/295: the "inner" suburbs of Ewing, Hamilton, and Lawrence. The final ring extends to the county border: Hopewell, Princeton, the Windsors, Robbinsville, etc.

This is a pattern you see in cities of all sizes all over the country: a poor urban core (with maybe some gentrifying), surrounded by working-class inner suburbs, surrounded by relatively wealthy exurbs. If you look at the scatter plot above, you'll see the free-lunch eligible percentage slide closer to zero the further out you go from the core of Trenton. And you'll see the proficiency rate slide closer to 100 percent as that free-lunch rate decreases.

This is the most obvious thing in the world: standardized test outcomes correlate very tightly with economic measures. I know all the reformy types love to claim this is "making excuses," but their protestations don't change the fact that this correlation exists, and that there is little debate the cause is poverty's effect on test-based outcomes. In Mercer County, almost 90 percent of the variation in 8th Grade proficiency rates can be explained by free-lunch eligibility rates. As the poverty rate goes down, the proficiency rate goes up, with a nearly perfect relationship. Only the willingly obtuse or the outright mendacious would ever try to deny this truth or what it is telling us: poverty matters.

But Mercer County shows us something else:

Look at the gap in free-lunch eligibility between the highest inner suburban schools and the lowest Trenton public schools: it's over 50 percentage points. Like the cold water that runs between the shores of the Delaware, this poverty gap between the 'burbs and the city only has a few small islands in between: Trenton's charter schools. The only schools in Trenton that have free-lunch rates low enough to even approach the suburban schools are charters.

What are we to make of this? Well, if we start with the acknowledgment that charter schools are privately managed and do not have to grant students, those students' families, or their teachers the same rights and commitments to transparency as public schools, we have to conclude that charters are offering an exchange: students in poor areas can gain a peer effect if their families are willing to give up the governance structure of public schools.

You'll notice that there is no such deal being offered in the outer exurbs: those kids get to enjoy their peer effects while their families get self-determination and democratic representation in the running of their school system. You'll also notice that even the most economically segregated school in Trenton can only compete with the inner, working-class suburbs. The "gap" in proficiency with the outer exurbs still exists. Some may say this is a triumph, but we have to be honest about its cost, and we have to be honest about its cause.

Because Foundation hasn't assembled its student population by mixing kids from the 'burbs with kids from Trenton; rather, it's culled a number of less-poor children with fewer special needs from Trenton's public schools and concentrated them. This is just not a scalable formula for achieving educational equity. There is no evidence here that we will be able to close the "achievement gap" by expanding charter schools when those schools have different populations than the public schools in poor urban areas.

One other thing: remember that lone charter in the upper left corner, with 100 percent proficiency and the smallest percentage of free lunch-eligible kids in the county? You can make a very good case that Princeton Charter School is, for all intents and purposes, a private school that is being subsidized by the taxpayers of Mercer County (Bruce Baker has, in fact, made just that case).

But imagine, instead, if PCS made a commitment to living in the Delaware Poverty Gap. Imagine a school -- maybe a network of schools -- that drew students from Trenton and the outer 'burbs, allowing students to enjoy peer effects without simply concentrating the less-poor Trenton students in a few stand alone schools. Imagine a series of schools that mixed affluent and less-affluent kids through Mercer County. What might happen?

I'd still argue that there was no need for a charter school structure to create schools like this. But there would at least be the justification that those charters had a possibility of being scalable. I don't see any way that continuing to expand charters in Trenton, populated only with Trenton's children, can ever get the district to a point where a significant number of students could be served in schools with low enough populations of less-affluent students such that they could really close the "achievement gap."

In other words: we can keep opening charters, or we can start trying to develop solutions that address the real problem. What's it going to be?

ADDING: Inter-district choice may be a good first step, but I still think it suffers from the same problem: it's just not scalable. I'll try to get to this at some point in the future.

ADDING MORE: Even more typos than usual. Thanks, Giuseppe. 


Giuseppe said...

Is this a typo: "Well, if we start with the acknowledgment that charter schools are not privately managed..." Charter schools are privately managed so I'll assume you made a typo or I'm just not getting your point?
In any case, a good article and the point is that charter schools don't have the same percentages of the more expensive and more difficult pupils as do the REAL public schools.

Duke said...

Good catch, G - I fixed it. Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting.

JSB79 said...

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Interdistrict Choice, but if your primary concern is equity you should be careful to praise Interdistrict Choice in the abstract, not the implementation. The reason for this is that Interdistrict Choice districts practice the same kind of non-representative enrollment that charter schools practice, but with an even greater skew away from low-SES students.

Unlike charter schools, Interdistrict Choice districts aren't under any kind of scrutiny, so officials from Interdistrict Choice districts freely admit that their students enter the schools as high-performers. In an article for The Daily Journal, a Deal teacher said ""the application process ensures only the most desirous families end up there." In a separate article the Kenilworth superintendent said ""Interdistrict choice brings us a lot of academically talented students looking to find a home elsewhere. And we’re happy to accept them."


There has been almost no research done on Interdistrict Choice since a Rutgers study done when Interdistrict Choice was still a pilot. That study found that Choice students were half as likely as the general population to require special education and presumably next to none require OOD placements.


Again, no research has been done on Interdistrict Choice, but I would bet my bottom dollar that few Choice students (even from low-income districts) are FRL eligible. The transportation funding for Interdistrict Choice is set up like the transportation stipend for private school students, meaning $884 if the sending district busses its own general education kids, $0 if the sending district doesn't bus general education kids. Since $884 isn't nearly enough for a child to travel from, say, Trenton to Hopewell Valley by private transport, that means that unless a child's parents can drive him or her, that child can't participate in Interdistrict Choice.

Deal has a very large Choice student population and is near Neptune, Long Branch, and Asbury Park, but only 40% of its students are from those districts. The majority of Choice students at Deal are from middle-class districts. 0% of Deal students are FRL-eligible too, so the students from low-SES communities like Neptune, Long Branch, and Asbury are not low-SES students.

I don't think that Choice districts intentionally skim. Nor do I think charters intentionally skim. The issue is that to opt into Interdistrict Choice you have to separate from your friends and accept a much longer commute. The students who accept that will not be representative. The same thing goes for charters. Charters demand that students accept a longer school day, longer school year, and a tougher curriculum. The kids making that choice will likewise not be representative.

I think the biggest problem with Interdistrict Choice is its funding formula and how it overpays Choice districts and takes money away from non-Choice districts. I don't think it's automatically a problem that Choice students are non-representative, but if you want to find a solution to the skimming of charter schools and poor educational opportunities in low-income districts than Interdistrict Choice is not a solution.

continued ..

JSB79 said...

You are right about the scalability problem too. There's a lack of capacity in suburban districts for one, but also no money in the state budget for it. The average Choice Aid per student is $10,500 (plus a transportation subsidy). If 5,000 kids from Trenton, Camden, and other low-performing districts participated it would cost over $50,000,000.

In theory there would be corresponding savings by the state not having to give as much aid to low-income districts, but if you oppose charter schools because they take money away from low-income public school districts you should oppose Interdistrict Choice when it does the same thing.

Giuseppe said...

I don't know that much about Interdistrict Choice but on the face of it, it sounds like a formula for chaos and confusion. What's the rationale for I.C.? I've got homework.

JSB79 said...


I think the rationale for IC really is to give parents and kids more options for where they can attend school. For some kids that might mean transferring out of a low-performing district into a higher performing one. For other kids that might mean transferring between adequately-performing districts, but transferring into a school that is a better fit for the child, perhaps from being a different size or having a special curricular emphasis. Frustratingly, no comprehensive information on where Choice students come from is available, but if you look at how many districts are in places like Cape May, Hunterdon, Warren, and Sussex counties you'll see that most students couldn't be coming from districts like Trenton and Camden.

There's also a justification in that IC funnels students and money into underenrolled schools and serves as a fiscal lifeline to tiny districts like Deal, Stockton, Lebanon Boro, Washington Township (Burlington) etc that would have very high per pupil costs if it weren't for Interdistrict Choice. Personally I don't think there is a compelling state interest in sustaining districts with fewer than 100 students, but apparently the legislature did have this in mind when it expanded IC in 2010.

In the abstract I like IC, but it's not fiscally sustainable. In 2010-11 the program was $9.8 million, in 2011-12 it was $20.6 million, in 2012-13 it was $33 million, and in 2013-14 it was $49 million. For 2014-15 the Christie Administration put a 5% enrollment growth cap in place, but even with that the costs increased by over 10% to $54 million.

I don't think the legislature and governor properly thought IC through. They ignored that the cost growth would be unsustainable. They ignored that the enrollment would be non-representative. They ignored that they were overpaying districts. They ignored that the transportation funding would be inadequate for low-income students. Despite the state having a policy of encouraging district and municipal mergers, they ignored that Interdistrict Choice completely wipes out any financial justification for a merger since massive state aid is triggered whenever students cross district lines.

If you are interested in reading more, this is one of the few critical pieces ever written about IC.


Giuseppe said...

JSB79: Thanks for all the information and the link.

JSB79 said...

Most of the students who participate in Interdistrict Choice aren't even leaving low-performing districts. Many of the kids participating are from adequately performing districts.

What's really offensive about the program is that districts can swap students an trigger massive aid for districts.


Cape May county districts get more state aid than ever, even though the student population has dropped by 350.

Many IC students' parents previously paid tuition for their children to attend those schools.

GoodRiddance said...

Thanks for the informative article. Don't be surprised if you get invitations to take tours of charter schools in Trenton to show you "all the wonderful work" they do. If you go, you'll get a speech with happy faces - it's part of the fake show.

I think it's time these charter schools in Trenton start to provide data on their staff retention rates. One of the schools in your article is historically awful at retaining staff and had a 60% rate of retaining staff a few years ago, so 40% were let go or left the organization. Of course they will tell you that those staff were not a "good fit", but I know of at least one narcissistic Executive Director who is just an awful leader and the root of the problem for so many staff leaving.

So to anyone that takes a tour of a charter school: ask about the staff retention over the past 6 years, and be prepared to see how awful some of schools really are.

Cab112211 said...

According to the New Jersey School Performance Reports from 2012-13, Foundation Academy's overall percentage of economically disadvantaged students was 83.3%, not 65-70% as shown in your analysis. http://www.state.nj.us/education/pr/1213/80/806017932.pdf.

Additionally, the percentage of 8th graders who took the NJASK and were considered economically disadvantaged was 82%. http://www.state.nj.us/education/schools/achievement/13/njask8/

These numbers are both comparable to Trenton schools, yet achievement on the 8th Grade NJASK is higher at Foundation Academy than Trenton schools in both math and ELA.