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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Evidence Shows NJ's Urban Hope Act Unlikely To Work

The Urban Hope Act, which will greatly expand charter school enrollment in Camden, overwhelmingly passed the Senate this week following Governor Chris Christie's conditional veto. The bill now heads to the Assembly; if it passes, the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains will be allowed to use existing CCPS facilities and revenues to grow their presence in Camden, inevitably leading to the closure of many of the city's public schools.

Senate President Steve Sweeney gives the impression that the "failure" of CCPS to educate Camden's children leaves him little choice but to approve the UHA:
The revised bill was opposed by some local and statewide advocates who oppose charter expansion in the state-run Camden district. Some of those advocates have filed a legal challenge to the approvals. Sweeney yesterday said he heard the criticism, but discounted it.
“I’m open to improve education in Camden, and we’re hoping this is part of the solution,” he said. “We could be wrong, but what we are doing otherwise isn’t working.” [emphasis mine]
"We could be wrong" is hardly a ringing endorsement of a policy that will radically restructure Camden's schools. But I am convinced, having studied this issue at length, that Sweeney's tepid endorsement here actually overstates the case for the UHA. I say this because we have quite a bit of empirical evidence regarding the characterization of Camden, and it all leads to one conclusion:

Given what we know about charter schools in New Jersey, the Urban Hope Act is unlikely to work.

Rutgers professor Dr. Julia Sass Rubin, a founding member of SOSNJ*, has extensively outlined much of the evidence I'll present here. Her analysis examined both Mastery and Uncommon; my quick rundown focuses only on Uncommon, as there is no New Jersey data yet available on Mastery.

1) The charter management organizations (CMOs) coming to Camden under UHA do not currently teach as many students in economic disadvantage (ED) as the neighboring public schools.

The evidence is clear: North Star Academy, the Newark branch of the Uncommon CMO, does not teach nearly as many children who qualify for free lunch (the best proxy measure we have for economic disadvantage) as the NPS schools. You may hear some argue that North Star comes closer to NPS when we measure ED with free or reduced-price lunch status, but's that's because RPL is at 185% of the poverty line, while FL is at 130% percent. In a city like Newark -- or Camden -- RPL is a measure of relative economic advantage.

2) There is no evidence these charter schools "beat the odds" when educating children in economic disadvantage.

From one of the analyses Bruce Baker and I did of "One Newark," the school restructuring plan for that city. Yes, North Star gets good test scores -- but it closely follows the trend of rising test scores correlating to reduced FL percentages. This strongly suggests North Star gets its gains at least in part from a "peer effect," which cannot be replicated at a large scale: not every school in Newark or Camden can have below average student poverty.

3) North Star engages in patterns of significant student cohort attrition.

As each cohort moves through North Star, it sheds students -- significant numbers of students. While some undoubtedly move outside the district, it is likely many return to NPS schools. These patterns of attrition, however, are not nearly as pronounced within NPS.

For the last five years, each of NPS's Grade 12 student cohorts was proportionately larger than North Star's as judged by its size in Grade 5. We don't know how this plays out when using individual student data, but the evidence strongly suggests North Star sheds more students proportionately than NPS.

4) North Star does not educate nearly as many children with special education needs as NPS.

Proportionately, North Star doesn't even educate half of the special education students that NPS does. If students with special needs won't be served by the charters, where will they go to school?

Additionally, it's clear that the special education students charters do enroll have low-cost needs. Which suggests the higher-cost students -- those on autism spectrum, with serious health impairments, with emotional disturbances, etc. -- will be in CCPS, even as the UHA charters take 95% of the funds per student from the district.

The UHA is setting up a fiscal disaster for Camden: it will likely leave students with the most costly needs in the public schools while disproportionately diverting the funds needed to educate them into the charters.

Senator Sweeney says, "We may be wrong" when he endorses the Urban Hope Act. Senator, with all due respect, the evidence we have suggests not that you "may" be wrong; instead, you "likely" are wrong.

The Urban Hope Act is bad policy. It should not be approved by the Assembly.

* Full disclosure: I am currently doing research work for SOSNJ.

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