There's been a big to-do over social media about my latest report on New Jersey charter schools, co-authored with Julia Sass Rubin. I have come to loathe debate by Twitter, so let me spell out my thoughts here:
I'm not one for playing games with data. I'm not going to tell you I have some special, secret stash of numbers and that you have to trust me because I have the real true facts, and anyone who says otherwise must live in the suburbs and hate city children...
What I'm about to do is something anyone can do quite easily with a copy of Excel and a few spreadsheets you can download here. Everything in this analysis is completely replicable. If I got something wrong, tell me and I'll fix it. I am an open book.
First, download the 2013 "District Classification Rates, Ages 3-21" file from the New Jersey Department of Education's Special Education Data webpage. Pick out two relevant data points: the district classification rate for the Newark Public Schools, and TEAM Academy Charter School, the Newark branch of the national charter management organization, KIPP.
Then make your graph:
You can go on all day about how there are some NPS schools that have a special education rate lower than 17.8%, but that's completely irrelevant. The district, as a whole, must educate more students who are classified with a special education need than TEAM. The money has to come out of the district's budget, the qualified teachers and other staff have to be assigned out of the district's workforce, and the facilities and equipment have to be purchased by the district. In addition, the test scores for the district as a whole are very likely impacted by this higher concentration of students with special needs.
Next, go get the 2013 "Placement Data By Eligibility Category" file for Ages 6 - 21. Open it up and look at the reporting for TEAM Academy:
The "Eligibility" column has an abbreviation for each of 12 categories of special education disability:
- AUT: Autism
- DB: Deaf Blindness
- EMN: Emotional Disturbance
- HI: Hearing Impairment
- MD: Multiple Disabilities
- ID: Intellectual Disability
- OHI: Other Health Impairment
- OI: Orthopedic Impairments
- SLD: Specific Learning Disability*
- SPL: Speech or Language Impairment*
- TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury
- VI: Visual Impairment
The row tells us the placement of the students for each eligibility: 12 x 7 = 84 cells. I've marked SPL and SLD to show these are lower-cost eligibilities, as confirmed by a report commissioned by the NJDOE itself.
You'll notice 13 dashes in this dataset. This represents "suppressed" data, ostensibly hidden to protect the privacy of students. As the file itself explains:
Note: Cells sizes containing counts of students 5 or less have been suppressed and are marked with "-" symbol.But cells with "0" have not been suppressed. So we know that every suppressed cell has at least a "1," and potentially a "5." Let's start filling in the blanks by putting a "1" into every suppressed cell.
You'll notice I moved the rows around a little, but the numbers are still all the same. I wanted SPL and SLD -- remember, those are the lower-cost disabilities -- to be together. You'll see why in a minute.
Now, we also know that the total count here for ages 6-21 can't be greater than the count for ages 3-21 in the previous file. That file said TEAM had a total of 275 classified students for 2013, which means if we total up every cell in this dataset, it can't be more than 275. That means we are left with 28 students whose special education eligibility is unknown.
From this, it's easy to make a chart showing how TEAM's special education students break out:
Remember: those "unknown" special education students can only go into cells that are suppressed. Which means TEAM has no hearing impaired or visually impaired students, and no emotionally disturbed students on campus (I am very curious as to why TEAM is placing at least one child into a private school; is this a data error?). There are open cells for SLD and SPL, but let's make a gigantic assumption and say that all of those 10 percent of "unknown" students are in higher-cost eligibilities.
That means TEAM's lower-cost eligibility rate is 66 percent.
Let's now do the same thing for NPS:
To be as generous as possible to TEAM in this analysis, I simply put a "1" in every suppressed cell in a higher-cost eligibility and left it. Then I put a "5" in every lower-cost eligibility cell and left that (those cells, incidentally, are for out-of-district placements, which can be expensive -- but we won't quibble). I am, therefore, quite likely overstating the lower-cost percentage, and understating the higher-cost percentage. Even still...
NPS's lower-cost eligibility rate is 53% -- that's 13 percentage points lower than TEAM.
So what does this publicly available, entirely replicable data tell us?
1) TEAM Academy does not serve as many children proportionately with a special education need as NPS.
2) The special education students TEAM does serve are more likely to have lower-cost disabilities than NPS's special education population.
This is not an "attack" -- it is a look at the facts, and it has profound consequences. If, for whatever reason, TEAM is not serving the same proportion of classified students and the same proportion of higher-cost classified students, that affects both the budget and the test-based outcomes of NPS.
I don't know why anyone would be surprised by any of this. It makes no sense to think TEAM would take on children who were far along on the autism spectrum, or who had severe emotional disturbances, or who were profoundly hearing impaired. And it makes no sense to think the district wouldn't, to at least some degree, try to concentrate these children within certain buildings, leaving others with below-average higher-cost special education rates.
I am a huge proponent of special education inclusion, but I know these children often need personalized instruction in addition to time mainstreamed with general education students. Putting a program for children with a particular learning disability into one building with general education students creates the best of both worlds: personalized instruction and a chance to assimilate.
But you can't expect a charter to do this. You shouldn't expect a charter to do this: they just don't have the scale to be able to make it work. It's not their fault, and it doesn't mean they don't care about special education students; it just means they're not set up for the job.
Is this really so controversial? Why are we so surprised that in a "choice" model, the families of students who are similar to each other "choose" to go to the same schools?
To my fellow educators over at TEAM: no one -- well, me at least -- is accusing you of putting your thumb on the scale. True, there have been some really outrageous examples of charters engaging in practices that influence their student enrollments. But I've never heard any of them attributed to you, and I'd never accuse you of engaging in them without hard evidence.
But the facts are the facts. Yes, this data may be noisy and dirty, but it's all I've got, and it tells the same story time and again: you're not educating the same types of students as NPS.
ADDING: From the response below by a TEAM representative:
Your comparison here is off-base because you include "Public Separate & Private Day" counts. That includes NPS special ed schools like JFK, Bruce, out-of-district placement, etc.
No. No, no, no.
You must include those placements, because the district pays the costs. NPS could hire more staff and open another building or two and educate those students in-house, but they've chosen to instead contract out their education. This is money that comes out of the general fund, just like payments to charters.
TEAM is trying to have it both ways: they want to be independent like a school district, getting their payment from NPS and spending it however they wish. But then they want to be considered like just another neighborhood school when comparing special education rates. Sorry, you don't get to choose what you are as it suits your purposes.
NPS is a system of schools that work together but are subject to a central authority when resources are allocated. TEAM is not part of that system. NPS can't say to TEAM: "Oh, sorry, need to cut your budget back because we need more money for out-of-district placements." NPS also can't say: "Oh, sorry, we're making you take all the autistic students in the larger area for an inclusion program."
TEAM runs its lottery, takes its kids -- who may stay or may leave -- picks up its check from NPS, and goes its merry way. No NPS school is run in this matter. Any analysis must acknowledge this difference.
You can read the entire comment from TEAM, and my response, in the comments below.
ADDING MORE: Also, read this from Bruce Baker. This notion of charters having it both ways fiscally has got to stop.