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, November 8, 2014

Newark's Superintendent Faces the Facts About Charter Schools

We just had a truly pivotal moment here in New Jersey regarding the debate about charter schools. Cami Anderson, State Superintendent of Newark and a huge backer of charters, just admitted publicly that the sector is not serving the same children as the public schools:
Board member Arcelio Aponte, a Newark native, gave Anderson praise for the gains she presented in the high schools, where test scores and graduation rates have risen in her three years and dropout rates fallen. 
But then he turned to her elementary schools, where student test scores actually showed a four-point drop in both language arts and math in the four years since Anderson took the job, to 36 percent and 46 percent passing, respectively. 
“I’m puzzled to see how those are trending downward,” Aponte said. 
Anderson’s answer proved a complicated one, saying there was a mix of factors involved. She said there had been ups and downs in those scores in the ensuing years.
But maybe in her most provocative answer -- and one to surely fuel further debate in her city -- she pointed to the growing charter school presence in the district as a contributing factor, saying the alternative schools were drawing students from her schools.
“We’re losing the higher-performing students to charters, and the needs [in district schools] have gotten larger,” Anderson said. 
At another point, Anderson specifically cited some of the district’s highest performing charter schools as clearly serving a different set of students than in some of her toughest schools, “where there are 35 percent if students with special needs.” 
“I’m not saying they are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools,” she said. [emphasis mine]
That is a remarkable admission. It is also, as we pointed out in our new report on New Jersey's charter schools, completely accurate, and true across the entire state.

Fewer free-lunch eligible students, way fewer Limited English Proficiency students, and fewer Hispanic students.

Far fewer students with special education needs.

And far fewer students with the most costly special education needs. Charters do not serve the same types of students as public district schools. Yes, there is some variation; yes, some charters do better than others. But as a sector, charter schools just aren't pulling their weight. Further, as Bruce Baker recently showed, the results New Jersey's charters are getting as a sector aren't really that spectacular, even when using the state's own metrics to account for the differences in student populations.

Anderson, confronted with her own rather tepid outcomes at NPS, has decided to face this rather obvious truth. I'm encourage to see that; however, I'm also bothered that she won't change her strategy for serving the children of Newark in the face of this evidence:
Still, Anderson said that the district’s controversial universal enrollment system – where families go through a central process for both charter and district schools – was aimed to address the disparities. 
She said the One Newark system could help set what she called as a middle ground between districts that had fully embraced charters and those more resistant. “Let’s say there will be a third way, where we get the best of the innovation, and the best of what district has to offer,” she said.
But what, exactly, does she mean by "innovation"? Is it the segregation Anderson just admitted is taking place in Newark's charter sector? Where, in her own words, NPS is "losing the higher-performing students to charters"? How is that at all "innovative"?

Maybe Anderson thinks that "innovation" is paying young teachers more to work a longer school day, like they do at the "successful" Newark charters. But what's her plan for getting the money to do this? Her boss, Chris Christie, doesn't seem to be the sort of guy who wants to put more money into New Jersey's urban schools. How will she bring this "innovation" to the entire district?

Is she planning on waging a war against Newark's senior teachers, firing them after years of service, simply because they make more money than their younger colleagues? Is churning the teaching staff of NPS the "innovation" Anderson wants to take away from the charters? If so, she'll likely wind up with a staff that is less experienced:

That's certainly cheaper for the state, but is it good, particularly in the long-term, for Newark's children?

Maybe the "innovation" is attrition, where charters like North Star shed kids as they move through each grade.

It's certainly "innovative" to raise your graduation rates by losing students, but I'm guessing that's not quite the "innovation" Newark is looking for...

Give Cami Anderson credit for acknowledging some basic truths about her plan to turn Newark into a portfolio district: it is clear that charter schools, as a sector, do not serve the same children as district schools. If an individual charter wants to make the case that they are reflecting the overall NPS population, they are welcome to try -- but there's no debate that the charter population for the sector is completely different.

But Anderson -- and, for that matter, advocates for Newark's charter schools -- still needs to take the next step. There is no evidence that charter school "innovations" are replicable on a large scale.

Regular readers here have been reading my debates with spokespeople for TEAM Academy, the Newark branch of the nation charter management organization KIPP. Like their national colleagues, the TEAM folks get very put out when anyone suggests charters aren't serving the same types of children as their district hosts. They have a whole rationale for this, and I will grant you that some of it is valid: as charters go, TEAM does better in several ways than many others in their sector.

But, as Julian Vasquez Heilig reminds us in this 2013 interview with KIPP's Mike Feinberg, even the most ardent charter cheerleaders admit their "innovations" are destined to be limited:
Diane Ravitch once asked KIPP to take over an entire district. Do you want that to happen anytime soon?
We’re not crazy enough. We’re too smart. We differentiate between what we do for schools. We don’t turn around schools. We make good schools.
Reflection: ***This only applies under the KIPP name, he has a spinoff 501c3 called Philo that will handle this for KIPP. More later in the interview.
What about the critics that say KIPP does not serve Special Education students? Do you turn Special Education students away from KIPP?
[From the early days of KIPP] we now have a different situation with Special Education. Since starting with Pre-K, we had a whole bunch more Special Education kids. Two months later, we know why you child is running into walls, they are blind. At the middle school level we now have full spectrum autisms. Parents are looking for a specialized schools later in life so we didn’t used to see as many Special Education students.
When we had two middle schools, one parent whose child was blind who looked into whether KIPP would be a good spot. We were honest and said and certainly try to sign up and come. We don’t have any staff or any other blind students. The parent looked at Houston ISD and chose to go there. [After a pause, he said this last happened in 2001].
Reflection: For context, after my conversation about KIPP data and disagreement with Jonathan Alter on Melissa Harris-Perry, I received a letter from someone in Houston on KIPP and Special Education. See Another “Dirty Little Secret”?: KIPP, Charters, and Special Education
What about non-corporate community-based charters and Special Education students? 
It is very hard for a mom and pop charter with 300 kids to do that. It is fair to ask KIPP Houston to do all this. We don’t have a choice. Its open enrollment.
Reflection: Amy Williams, one of my doctoral students, has nearly completed her dissertation. It focuses on Special Education spending in charters of different types (Corporate, Community-Based and Intergovernmental). We will post a series on the findings about Special Education students and funding from this dissertation once she graduates.
That's very telling, on multiple levels:

- KIPP admits they can't do what they do for an entire school district. Feinberg himself gives an example of a student whose family thought about "choosing" KIPP, but didn't because her learning disability required special needs.

In a choice system, nobody should be surprised that families will "choose" to send their children to schools that serve students similar to their children. As Matt DiCarlo says:
In any case, charter advocates should (and did) condemn the practices in the Reuters article. However, it’s important to note that the school choice vision not only entails some degree of sorting and segregation of students based on needs, abilities and interests, but may actually require it in order to work. It makes little sense for supporters (or opponents) to imply otherwise. [emphasis mine]
DiCarlo goes on to make a point I've made many times: "choice" and student "segregation" have far more to do with between-district differences than anything that charters are doing. But what have to ask: are charters ameliorating these differences, or making them worse?

- Feinberg seems to think the only way to get equivalent special education populations in charter schools is to ramp up enrollments to a critical mass where the charter can actually provide services. I certainly agree it's unreasonable to ask a small charter to take on the task of educating children with the most costly disabilities. But why should anyone think these students will do better under a large, nationally-affiliated charter system run by non-state actors?

At this point, the case law is clear: charter schools are not public schools. Families don't have the same rights and expectations for transparency and accountability when they enroll in charter schools. We are entering new territory here when we entertain the notion of charter schools taking on larger numbers of students who have higher-cost special needs. Will parents have the ability to advocate for their children in the same way they currently do in public district schools? Will they be able to take their grievances to higher authorities, accountable to voters, as they currently can in district public schools?

I have my doubts. I just don't think charters -- even the large national chains -- are set up to educate these children. I don't think they have the experience, I don't think they have the facilities, I don't think they have the governance structure, and I don't think they will be able to recruit the personnel. But no matter what I think -- why would we take the chance?

The notion that there is any evidence a portfolio system will serve all children better than a well-funded district system is the stuff of libertarian fantasies, promulgated by reformy folks who clearly have little idea of the realities of schooling.

Anderson has been in the thralls of these people for far too long. I'm glad she's coming around to some of the realities of charter school expansion, but she hasn't gone nearly far enough. There is no evidence charter expansion will better serve all students, and plenty of evidence it will lead to greater segregation but race, class, and special education need. 

Again, individual charters may make their cases, but a frank look at the sector does not inspire confidence.

Don't tell us the facts about charters - turn around and tell him.


Michael Fiorillo said...

Beware when the Devil speaks the truth, since it's most certainly done in service of an even bigger lie.

Giuseppe said...

Are charter schools public schools? And the following story occurs in North Carolina, of all places. NC which is rabidly pro charter and anti its own public schools.
From rawstory.com: North Carolina tells charter-school chain it can’t keep administrator salaries secret
This is the same charter-school chain, Charter Day School, Inc., that ProPublica wrote about last month. As we reported, the four charter schools channel millions in public education dollars each year to for-profit companies owned by the schools' founder, businessman Baker Mitchell. One of the for-profit companies, Roger Bacon Academy, is paid to run all the day-to-day operations of the schools. As we wrote:

On his blog and in earlier interviews with ProPublica, Baker Mitchell has maintained that private companies operating charter schools should not have to be transparent about their financials or publicly disclose what they pay their employees.

Becky G said...

I have been reading m. Shannon Hernadez' book called Breaking the Silence. Her stories from her teaching days are something to read. The kids are struggling in a failed system, the big system. Charter schools are just a piece of the issue. We need to fix the big problems first. www.myfinal40days.com is Hernandez' site, it's a good read on this.