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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Derrell Bradford Returns, More Reformy Than Ever

I'm feeling a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge this yuletide: I keep being visited by Ghosts of Reformy Pasts. First there was Former Acting NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, sanctimoniously pointing at the motes in everyone else's eyes while ignoring the big, reformy, beam in his own.

And now here comes a visitation from an old friend of this blog: Derrell Bradford, a man who was always ready to cast aspersions on every education stakeholder who didn't share his views. Working presently for the reformy outfit NYCAN, Bradford cut his teeth here in New Jersey, where he regularly used his personal story to sell education "choice."

Looks like not much has changed:
If you have money or influence in America, you don’t even blink when your local school doesn’t deliver. You know you can “move” to a private school or another school district, and the local school does too. So if that power is good enough for the wealthiest and most influential, why shouldn’t we give low-income families in southwest Baltimore where I’m from, or Newark, or New York the same options?
As a child I got a scholarship to an excellent school and that changed my life, forever, and there is no day I don’t wake up and know how blessed I am because of it. “Parent Choice” in education is the one thing that can help families, just like mine, and help them today. Take a lesson from my old landlord. Your zip code and your income might dictate where you live … but they shouldn’t determine your child’s future.
Before we dive in, this note:

If you're going to use your personal story to promote your policy agenda, understand you've opened yourself up to critique. Don't feign shock when folks look into your past to see if your story really holds up. Joel Klein, for example, has been using his autobiography to sell his reformy agenda for quite some time. When Richard Rothstein looked into his personal history, however, it turns out Klein's self-portrait of a "kid from the streets" wasn't very accurate.

Some folks got a case of the vapors over Rothstein's debunking, but they missed the point: Klein himself brought up his own story to make his case. Live by the personal anecdote, die by the personal anecdote.

Which brings us to Bradford. The construction that he makes here implies that the education he received when he went to his own "excellent school" is somehow equivalent to the "choice" schools that are and were being pushed by the alphabet soup of Derrell's current and former employers: NYCAN, B4K, and E3. Pushing vouchers and charters has been Bradford's meal ticket for a good long while, and he's been happy to say his story is proof that reformy "choice" can save urban children in economic disadvantage.

The problem, as I've reported previously, is that his own alma mater is nothing like the charter schools Bradford celebrates:
As he told NJ Spotlight, Bradford went to the prestigious St. Paul's School in Baltimore, Maryland. St. Paul's has an operating budget of $19 million, and it enrolls 755 students, for a per pupil cost of $25,166. That's the operating budget, mind you: we don't even know how St. Paul's treats its capital expenses.

Comparing school spending amounts is notoriously complex*, especially when trying to measure the relative spending of public and private schools. I'll acknowledge this is only ball-parking it at best; however, let's use some figures from what is generally regarded as a reliable source, the US Census Bureau. Their latest published reports put the Baltimore City Public Schools per pupil spending at $15,483; Maryland's per pupil spending is $13,871. 

Keep in mind that St. Paul's is, by Bradford's own definition, a "hoity-toity high school" that does not and need not accept English language learners or children with even mild learning disabilities. The public schools of Maryland do not enjoy that luxury: they must take all children, including the most expensive ones to educate.

So Derrell Bradford's education - the one he says he wants for all kids "with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being" - cost far more than the education public school students get right now. The question, naturally, is whether or not he is willing to pay for the upgrade.
 The answer, of course, is "no":
Bradford: Because we're spending on all the wrong things, like ridiculous facilities, right? Ridiculous, you know, bells and whistles that we don't need. And the most important things, like breaking the monopoly, empowering people with choice, focusing on teacher quality and compensation - we don't do that stuff. 
"Bells and whistles" are the problem, huh? "Ridiculous facilities" are keeping kids back?

From the St. Paul's website:
Middleton Athletic Center
Built in 2000, the 4,700 square foot Middleton Athletic Center has locker rooms for all Middle and Upper school students, a 2,500 square foot state-of-the-art weight room, an athletic trainer's room, a video room, three basketball courts, and a wrestling room with two full-sized wrestling mats. 
The Fields
The synthetic grass at Tullai Field is the same playing surface used by NFL teams. All of our football, soccer, and lacrosse teams play on the stadium field, where we have hosted MIAA playoff games, NCAA lacrosse teams, as well as various lacrosse tournaments and clinics. 
Click through if you'd like to find out just who benefitted from those NCAA-level lacrosse fields...

Say what you want about charter schools like KIPP/TEAM or Uncommon/North Star or even Success Academies, where Bradford was asked to serve on the board of directors -- at least they enroll a significant portion of at-risk students. Not nearly as many as their hosting districts, mind you, but still a significant number.

But how many of these disadvantaged children get the chance to attend elite private schools like St. Paul's? Yes, prep schools do offer some scholarships, but the vast majority of the students at these schools come from the upper-middle class and higher -- sometimes much higher. Earlier this year, Steve Bogira at the Chicago Reader tried to get a sense of how that city's private school populations compared to the overall student demographics for the region:
The children of the affluent are clearly in constant interaction at Lab [University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, perhaps the most elite private school in the city]. The U. of C. covers half the tuition of students who have a full-time University of Chicago employee in their family, and more than half of Lab students are from such families. But since tuition ranges from $25,296 for full-day nursery school to $28,290 for high school, excluding many fees, even most U. of C. families are spending more than $12,500 a year on Lab. And that's per child; a family such as that of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with no U. of C. affiliation and three Lab children, is likely paying more than $75,000 a year on Lab tuition. (About a fifth of the families with no U. of C. affiliation receive need-based financial aid.) 
A former Lab teacher who asked that his name be withheld told me, "A phrase often tossed around at Lab was, 'It's like the United Nations.' And many cultures are represented. But it's mostly incredibly rich people."
Lab, which is on the U. of C. campus, is in the midst of a renovation and expansion project that will increase its capacity from 1,750 students to 2,050. It's adding new buildings for early childhood and arts programs, and the expansion "will allow the schools to continue to maintain a diverse student body at a time of unprecedented demand," according to the university's website
When I called Lab with questions about its enrollment, I was directed to Jeremy Manier, news director for the U. of C. I said I wanted to interview someone at Lab about the diversity of its enrollment. I told him I wanted to know, among other things, what proportion of Lab students is from low-income families.
Manier sent me a PDF with a demographic profile of Lab's student body. It said the enrollment was: 51 percent Caucasian; 19 percent "multi-ethnic"; 14 percent Asian; 9 percent African-American; 4 percent other/not defined; 2 percent Hispanic; and 1 percent Middle Eastern.
There was no socioeconomic data. Manier told me in his e-mail that the proportion of low-income students was "similar to the levels at peer independent institutions."
I asked Manier what that proportion was. I also asked him if the proportion of Hispanics at Lab was really only 2 percent, as the profile indicated. (As of 2010, according to that year's census, Chicago's population was 33 percent African-American, 32 percent non-Hispanic white, and 29 percent Hispanic.) 
Manier's response: "There's no additional comment from Lab beyond the original statement we gave." 
I reminded him that I hadn't been after a statement; I'd wanted to talk with someone at Lab about the school's diversity—a board member, perhaps. Diversity was integral to Lab's educational mission, according to the school's website. Wasn't anyone at Lab willing to discuss the subject? Manier said the school wouldn't go beyond its statement. [emphasis mine]
Nobody should be at all surprised by this: elite schools are for the elite. That's why Bill Gates and Chris Christie and Barack Obama, all quite reformy in their cheerleading for "choice," send their own children to very expensive and very exclusive private schools. And it's why children with backgrounds like Bradford's rarely attend on full scholarships:
But the combined enrollments of 1,085 NAIS schools that responded to a statistical survey for the 2012-13 school year was 65 percent European-American, 8 percent Asian-American, 6 percent African-American, 6 percent multi-racial, and 4 percent Hispanic. Maybe the median tuition and fees—$21,167—precludes greater racial and ethnic diversity. 
As for socioeconomic diversity, it's "a priority for the association," McGovern says. But the cost of running independent schools makes it hard to achieve, she adds. "You have to have enough full-pay families in order to support financial aid. But the more full-pay families, the less economically diverse the school." 
And splitting up the available financial aid money requires tough decisions, she says: "Do you give $30,000 a year to one student, or $10,000 a year to three students? Are you offering more opportunities, or bigger opportunities?"
McGovern says she doesn't know what proportion of NAIS students are from low-income families; the association's statistical survey doesn't ask. She says 21 percent of students at non-boarding schools are receiving need-based financial aid this year, and 3.5 percent of these financial aid students are on full scholarships. That works out to less than 1 percent on full need-based scholarships.
Bradford's old school, by its own admission, follows this pattern:
Our aid is intended to bridge the gap between what a family can afford and the cost of their child’s education, and comes in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid by the family or student. St. Paul’s provides assistance to more than 30 percent of the student body. Most of our families receiving financial aid have annual incomes between $75,000 and $175,000. However, we do have families receiving aid whose incomes fall either below or above this range because of their particular circumstances. Therefore, we encourage all families to apply for financial aid to determine what they are qualified to receive and to help make a St. Paul's education affordable. 
Assuming that your family's financial status does not change dramatically, funding will generally be renewed at previous levels.  You must re-apply for financial aid every year. 


Tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year:

  • Kindergarten:       $19,975
  • Pre-First:              $22,975
  • First through Fourth Grade:   $23,075
  • Fifth through Eighth Grade:     $24,875
  • Ninth through Twelfth Grade:   $25,700 [emphasis mine]
At prices like these, even families making $175K could use a little help. But let's be clear: a family with an income of $75,000 is solidly in the middle class -- and that's at the low end of St. Paul's.

I don't begrudge Derrell Bradford his education. I don't begrudge anyone the opportunity to attend an elite private school (especially these days, as they are free of the onerous and foolish federal and state mandates imposed on the public schools). I am the first to admit that families who live in the leafy 'burbs are gaining an advantage for their children, and we ought to be addressing this issue and implementing policies to integrate schools.

But anyone who makes an equivalency between "choice" schools -- another name for charters and the less-than-elite private schools that subsist on vouchers -- and elite private schools is selling snake oil. They simply aren't the same.

Bradford's education at St. Paul's gave him two advantages he would never have received had he attended even the highest-flying charters, like KIPP and Uncommon and Success. The first is access to gobs of social capital that can only be found at schools that enroll many children of high socio-economic status. Bradford himself admits he got his first job in the edu-political world because of his childhood friendship with the daughter of his first boss, the wealthy and reformy Peter Denton. You don't make those sort of social connections at an urban charter school, even if it has high rates of attrition.

The second advantage is in resources. Bruce Baker has previously documented the resource advantage high-flying charters have over public schools, but that's nothing compared to the advantage of elite private schools over all publicly funded schools.

KIPP doesn't have schools with NCAA-level lacrosse fields like St. Paul's. Success doesn't have a brand new, 28,000 square foot facility for the performing and visual arts like St. Paul's. Uncommon doesn't field 47 interscholastic athletic teams in 14 different sports like St. Paul's.

These "bells-and-whistles" are what the elite pay for, but they are nowhere to be found in urban charter schools. Instead, there exists a "no excuses" culture that teaches "...the individual is assumed worthless unless he/she fits neatly in the mold of uniformity and compliance."

I've mentioned the work of Jean Anyon many times here, and how she showed that schools are factories of social reproduction. I can think of no clearer example than the difference between elite private schools, with their Harkness tables and squash teams, and "no excuses" charter schools, with their shaming disciplinary practices and standardized test-centered pedagogies.

These differences in funding and school climate go hand-in-hand. If Derrell Bradford really wants kids to have the same education he had, he would start by acknowledging this reality: no matter how many Ivy League pennants an urban charter school puts on its walls, it is not equivalent to an elite private school -- not in resources, not in peer effects, not in school culture, and not in pedagogy.

If our goal is to make urban education as good as that found in the suburbs, sorting kids within poorly-resourced urban districts isn't going to do much to help. We need to start developing strategies to desegregate our schools, which is admittedly a tough haul given we live in segregated communities.

But we don't have to wait to correct inadequacies in school funding. We know that:
On balance, it is safe to say that a sizable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels.
Right in New York State, there are multiple lawsuits being brought on behalf of students and their families -- see here and here -- to correct the state's truly awful funding disparities. Years ago, New York had painstakingly worked out a funding formula that took into account regional cost differences, districts' abilities to raise funds, and diversity in student populations. The state adopted it, then proceeded to ignore it. For years, New York has refused to fully fund a formula the state itself said was necessary to provide its students with adequate educations.

The plaintiffs in the cases, working with groups such as New Yorkers for Students' Educational Rights and the Education Law Center, have a long, tough, expensive fight on their hands. They could certainly use the help of groups such as NYCAN to raise both funds and awareness. Where, then, is Derrell Bradford and NYCAN during this fight?

Apparently, dithering around with tangental concerns like teacher tenure, charter school proliferation, and "parent triggers." NYCAN and other reformy groups waste their time with this nonsense, leaving the important battles to those who have an understanding of what really ails public schools.

Again: I don't begrudge Derrell Bradford his education. He clearly made the most of the opportunities he was afforded; good for him. But let's not pretend for a second that a kid going to a "no excuses" charter school is getting the same chances Bradford had at his elite private school. Let's not pretend that reformy "choice" will give urban students access to the financial and social capital that made Derrell Bradford what he is today.

What's a "Harkness Table"?

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