Here are links to all parts of this series:
- Part I - Hoboken's charters amass social and political capital, helping them thrive.
- Part II - Hoboken's charters raise substantial outside funds, casting doubt on the claim"we do more with less."
- Part III - Hoboken's charters pay their teachers less, because they have less experience.
- Part IV - We can't have a serious conversation about charters -- in Hoboken or elsewhere -- until we are honest.
Hoboken's charter school students are far less likely to qualify for free-lunch and far more likely to be white than the city's public schools. This, I contend, concentrates social, political, and financial capital in these charter school communities, which allows them to amass funds for their schools while benefitting from favorable treatment by the local government.
There is one important way, however, in which Hoboken's charters are similar to their counterparts in the rest of the state, if not the nation: the characteristics of their staffs, and how their teachers are paid.
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This is work that I'll be releasing more formally shortly, based on staffing files from the NJ Department of Education for 2011-12 (if you want to know why I'm using this file as opposed to 2012-13, which I find to be unreliable, read the appendix to this). Perhaps the most significant difference between the staffs at district and charter schools in New Jersey is that charter school teachers have far less experience.
Now, contrary to what you may have heard, experience is not an impediment in teaching; to the contrary, there is plenty of evidence teachers gain in effectiveness as they gain experience well into their second decade of teaching. But there is an upside for charter schools in hiring less-experienced staffs: it improves the bottom line.
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When your average staff experience goes down, so does your average staff salary; that's because teachers, like most professions, get paid more for longevity. This is a big driver of the "we do more with less" claim of charter schools: yes, they pay their staffs less, but those staffs have less experience.
I think it's well past time to start thinking about the implications of this on the teaching profession -- particularly in urban schools. Is it really good for teaching to be increasingly thought of as a "temporary" career? Because that's the direction in which most charter schools seem to be going.
But the issue is even more complex, because some charters -- particularly those associated with national management organizations like KIPP or Uncommon -- will often pay their novice teachers more than novices in the local districts. But that tends not to be the case with locally-run charters, like the ones in Hoboken:
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Again, I'll be releasing this more formally soon. The red lines represent charter salaries for different experience levels in Camden, Trenton, Plainfield, and Hoboken -- all cities where (until recently in Camden) the charters are locally managed. In all cases, district teachers make more, even accounting for experience, than their counterparts in charter schools.
So now we get some evidence as to why Hoboken's charters may "do more with less": their staffing costs are much cheaper. Again, we should be asking whether this is something we want to encourage for the long-term good of the profession. And we should also ask whether other parts of the total teacher compensation package are different between charters and district schools.
Case in point:
Back in 2012, Kathy Mone, the School Business Administrator for Elysian Charter School in Hoboken gave a presentation to the National Charter Schools Conference in Minneapolis. Mone was, apparently, going to share her insights into Elysian's claim that they "do more with less," and how other charters should follow in their footsteps:
This session will discuss how charter schools can operate with extremely limited funds after repeated reductions. Participants will learn about a practical list of areas to review for cuts and proven methods of doing more with less. The overall budget of an average charter school will also be reviewed, appropriate percentages for each function will be recommended, and some creative ideas for controlling costs will be examined.[emphasis mine]Well, I've downloaded a copy of Mone's presentation, and I'll tell you that "creative" doesn't begin to describe how Elysian keeps its costs low:
Mone is quite right about one thing here: compensation is the largest part of any school's budget. But any notion that some teachers and other staff are "highly paid" but doing "low level tasks" is both absurd and insulting. Teachers have traditionally paid a salary penalty for working in education, and benefits have never made up the difference.
We also have evidence that teacher pay is worse when teachers are not unionized, which is one of the likely reasons many charter schools have traditionally resisted teacher organizing efforts. Maybe that's why Mone took a swipe at unions in her presentation:
Nice. Of course, the idea that both the public, non-teaching and private sectors don't reward employees for longevity and experience flies in the face of reality. That's true in the teachers unions as well: go here, for example, and see how often the phrase "commensurate with experience" comes up when posting salaries for open positions.
The truth is that in most American workplaces, more experience leads to higher salaries -- which is why charter schools like
Elysian*** some in Hoboken maintain staffs with less experience so they can keep their costs lower. Again, we should ask: is this a good thing in the long-term for the teaching profession?
And lower-cost staff seems to be what Kathy Mone is all about:
Let me be clear: I work with paraprofessionals every day. They are some of the most talented, most dedicated people I have ever known, but they will be the first to tell you that they are not teachers. A strategy of replacing certificated teachers with lower-cost, non-certificated staff might be good for a charter school's bottom line, but it's almost certainly a lousy deal for students. And thinking an untrained, non-certificated librarian or speech therapy assistant can replace a fully-trained and certificated staff member is, again, insulting.
But here's where Mone's presentation really comes off of the rails:
Yes, no doubt: benefit costs are big expenses for schools. But where does Mone suggest charters cut their expenses? Shopping around for better deals? Moving staff into managed care?
Understand what this slide is saying: charter schools should be wary of having their staffs get married, because that will jack up benefit costs!
There's a perception that it's illegal to ask a potential employee if she is married, but the truth is that, as a practical matter, potential employers can and do ask all the time. I think it's safe to say Mone is telling her fellow charter school SBAs to go ahead and ask and, if all things are equal, hire the married teacher -- just as long as she's married to the "right" sort of husband:
I'll try to set aside issues of incredibly poor taste here.* Instead, think about what Mone is saying: charter schools should actively search out staff members whose spouses are public employees and shift the costs of their teachers' health insurance onto the spouses' employers!
It takes a lot of brass to put this strategy out there as an example for charter schools across the country, then brazenly make the claim that "we do more with less." Charter schools shouldn't make claims of greater efficiency if they are balancing their budgets on the backs of separate public entities.**
Here are some of Mone's other tactics for cutting costs:
Special education support is another huge burden on school budgets. Mone appears to be saying that moving students into general education will cut those costs. I am all for the integration of special education students into general education classes to the fullest extent possible. But I also know it's much easier to do that if your special education students don't have the costliest disabilities.
The special education students in Hoboken's charters are far more likely to have lower-cost disabilities -- specific learning disabilities (SLD) and speech disabilities (SPL) -- than the students educated in the district schools. It's much easier, then, for Elysian to integrate their special needs students into general education classes.
One more savings strategy:
It's fine to talk about the benefits of technology in instruction (even if the evidence right now is mixed at best and the blended learning model of outfits like Rocketship does not work). But to present it within the context of managing budgets is highly questionable. I know computers don't need health insurance for their own kids, but they also will never be able to replace well-trained, experienced teachers.
Mone and I have tangled previously, but I invite her to post here if she'd like to provide a different context for understanding her presentation. Frankly, though, I don't see any way to spin these slides; Mone's strategy for "doing more with less" in charter schools is quite clear:
- Enroll a fundamentally different student population than the neighboring public schools.
- Gather substantial financial donations from the parents and other supporters.
- Leverage social and political capital to get favorable outcomes.
- Employ a staff with less experience, keeping costs down.
- Make sure that staff has characteristics that keep benefit costs low.
- Keep special education costs as low as possible.
I'll wrap up this series in the next post...
Welcome to Hoboken.
* The good people of Hoboken were devastated by 9-11 and owe much to the heroic members of the FDNY.
** To be clear: charter schools are not public actors in any meaningful sense.
*** See below. While the aggregate experience for Hoboken charters is far less than for the Hoboken Public Schools, Elysian does not follow this trend. I apologize for the error.
UPDATE: Kathleen Mone of Elysian CS responds:
Thanks for posting some of the conference slides, which I stand by 100%. Those who wish to learn more about the material can see all the slides at www.charterschoolbusinessfellows.org (along with other resources for effectively managing scarce resources--charter schools like Elysian are funded at only 60% of the district budget and have not received any funding increases, even a cost of living increase, in over 5 years). By managing funds efficiently, Elysian is able to offer the highest salaries of any charter school in New Jersey and has retained very experienced teachers, many who have been with the school since 1997 and earn $90,000 annually. http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/11/03/the-list-the-top-10-highest-paying-charter-schools-in-new-jersey/
The ideas come from the book "Smarter Budgets--Smarter Schools" (Harvard Education Press). You edited this out, along with my recommendations for controlling health costs with high deductible health plans.
Your editing also takes out of context the slides about teacher spouses. The presentation makes the point that careful planning to control health insurance costs from the inception of the charter school is crucial. Over time, it is inevitable that staff will age, marry, and have children.
There was never any recommendation to hire single teachers; 87% of Elysian teachers are married. In fact, Elysian now no longer offers subsidized health care plans to teacher spouses at all, so whether a teacher is married or single does not impact expenditures.
A few points:
- In 2011-12, here were the average total years of experience and average yearly salaries for certificated, non-administration staff at all three Hoboken charter schools and HPS:
Elysian CS: 12.5 years, $72,405
Hoboken CS: 4.9 years, $40,806
HoLa CS: 5.2 years, $46,126
Hoboken Public Schools years: 12.1, $73,342
So, yes, Elysian is closer to HPS in experience and pay than the other charters -- which makes my point below even more relevant to them. HoLa and Hoboken CS teachers have far less experience and, consequently, are paid far less.
- As Mone herself says here, the benefits Elysian offers are not nearly as generous as HPS, and HPS teachers make a bit more, even though the experience levels are the same. That alone makes my point: the total compensation packages for Hoboken's charters, including Elysian CS, are less generous than HPS's. Is this good for the long-term health of the teaching profession? I say it is not.
- Not offering spousal health benefits makes it more likely Elysian's employees are getting their health care on the backs of separate public entities. Families generally like being on the same health plan.
- In most NJ public districts, if you are married and elect to go on your spouses's insurance, you get a part of the premium back (assuming they are not another public employee). I imagine Elysian does not offer this benefit because they don't cover spouses or children - that's yet another hit to compensation.
My larger point in all this: the "doing more with less claim" of Elysian is predicated, by Mone's own admission, on reducing the total compensation package for her employees.
- As I mentioned in Part II of this series (and I'll be working on this later this year more formally): the disparity in per pupil funding for charters is largely a function of different student populations. This is one of the great secrets of New Jersey charter schools, but I've seen enough aid notices from NJDOE to confirm this fact: aid to charter schools is dependent on enrollment figures for at-risk students, special education students -- and the state differentiates between speech and other disabilities -- and LEP students. Elysian has fewer of these than HPS; consequently, they get less aid. Does Mone object to this system?
- The "taken out of context" claim almost never sticks to me, because, whenever possible, I include a link to sources so people can judge for themselves. As I did in this post, but here it is again if you missed it.
I said just the opposite of what Mone quotes me as saying: under her strategy, you don't want to hire single teachers, because they'll wind up getting married, having kids, and screwing up your budgeting. No, you want teachers who are married to this beefcake:
The explicit* message here is that charter schools should look to hire teachers who are married to public employees, so they can shift the burden of benefit costs over to separate public entities. If 87% of Elysian's teachers are married, I'd say things are going exactly according to Mone's stated plan.
But that doesn't really help support the "doing more for less" claim, does it?
Adding More: Smarter Budgets - Smarter Schools is by Nathan Levenson, a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate who, according to both his LinkedIn and company bios, worked as a superintendent for a grand total of three years even though he holds no degrees in education. It did not go well.
Maybe I'll try to get around to his book at some point, but let's be clear: there are lots of reformy folks running around these days -- most with little practical experience in education -- trying to convince the rest of us that schools have way too much money. Coming from Harvard doesn't mean they are automatically correct.
* That's not the only thing in this slide that's "explicit," is it? Again, I suppose good taste is a matter of opinion, but still...