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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

In Hoboken, Charter Schools Rule: Part IV (Finale)

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.
If you are in the demographic of the NY Times readership -- professional, upper middle class, highly educated -- Hoboken is the hot new place for you, and your family:
If there’s a trend in Hoboken in recent years, real estate agents say, it is one of young families arriving from Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of them with no pre-existing ties to New Jersey. In Hoboken, they’re finding more space for their money, without enduring a long commute from the suburbs to get it. 
Kelly Adams started building a case for the move after hearing good things about Hoboken, but her husband, who had grown up in Connecticut, resisted New Jersey and said his impressions of Hoboken revolved around a handful of visits in his 20s that left him thinking, “I’m too old for this.” 
But in the end, the couple bought a 1,250-square-foot two-bedroom condominium with a balcony for $995,000. Their building, near 15th and Washington Streets and a short walk from a ferry to Manhattan, includes a gym, shared outdoor space and a children’s playroom. Since moving to Hoboken, they have taken their daughter, now 18 months old, to restaurants without once “getting the stink eye,” as Ms. Adams put it, and have enjoyed drinks at Pier 13, also known as “the beer pier,” where children can play in the grass.

Personally, I love Hoboken, and I can completely understand the appeal for young families who like city living but are fed up with life in a non-rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn or Manhattan. But you'll notice the Times ends its article with the one factoid that young parents always consider when shopping for real estate:

The Schools 
Hoboken Public Schools offer free preschool classes at six sites, but children may not be placed immediately because of space limitations, according to Richard Brockel, the interim superintendent. The city is served by Salvatore R. Calabro Elementary School, Thomas G. Connors Elementary School and Wallace Elementary School. The Joseph F. Brandt Primary School offers pre-school and kindergarten. 
According to the New Jersey Department of Education website, SAT scores for Hoboken Junior Senior High School during the 2012-2013 school year were 403 in reading, 402 in math and 385 in writing, compared with state averages of 495, 521 and 496. 
The city has three public charter schools, including the Hoboken Charter School, which goes up to Grade 12.
Here we get to the crux of the matter -- and the reason why the proliferation of charter schools in Hoboken is, to me, one of the most interesting education policy stories in the country.

What do SAT scores correlate to more than anything else? Parental income. As our good friends at FairTest have shown time and again, the best way to raise your SAT scores is to be born into an affluent family:

So what are the average NY Times-reading mom and dad going to do about this state of affairs? Hoboken sounds great, but where is the peer effect advantage in schooling to be found in places like Millburn and Basking Ridge? How does an upper-middle class (and higher) family enjoy the perks of a livable, urban community a 14-minute PATH train ride away from midtown Manhattan, yet still keep an advantage in schooling for their children?

For years, the answer was found almost exclusively in the private schools of Hudson County, including the Catholic prep schools. This reflects a central difference between cities like Hoboken and Camden, which has limited market rate housing and few resident professionals who commute to Philadelphia.

The invaluable Steven Danley once remarked that "Camden is a city for others." In other words, the patterns of development and the building and maintenance of public infrastructure -- including schools -- have less to do with building a stable middle-class within the city limits than making life as nice as possible for the people who come in, go to Cooper Medical or Campbell's or the waterfront, and then leave Camden for home.

The proliferation of charter schools in Camden reflects this. No one wants to do business in a city where the schools are a disaster; if charter schools create an atmosphere of order and productivity, that helps the local business community feel better. But I don't think anyone has seriously suggested that Camden's charter schools will attract young, professional, highly educated families back into its urban core; that's certainly not happening in Newark or Paterson or Trenton.

Yes, the charters there serve children in economic advantage relative to their neighbors in the public schools. But even the high-flyers like TEAM and North Star in Newark serve many more children eligible for free lunch than the public schools in the suburbs. Does anyone really think there are many families living in Livingston who would consider moving into Newark, so long as their children could be enrolled in a charter school?

Of course not -- because, as difficult as it is to acknowledge sometimes, we all know the truth:

America is a society that sorts its citizens, and that sorting begins in school. Want your kid to get a high SAT score and consequently go to a competitive college? Your best chance is to enroll him in a school with low numbers of students in poverty.

As I've said, it's not wrong to act on this reality in the best interests of your child; I would be a screaming hypocrite if I tried to deny that I had. What's wrong is to pretend that the reality of schools as engines of social reproduction doesn't exist.

Which brings us back to Hoboken...

I have no doubt the supporters of Hoboken's charter schools want to help children in economic disadvantage and children of color succeed. Nobody thinks it's acceptable for poor children to be consigned to a life of poverty. I believe the efforts of the people who run Hoboken's charters to recruit a diverse student body are sincere and well-intentioned. 

I further believe, as I have said before, that affluent charter school proponents who stay in their cities with their families, rather than decamp for the 'burbs, can make a good case that they are doing more to help their communities than those that flee.

So, to be clear: I am not criticizing anyone who teaches at or sends their child to a Hoboken charter school. God bless and good luck.

No, my issue, as always, is with the charter cheerleaders who repeatedly refuse to have an honest conversation about what is really happening:
The [Hoboken] school board uses its own cumulative district demographics, which display a much higher concentration of minority and low-income enrollment than HoLa. As Harrison points out in his appellate brief, “HoLa’s student population is not representative of the district student body.”

But [Barbara] Martinez [board president, HoLa Charter School] says the district demographics exclude the roughly 1,400 children who attend charter and private schools in Hoboken. HoLa instead uses the citywide 2010 census demographics, which depict a city that is 73 percent white and 11 percent low-income, much more in line with HoLa’s demographic breakdowns.

Of course, the census reflects the total population, not just those of schooling age, and so risks its own inaccuracies. But Martinez said she did not know of more accurate data. [emphasis mine]
Hogwash -- because there's this crazy teacher-blogger who has repeatedly pointed out that, even under the best possible scenario, Hoboken's charter schools cannot reflect the citywide demographics of Hoboken's children:

Again, this is the best possible scenario; the real numbers are certainly even less favorable to Martinez's argument. And yet she, and a few other Hoboken's charter cheerleaders, insist on clinging to this malarky.

I find this exasperating. There is a serious conversation that needs to be had about segregation, school funding, gentrification, and charter schools -- but we can't have that conversation as long as nonsense like this is allowed to go unchallenged.

The "doing more with less" arguments from the Hoboken charter cheerleaders are, at best, incomplete, because those charters raise substantial additional funds from their parents, and rely on a concentration of social and political capital to benefit their schools.

And the insistence on denying the reality of differences in student demographics is spin worthy of cable TV news. The comparison of the charter schools' populations to the private schools' populations by itself is extremely misleading, because the private school enrollments have far less effect on the budget of Hoboken's public schools than the charter enrollments:
The city’s public school district must give more money than originally anticipated to local charter schools for the 2014-15 school year, district business administrator William Moffitt said at a Dec. 9 meeting of the Hoboken Board of Education.

After fall enrollment numbers showed a higher concentration of Hoboken residents in charter schools than had been projected, the district’s full payment to charters this year will total $8.5 million, $216,871 more than expected.

Hoboken currently has three charter schools, and some residents attend nearby charters in Jersey City.

The board majority has made some negative comments against charter schools this year and has made a legal move to keep one local charter school from expanding. Charter schools are considered public schools, but they are usually founded by parents and educators, not the district.

In New Jersey, public school funding follows the child—if a Hoboken resident attends a charter school, the Hoboken district is required to pay the charter school 90 percent of that students’ education costs, as determined by a formula.

This funding system has been cited by school board members as the main factor behind their decision to challenge the expansion of HoLa Charter School to seventh and eighth grade in court. None of the candidates in the recent school board election publically endorsed the lawsuit, and one actually reversed her stance on it before the election. However, several advocated strongly for changing the law so that charter schools would instead be funded directly by the state.

Currently, the pre-determined per-pupil cost is around $12,000, meaning roughly 18 more Hoboken residents are enrolled in charters this fall than had been projected.

In light of charter school payment bump and a $669,000 reduction in school choice aid announced in July, Moffitt said the Hoboken school district has instituted a spending freeze on general and discretionary items. Spending on health and safety and other items deemed necessary is not included. [emphasis mine]
How can anyone make the case that charter school expansion isn't having an unequal and pernicious effect on the neediest children of Hoboken? How can anyone seriously deny that the proliferation of charters is harming children in HPS -- children who are far more likely to be in economic disadvantage?

What's happening in Hoboken is, again, atypical. But as cities gentrify; and family size shrinks, making urban living more attractive; and income inequality grows, watch out: Hoboken may be the template for a new wave of charter school proliferation. The intra-city economic and racial segregation that used to be the exclusive province of private schools may well be replaced by charter schools, subsisting on the taxpayers' dime.

We have enough problems with segregation between school districts; do we have to replicate that within cities simply to create diverse communities? Wouldn't we be better off fully funding our urban -- and, for that matter, non-urban -- schools, so that they become as desirable as the best-resourced suburban districts? Or is the current form of charter proliferation in Hoboken as inevitable as the current segregation of our urban and suburban school districts? 

These are hard questions that need to be discussed. Let's get rid of the charter cheerleading, then, so we can do just that.

See you down on Washington Street.


Dienne said...

Nearly a million for a two bedroom condo?!!! And that's cheaper than New York?!!! I'm sorry, but I am blown away. I thought my neck of the woods (Chicago metro area) was pricey, but I own a bungalow with a dormered second floor for a quarter of that (granted, it's in one of the lowest rent suburbs). How do you folks live over there?

Duke said...

Dienne, it is nuts around here - the Tiebout model on acid:


Russo Hoboken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.