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 11, 2015

"Reformy" Lives, Thanks To the Star-Ledger

Last week, I declared that "reformy" -- a type of education policy that has little evidence to back it up, ignores the effects of school funding, dismisses the impact of student characteristics, and is just generally ignorant and smug -- was dying in New Jersey.

How foolish of me.

Count on Tom Moran and his editorial writers at the Star-Ledger, like Dr. Frankenstein and his band of Igors, to keep the monster alive:
The biggest knock on charter schools has always been that they fail to take their fair share of at-risk kids. 
This isn’t necessarily nefarious: Factors like more proactive parents also mean that better off kids are more likely to enter the lottery. Some charters, like Hola, a dual-language school in Hoboken, are truly mission-driven, and do everything they can to recruit the neediest kids. 
They go door-to-door and pass out fliers. But until recently, the state had considered another solution off-limits: A weighted lottery, in which charters put a finger on the scale to give an advantage to poor kids, who are disproportionately black and Latino.
Let's be clear: as I've said many times before, I have no doubt the good people at HoLa and many other charters in New Jersey do care about reaching out to at-risk populations. But caring and doing are different matters:

There's also the problem of unequal student populations in other characteristics: Limited English Proficiency and special education, for example. A weighted lottery might help ameliorate this problem, but the truth is we don't know.

Personally, I have my doubts. In a "choice" system, families that "choose" similar schools will likely be similar in other ways. In a community like Hoboken, I contend that diversity has to be compelled and judged by outcomes; weighting probably isn't enough. But, OK, we can disagree...

What is not debatable -- and what the S-L ignores -- is that school "choice" often has pernicious effects on host districts.
Thankfully, this seems to have changed. When Superintendent Cami Anderson set up a universal enrollment system to ensure charters in Newark take their fair share of at-risk kids, it set a precedent. David Hespe, the acting commissioner of education, said all charters can use weighted lotteries.
Well, if we're going to cite Cami Anderson as an expert on charter school proliferation, let's get her full opinion:
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]
This is a reality that Moran and the S-L never care to discuss. First, this concentration affects test-based outcomes, which means Hoboken's charter schools really aren't producing outsized gains given their student populations:

 Second, this concentration has fiscal implications:
HOBOKEN—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]
In our current system, the ability of some families to exercise "choice" does not take place in a vacuum; host districts suffer when charter schools drain funds while serving disproportionately small populations of children with special education needs.

It's also worth pointing out that HoLa's staff, which I am certain does a great job for their students, nonetheless is paid considerably less than the Hoboken Public Schools staff, largely because they are less experienced:
- 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
Again: the Star-Ledger's editorial board never talks about these realities. Tom Moran, who loves to tut-tut about "tone" while casually smearing others, would rather trash the HPS for standing up for the students who aren't being served by charter schools:
The hypocrisy here is staggering. The district has complained that Hola doesn’t take its fair share of at-risk kids, but now it is seeking to block a reasonable remedy. And the district itself is exacerbating the problem by allowing white families to move their children from the most segregated school in the city, Connors Elementary, to other area schools.

Brandt is a Pre-K to K school (I will get to that story one of these days...), and not an apt comparison. Yes, there is a significant difference between Connors and the other HPS schools in terms of their racial profile; but the difference is much smaller than the difference between the charters and Connors. What is the S-L suggesting: that the charters' segregation is excusable because there is less segregation within HPS? That's a transparently absurd argument.

But those are the arguments the S-L Editorial Board likes best:
The district has been trying to stop Hola's expansion on the grounds that it has been drawing too many white students away from district schools. The district isn’t trying to claim that Hola is doing this on purpose, given the charter's active efforts to recruit at-risk students. But while Hola has so far managed to get twice the portion of minority kids as the city’s population, it still has a smaller portion than the district schools.
 Oy -- I've been over this I don't know how many times:

You can't compare the demographics of the city's children to the entire city's population. In the best possible scenario -- one that certainly advantages the charter schools' claims -- their student populations only have one-third of the proportion of students in economic disadvantage as the entire city.

But that's not even an apt comparison. The private school population has only a small effect on the budget of HPS. The charters, in contrast, not only drain funds from the district; they leverage the social, political and financial capital of their families to raise boatloads of private funds and bend the political system to their wills.

And yet the S-L seems to think improving HPS's schools is just a matter of "trying":
In its $50,000 lawsuit, the district blames this on Hola. Instead of trying improve its own offerings, the district is using its resources to go after the charter -- even trying to block Hola from giving low income kids an extra shot in its lottery this year.
It's as if all the advantages HoLa and Hoboken's other charter schools enjoy -- different student populations, access to the political system, significant private funding, lower personnel costs -- simply don't exist. Any effect on the public schools, and the students they serve, are magically wiped away.

Look, folks: contrary to what you may have heard from folks who don't like to acknowledge reality, I am not anti-charter. I started my K-12 career in a charter school. I think there are many good people working in charter schools, including the staffs of HoLa and the other Hoboken charter schools. I think the students enrolled in these schools are awesome and should be proud of their school and their hard work. I think families should always support their children's schools and be proud of them.

My problem, as always, is with people like Tom Moran and the S-L Editorial Board who repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the most basic truths about charter schools and other aspects of "reformy" policies. In Hoboken, the charter schools don't serve the same types of students, and this profoundly impacts those students enrolled in HPS. As even the reformiest of the reformy, Former NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf once said:
“Nobody thinks charter schools are THE solution, or that we should ignore throwing all of our effort into doing what we can to reform and improve other public schools,” said Cerf.
Amen. Why doesn't the Star-Ledger write about that? It would be far more helpful than continually trying and failing, like an obsessed Dr. Frankenstein, to reanimate reformy corpses.

"Reformy" is alive! Alive!

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