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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Five Years of Jersey Jazzman! Thursday Throwback: The New Segregation in the New Newark

Celebrating five years of blogging this week. This isn't my best written piece, nor the most followed, nor the most insightful. But it remains one of my personal favorites.


(Welcome Ravitch readers! Stay a bit, look around, leave a comment - no big whoop...)

This is a very important post; not because it's in response to me, but because it comes from a Newark parent - someone with his child's future on the line:   

Jersey Jazzman: Newark Will NEVER Have Control Of Its Schools

Thoughtful and angry counterpoint on state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson’soverriding the locally elected school board’s vote against leasing school buildings to charter schools.


It’s true that there are a lot of mediocre and even ineffective charter schools in Newark. A search on GreatSchools.org, which evaluates schools on a one-to-ten scale based on standardized testing results, shows that there are, indeed, many charters that don’t do better than their public school counterparts. There are also public schools that are great—Ann Street school in the Ironbound has been a Blue-Ribbon winner in years past.

The challenge is to figure out how the effective models are scaled up across the city and the problem schools are either fixed or dissolved quickly. [emphasis mine]
Let's leave aside the closure paradigm for now (you know who deals with this with his typical perspicacity) and focus instead on this notion of "scalability." This is the reason I like this post so much: it cuts right to the heart of the problem in a way that so many reformyists don't understand (or pretend not to):

If we can't replicate the "success" of a "successful" charter school, what good does it do for everyone? Sure, we might "save" the kids who attend the charter... but what if the kids themselves are the independent variable in the equation? In other words: if "successful" charters are "successful" because they weed out the kids who can't be "successful," what good does that do for all of our kids?

This is the central question in the entire debate about charters and vouchers and "choice": are these market-driven reforms changing the practices of schools in a way that makes them better for all children? Or are we simply segregating the children who, because of the circumstances of their lives, can't keep up with children who are already primed to be "successful"?

Over and over again, I've shown how those who make the case that their charter/voucher/magnet school is "beating the odds" are doing nothing of the sort. What they are really doing are creating segregated schools: segregated by socio-econimic status, or learning disability, or parental involvement, or ability to follow a particular discipline code, or even by race.

Now it is true that some charters do seem to "beat the odds": they do better than expected given their student populations. But are the odds any better for charters - as a whole - than public schools? And can those high-flying charters scale their success to all students? Increasingly, the answer seems to be: "No."

In the case of Newark, I'm afraid the evidence is quite clear: "successful" charters are "successful" because they serve different student populations than the public schools surrounding them. TEAM has a different student population. North Star has a different student population. Robert Treat has a different student population. These are the charters we hear about; the ones our politicians and pundits love to brag on:

TEAM and North Star are two of the schools that Cami Anderson proposed Newark make room for after closing down "failing" neighborhood schools.

This is not a knock on those charters, their dedicated staffs, or the deserving children who are their students. It is a look at the facts. And the facts tell us that "successful" charters are often "successful" because they serve students who speak English at home, don't have as many special education needs, and don't live in severe poverty.

What's worse is that the schools that take the most difficult children - the ones we said we wouldn't "leave behind" - turn out to be the objects of derision and scorn. Some of those schools have been targeted for closure when the primary difference between them and "successful" charters is the amount of poverty among their students:
Closure elementary schools are indicated in Red, and charter schools in Green. District average (labeled Total – sorry) is in Black. In short, these are high poverty schools, with two of them – Dayton and Miller St having among the highest concentrations of low income children.
Is anyone prepared to deny that what I'm describing is exactly what is happening in Newark right now?

Which brings us back to our Newark parent:

As a Newark parent, I have skin in the game in this decision, something that most of the Star Ledger Editorial Board and, I suspect, Jersey Jazzman don’t have. My oldest is about to enter kindergarden, and it took us some time to evaluate the options and come to a decision—one I’ll detail in another post.

Newark schools need leadership that will make hard decisions, study successful trends, be willing to experiment, and use resources carefully. In those terms, I think Anderson’s decision trumps that of the board.

There may be something to the idea that prevention of returning control of the schools to Newark would be better for Newark kids.  But using this vote to make that argument is misguided.
Now we're having an adult conversation - good. It's damn well about time. And since we're putting all of our cards on the table, let's be clear about what is happening in Newark and, for that matter, the rest of the state (and, arguably, the nation):

We have a governor who has explicitly said that New Jersey's public schools spend too much money. He mocks Newark for spending what it spends to educate some of the poorest children in the state, despite the fact that there is a massive amount of evidence that New Jersey's commitment to school funding equity has produced real results for these very children.

This governor has mistakenly - deceptively? - insisted that the problems in New Jersey's schools should be laid at the feet of teachers:
Q. And is tenure reform the most important part of that?
A. I see tenure, merit pay and OSA as a bundle. I’d like to see them all go together. By repairing the tenure system, we’ll be able to get rid of some ineffective teachers, but then we’ve got to get effective ones in there and it’s going to be years and years. So that’s why I think OSA is such an important part, and increasing charter schools in urban areas, so that those kids don’t get lost while the fixes of tenure and merit pay are fixing the system in a 10-year horizon.
It doesn't seem to occur to the governor that Millburn, right down the road from Newark and one of the best districts in the state, has tenure and a unionized teaching staff and no vouchers and fought tooth-and-nail against charter schools. Are the teachers really that much better in Millburn? Is that the primary difference between the two school systems?

But rather than acknowledge the most obvious thing in the world, Chris Christie has hired an ACTING Commissioner of Education and a superintendent for Newark who share his vision: the dissolution of public, neighborhood schools in favor of a system of charters. This plan is being implemented with funds provided by Eli Broad, a California billionaire who serves as Cerf's patron and shares his vision. Mark Zuckerberg's grant is abetting their schemes.

I've not said that Zuckerberg or Broad have a personal financial stake in the privatization of Newark's schools; I don't believe they do. They have, however, drawn quite a few edu-preneurs into their worlds, people who stand to make a good buck off of the conversion of Newark's schools. And there are ancillary plans - Teachers Village stands out - that are contingent on Newark adopting a charter-based school system.

But I believe Zuckerberg and Broad's motivation is ultimately ideological. They really do believe that a "market-based" approach to education will magically wipe away the economic decay and lack of opportunity and racism that Newark suffers under every day.

The question, however, is not whether they are correct in their assumptions and prescriptions (it's obvious to me and others that they are not). The real question is: Who gets to make the decisions? Billionaires dumping small pieces of their vast fortunes on a community that they have no ties to? Or the people of that community themselves?

If the Advisory Board in Newark had acquiesced to Anderson's plans, they would, in effect, be endorsing the destruction of a system of neighborhood public schools, run by the citizens of their community. They would be agreeing that Newark's children cannot be educated unless they are segregated; again, not necessarily by race (although that is certainly part of it), but also by ability, or parental involvement, or educational need, or language, or socio-economic status.

They would be agreeing that it is acceptable to have some children enroll in charter schools that receive additional financial support, operate under a different set of rules, do not allow for meaningful parental or community input, and have different student populations.

But what's worse, they would be agreeing to live in the same state of denial as all the other reformyists: people who will not acknowledge the truth that the primary effect of an expansive charter system is to isolate different populations of children from each other.

Now, here's the thing: if we could get past this denial, we could have a serious conversation that's long overdue. Because we have big, big problems with segregated schools in New Jersey - problems only a few people seem to want to talk about.

Millburn is in the same county as Newark, but, for all intents and purposes, it may as well be on Mars. There is little to no interaction between the students or the parents in both communities. The funding systems are completely separate. Parents in Millburn pay a fortune to live there; I'm sure the houses are very nice and they've got that great downtown and a Whole Foods, but what they are really paying for is the school system.

That school system has great teachers and big athletic fields and lots of science labs and great music and art programs... but it is also filled with students whose parents can and do pay a large premium to get them into that district. Millburn is full of families who have segregated themselves by virtue of their means - and that contributes to their children's educational "success" far more than any other factor.

Is this "fair"? Were I a parent in Newark, with real "skin in the game," I wouldn't think so. Why should  my child be denied the chance to enjoy a peer effect of children raised in like-minded families? Peer effect is real and substantial; why should the benefits of it be granted only to those who can afford to move to communities with great school systems?

This is a hard question, and our current political environment has made it dangerous to discuss, for both sides. If reformyists agree that charters and "choice" are not bringing about substantial instructional change, but mostly just segregating children, they are admitting the problems go far deeper than anything that happens in our schools.

If, however, anti-reformyists like me believe that charters and "choice" are merely segregating kids, we have to face an uncomfortable truth: that segregation is already occurring on a large scale throughout the state and the country. We are already educating some of our kids at the expense of others.

New Jersey has attempted to ameliorate this disparity through the Abbott decision and the later SFRA law. Again, we've seen real progress. Is it enough? No. What should we do? I wish I had a perfect answer, but...

I'll tell you what we shouldn't do. We shouldn't strip power from communities to have a say in their schools. We shouldn't go backwards by taking away funding that's made a real difference in the lives of children. We shouldn't pretend that "choice" is often nothing more than segregation. And we shouldn't say, "Poverty is an excuse not to reform!" when the truth is that reform is the excuse we use to not deal with poverty.

Newark has a decision to make: is it going to divide up its kids into groups that are more easily educable and groups that are not? Is the city, in effect, going to track its kids, starting at the earliest grades? That's the real issue, as much as some will vehemently deny it. And it's an issue that should be - that must be - resolved by the people of Newark. Not by billionaires, not by bureaucrats, not by consultants - but by the people of the community.

In the end, all of this is academic for the parent of a child in a Newark school. No one should ever criticize any parent for doing what is ultimately in their child's best interest. If you think Robert Treat or North Star is the best possible choice for your kid, by all means, try to get them in. No child should ever be used to make a political point.

But we owe it to all of the children to be honest about what is going on in Newark and the rest of the country. We shouldn't pretend that this last vote was all about replacing bad schools with "remarkable" ones; it wasn't.

One last thing: you're right, I don't have a child in Newark's schools. But I am a New Jersey public school teacher, and the reformy arguments have real consequences for my work and my students. Every teacher and every parent should be aware of what's going on right now, because, like it or not, it affects us all.

ADDING: Just rereading; yeah, I went on a bit, didn't I? But I still want to add one thing:

I have relied heavily on the research of Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers here, as I do in many of my posts. I and many others are very grateful for what he does, but I want to be clear: these conclusions are solely my own. I encourage everyone to go to SchoolFinance101 and read for yourself what Baker has to say about these issues; you may arrive at a different place than I do.

If you do, come here and let's talk. That's how it should be.

1 comment:

StateAidGuy said...

You are really unpersuasive about the benefits of Abbott-level funding. Yes, NJ has seen a narrowing of the achievement gap, but to demonstrate that Abbott’s “parity plus” funding should get a large portion of the credit for this you should compare NJ’s narrowing of the achievement gap to the narrowing that took place in other diverse states that don’t have the same utopian commitment to funding “equity” and you should compare the narrowing of the gap in low-resource non-Abbotts (aka, Carteret, Clifton, Belleville, etc) with Abbotts.

I don’t have the time to do a really thorough look, but I see no evidence that the Abbotts are doing better than demographically similar (or poorer) non-Abbotts.

Perth Amboy is 64% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $13,425 per student. Carteret is 63% FRL eligible and receives $7,261. Total spending in Perth Amboy is $15,759 per student, total spending in Carteret is $11,721.

Perth Amboy’s high school is at the 12th percentile academically.
Carteret’s high school is at the 33rd percentile academically.

- Passaic is 80% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,898. Prospect Park, a non-Abbott, is 75% FRL eligible and receives $9,372 per student. Total spending in Passaic is $16,944 per student. Total spending in Prospect Park is $12,140.

Prospect Park’s one school is at the 19th percentile. Passaic’s seven elementary schools are at the 28th, 11th, 20th, 10th, 27th, 19th, and 7th. This is not strong pro-Abbott evidence.

- Irvington is 69% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,395. Belleville is 52% FRL eligible and receives $5,394 per pupil. Total spending is $16,825 in Irvington. Total spending in Belleville is $10,868 per pupil.

Irvington HS is at the 5th percentile. Belleville’s is at the 27th.

NJ would be better off if it did not have a judicially-mandated special class of specially funded districts. There should be a smooth, progressive distribution of aid where poorer districts get more than wealthier ones, but there is no aid cliff between Abbotts and nearly-as-poor non-Abbotts. Since we cannot afford to give the non-Abbotts as much of the Abbotts, it makes sense to redistribute some of that money away from the Abbotts to other needy districts.

It is wrong that we provide two years of "free" Pre-K to the children of investment bankers in Hoboken and Jersey City and nothing to kids living in poverty in most non-Abbotts. Yes, SFRA is supposed to give "free" Pre-K to kids in districts where more than 40% of the kids are FRL-eligible, but where's the money going to come from?

It would be better to have means testing in the Abbotts and reduce "free" Pre-K to one year, so that money could be spent in non-Abbotts.

The Education Law Center, which represented the Abbotts and only the Abbotts and later opposed SFRA, is directly responsible for the absurdities in NJ's aid distribution.

You should distinguish between ideals of equitable funding and reality. The Abbott regime is the reality and its payoffs are hard to perceive and its victims (all state taxpayers, poor non-Abbotts) all to obvious.