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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

There Is No "Choice" For ALL Urban Parents

The charter school industry has always been very good at marketing its brand. And, like any sellers of a product, its most powerful marketing tool is customer testimonials: the glowing reviews of the parents who send their children to charters. Who could refute the word of any parent -- especially a person of color, raising children in a community with enormous economic challenges?

As I've said before, no one should ever blame a parent for enrolling their child in a charter school; any father or mother has do to what they believe is in the best interest of their child. 

But it is not at all out of bounds to listen carefully to a parent's praise of his child's charter school, then take his words to their logical conclusion. Which is why I'd urge you to follow the link and read this entire op-ed by Altorice Frazier, whose children attend KIPP's (aka TEAM Academy) Thrive Academy in Newark. Because Mr. Frazier is saying something very important -- but it's not necessarily the message the charter industry wants us to hear.

Here's an extended passage:
Every day, not just Father’s Day, is a moment of reflection for me. Without a father in my life, I have made many misguided steps that cost me a great deal in my life. Now, as a proud father, I know firsthand the impact I have on my children. It has been my mission in life to break the pattern that started with me. I know my involvement in their lives and the decisions I make for them is meaningful and powerful.
As a father of four, part of this is making sure they’re getting a quality education. We first began exploring Newark’s public charter schools because of a simple science question I posed to my daughter, who at the time was attending a district school in Newark and was supposedly a top student, receiving all A’s. I was shocked to find out, when asked at age 10, she was unable to name any of the planets in our solar system. I did some digging and found out that she was not learning any science or history because the district school she was attending did not have teachers that taught either of those subjects. Instead of providing my child with an education, this Newark school just simply took those classes and put substitute teacher in the class for the school year. Practically taking these subjects out of her curriculum and replaced them with straight A’s. In any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable, but in the city where many parents are fighting these kinds of an uphill battles every day, it has become far too common.
Financially unable to move to a town like Maplewood or attend a private school, getting into a Newark public charter school was the only option to ensure that my kids received the education they deserve. We had no other choice and I am shattered by the idea that those with their own political and financial agendas are now trying to enforce their value systems on my family.
If we were to believe the critics of public charter schools, I would be singled out as a parent misinformed and misled by charter schools. I am not a parent misinformed, misled, or hoodwinked. I am a parent who supports schools that will provide my children with a quality education. 
From their experience at KIPP New Jersey’s Thrive Academy, my kids have received social and emotional development and a high level of critical thinking. Now one of my kids is college-bound, and my two twins are now tracking to attend college -- something the great majority of students in a Newark district school can’t say. 
I understand the political realities. There are some who do not live in Newark and do not truly understand the issue. There are others who are waging this battle against me and my kids, defending the status quo at all cost, because they have a personal and direct financial gain.
But what should not be lost on any of us is that there actually is no “charter vs. public school” debate in New Jersey. For the vast majority of parents, like me, public charter schools have become mainstream and the needed solution.
So let's break this down:

- Mr. Frazier's personal story is obviously compelling. He sees how critical it is to "break the pattern" for his children. What would he do, then, if money was no object?

Move to a more affluent town like Maplewood, where the schools would look like this:

Newark's schools are about 8% white; South Orange-Maplewood's are about 50% (making it one of the few racially integrated districts in the state). 20% of SO-M's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; compare that to 81% for Newark. And Maplewood barely has any students who are Limited English Proficient (LEP).

What Frazier is implying in putting forward the idea that he would move if he had the money is that his children's peers matter. South Orange-Maplewood is a fine district with excellent teachers (I know, I used to teach there). But it also serves a fundamentally different student population than the Newark Public Schools.

So let's look now at how KIPP's TEAM Academy stacks up against NPS:

Let's be very clear: the differences in student populations between urban public schools and urban charters is only a fraction of the difference between urban and suburban public schools. Still, there is a substantial difference between urban public schools and their neighboring charters. As I explained in my charter report last year, that difference in reduced-price lunch populations actually explains quite a bit of the variation in test-based outcomes.

Reduced-lunch students are certainly in economic disadvantage (130%-185% of the poverty line), but not nearly as much as free-lunch students (less than 130%).

I'm going to state this again because it's so important: no one should ever pretend that the differences in student populations between the suburbs and the cities is equivalent to the differences between the urban public schools and the charters. But there are substantial and meaningful differences between charter school populations and urban public school populations.

And that includes which schools educate special needs students:

Again: charter schools do not serve the same students as urban public schools. But the differences don't always show up in the data...

- One of the most compelling books I've read this past year is Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City by Molly Vollman Makris. In her exploration of Hoboken's segregated charter schools, Makris presents some of the best evidence I've seen to date that shows parents who choose charter schools use their social capital to get their children into schools with other students whose families share their values and means.

Granted, Hoboken is an extreme case. But Makris's work parallels other studies that show charters tend to attract parents who, like Frazier, are more involved in their children's education. Makris makes the case -- and I agree with her -- that charters have something to teach public schools about how to get parents more involved in their children's schools.*

But doesn't it make sense that a "choice" system would lead to schools where students and families had similar values? Shouldn't we expect the students and families who apply to TEAM/KIPP to be different from those who do not?

There is much we still don't know about One Newark, the city's universal enrollment system. But my initial study of the enrollments released publicly shows that the more segregated schools in Newark tended to be the more popular schools under One Newark. This suggests that the families who choose charter schools are, in some way that does not show up in the data, different from the families who do not. For whatever reason, they see their preferred charter as a better "fit" for their student. OK...

What about those parents whose children don't "fit" into a charter school?

- In many cases, they pull their children out of the charter. Advocates do all kinds of statistical flips and twists to deny it, but a core feature of a "choice" system of schools is student attrition. TEAM/KIPP's attrition isn't nearly as large as other "high performing" charters in Newark, but a significant number of their students do leave their schools each year, even as their test scores rise.

This is further evidence that charters do not serve the same children as their hosting public districts. The children who are leaving charters like TEAM/KIPP and North Star are likely not a good "fit" with those schools.

- I want to pause here, because this is the part of the argument where charter school advocates always get indignant. Once again: the differences in student populations between urban and suburban schools is far greater than that between urban public and charter schools. When people move to the suburbs, they are moving into towns where families possess similar amounts of social and financial capital. Test-based outcomes are largely a reflection of this difference, and not of school "effectiveness."

Since that is the case, no suburban parent should ever wag their finger at an urban charter school parent who looks to gain this same advantage for their child. I would never fault Altorice Frazier or any other charter school parent for enrolling their child in a KIPP school if they have the opportunity.

No, my issue has always been with the charter cheerleaders: those who wave their pom-poms for "choice," without fully acknowledging the implications of their advocacy. For example:

- "Successful" charter schools often enjoy a resource advantage over their hosting districts, and that advantage often has pernicious effects for urban public schools. Let's go back to Frazier's op-ed:
I did some digging and found out that she was not learning any science or history because the district school she was attending did not have teachers that taught either of those subjects. Instead of providing my child with an education, this Newark school just simply took those classes and put substitute teacher in the class for the school year. Practically taking these subjects out of her curriculum and replaced them with straight A’s. In any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable, but in the city where many parents are fighting these kinds of an uphill battles every day, it has become far too common. [emphasis mine]
No science or history teachers? That's odd: I thought Newark had too many teachers and needed to cut back staff...

The amount of money NPS has had to pay the charter schools has doubled in just four years to $226 million. Meanwhile, the cumulative gap in adequacy funding - the difference between what the state's own law says Newark should get and what it actually does, has grown to over $350 million. The gap next year for NPS under Chris Christie's proposed budget will be about $178 million.

As I've shown, funding gaps lead to fewer music, art, PE, and other "specialist" teachers, as well as a decline in staff to teach foreign language and school nurses. Support staff has been decimated in NPS, including attendance counselors. Making things worse is the incessant focus on language arts and math, the two "tested" subjects that NPS uses to determine (wrongly) if a school is "failing" or not.

But even as NPS is being bled dry, there always seems to be plenty of money for the charter schools. Christie is pushing a plan for charter funding to be "held harmless," meaning NPS will have to find yet another $25 million for the charters. The charter industry also got plenty of the Zuckerberg money, as well as special financing the public schools can't access: TEAM Academy alone got $138 million in financing from federal bonds unavailable to NPS.

Further, contrary to the views of the ignorant, TEAM/KIPP racks up a very large amount of philanthropic giving; look at their tax forms if you doubt it (more on this later this summer).

I don't blame Frazier for being concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum and the lack of resources, including adequate staff, in NPS schools. I don't fault him for moving his children to a schools that is well-resourced. But let's not pretend for a second that NPS is on a level playing field with TEAM/KIPP when it comes to finances, especially since NPS is educating many more special needs and LEP children who need extra funding for an adequate education.

And when we take this funding difference and student characteristic difference into account...

- There is no evidence that, when accounting for differences in student populations and resources, Newark's charter schools are any more effective than its public schools. Here's Bruce Baker:**
These final two graphs rank charter schools statewide by their performance on growth measures, given their resources, students, enrollment size and grade range. Figure 6 shows the 2013 ranking and Figure 7 shows the 2012 ranking. Both charts are sorted from lowest (average across both tests) to highest growth against expectations.
Figure 6 shows that Freedom Academy, Discovery Charter School and Camden’s promise had the greatest achievement growth given their resources, students, enrollment size and grade range and Union County TEAMS, Sussex County CS for TEC and East Orange CS had the lowest growth against expectations. In 2012, Discovery and Camden’s promise also did very well.
But other more “talked about” charters fall within or closer to the average mix of schools. Specifically, large and long running charter operators in Newark, include TEAM academy, whose performance is consistently around average (slightly above or slightly below). North Star Academy is consistently slightly to modestly above average, while Robert Treat Academy is more consistently below average on the student growth measures adjusted for resources, students, enrollment size and grade range. [emphasis mine]
TEAM/KIPP is a decent school. But when you take away its advantage in resources and student population characteristics, you will find it is actually quite average. Which, unfortunately, is the real takeaway in all this.

Altorice Frazier wants the best for his children. But the State of New Jersey has only given him two choices:

1) Intensely segregated public schools that are inadequately funded and not subject to democratic control.

2) Better funded charter schools that are only available to some students, do not serve as many special needs or LEP students, and do not accord parents or students the same rights as public schools. In addition, when accounting for resource and student population differences, these charter schools do not perform appreciably better than prediction.

Mr. Frazier says that the if state of Newark's public schools existed in "...any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable..." He's absolutely right: no suburb would ever stand for the "choices" Newark's families are being offered today. Suburban parents would demand that, before any system of "choice" was foisted on them, their public schools would be well-funded and subject to local control. In fact, several years ago, they did demand this, and the state backed off on its plans to bring boutique charters to the leafy 'burbs over the objections of local school boards.

The reason the state pulled back was obvious: the suburbs are Chris Christie's political base. Not so Mr. Frazier's town of Newark, or Camden or Paterson or Jersey City or Trenton or any of the other cities that are subject to varying forms of state control -- the same cities where the state has imposed charter schools with no local input or accountability.

I congratulate Mr. Frazier on his children's successes. I am happy for him that his children are enrolled in a school that works for his family. But we all have an obligation to step back and see the larger picture. KIPP admits it has no interest in fully taking over an urban district. Chris Cerf, the man who will soon lead NPS, admits that charter schools can't be the sole answer for the problems with urban schools. 

What happens to those, then, who do not enroll their children in charter schools? Where is their advocate? Who is willing to write op-eds in the New Jersey media on their behalf? Where are the large grants from the Walton Family Foundation and other plutocrats to improve education for them?

Altorice Frazier may not have much of a "choice." But those parents have no choice at all.

Local control of New Jersey schools: it's a white people thing.

* This raises an important question: how can any district not under democratic control expect its citizens, including parents, to be involved in supporting its schools? Isn't the first step in getting parents engaged in their children's schools giving them a say in how those schools should be run?

** As always: Bruce is my advisor in the PhD program in Education Policy at Rutgers.

1 comment:

Troy LaRaviere said...

FYI Jazzman: In case you haven't seen it already, a report out of Chicago that confirms what we all know. http://www.wbez.org/news/povertys-enduring-hold-school-success-112201