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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Return To Teachers Village: Part I

Here are links to all of the posts in this series:

Part I - Introduction
Part II - The Teachers
Part III - The Students
Part IV - What's It Costing Us?

 * * *

Earlier this month, Rachel Cohen of The American Prospect wrote an article about Teachers Village, a development project in Newark, NJ that houses three charter schools in addition to retail stores. Teachers Village is unusual in that it also has dozens of housing units that are specifically marketed to teachers. Developments like this are actually starting to pop up across the country, fueled by a series of tax breaks, including the New Markets Tax Credit.

Cohen quotes yours truly several times in the piece on the basis of a series of posts I've written -- see here, here and here -- where I question the wisdom of using public monies to build facilities that are rented to both publicly-funded charter schools and the people who work in them. I especially wonder why Ron Beit, the developer of Teachers Village, and his investors should get all sorts of public largess when the project seems like it's designed to cater to renters who are likely not going to be career-long educators:
Beit's got himself one sweet deal, doesn't he? He uses $100 million in tax credits to finance a project in Newark, then lines up a group of charter schools as his business occupants, who will pay their rents with taxpayer funds.

Then, as if that isn't enough, he sets himself up to direct a steady flow of college-educated renters right into his residential units - through TFA [Teach For America]! In fact, TFA has a page where prospective "teachers" can figure out their expenses when they move to Newark. By default, rent is listed as $1150: right in the range for units at Teachers Village. There's also a happy-happy neighborhood description on the TFA-Newark website: I don't think a real estate agent could have written one better.

This is hardly a new idea: in Baltimore, 70 percent of Miller's Court's residents are TFAers. Again, the financing was helped by New Markets Tax Credits.

But I have to imagine that Beit's looking downstate at Camden (and, for that matter, other cities in New Jersey) and licking his chops. The whole place has been taken over by the state and stands poised to become as charterized as New Orleans. Tax credits, bond money, and other public funding has flooded into the area: the expansion of charters is part of that deluge. Land is cheap and the city needs an influx of yuppies to begin the gentrification its leaders so desperately crave. It's the perfect place to replicate Teachers Village.

There's been plenty written about how TFA has become a political organization. But I suspect it's also poised to become a power broker in the brave new world of 21st Century urban development. Cities used to have to put together marketing campaigns and development plans to start gentrifying neighborhoods. Now, they just have to give TFA a call, and the yuppies will come rolling in.

And it's all paid for with public monies. Everyone cool with that?
It turns out that Beit was not particularly happy with Cohen's piece (FWIW, I thought she was quite fair). He wrote a letter to TAP that they published last week:
Rachel Cohen’s article, “Can Affordable Housing Retain Teachers,” features Newark’s Teachers Village, an inner city project to provide affordable and market rate housing to teachers and administrators in a city struggling to revitalize. Unfortunately, the article paints a picture that is misinformed and full of inaccuracies about this exciting project.
Ms. Cohen could not have visited the area and included many [quotations that were inaccurate], such as, “The problem is that (Newark’s Teachers Village) is clearly designed for white, young professional types…” and “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district…”.
In fact, 72 percent of all the residents in Teachers Village are minority, and close to 70 percent of all residents are educators. Of those, 44 percent are Americorps or Tutor Corps (recruited nationwide to train at Great Oaks school). Thirty-eight percent of the residents are charter-school teachers and 18 percent are district teachers.   
Most celebrate Teachers Village as a place for district schoolteachers, charter schoolteachers, and independent schoolteachers to live together, exchange ideas, and share the energy and innovation that can only be a benefit to the city and the children of Newark.
Teachers Village is a sustainable model that should be introduced in every municipality across the country as a tool to recruit and retain the best teachers, as well as to stimulate economic development in neighborhoods that have long been left fallow; where no one lived or worked for many years. Putting teachers from all types of schools—district, charter, and independent—at the center of the community and building a vibrant, affordable, 24-hour neighborhood around our city’s working professionals is an honorable pursuit and one that should be emulated across America.
I find it interesting that Beit chides Cohen for her conclusions while simultaneously presuming to speak for the "most" who "celebrate" Teachers Village. But it's his use of statistics that really got me thinking: what do we actually know about who is living, working, and learning in Teachers Village?

I'm going to be exploring this question in a series of posts this week.

Let's start with Beit's data. "72 percent of all the residents in Teachers Village are minority..." is the sort of factesque data point that looks good at first glance, but could really mean anything. What's a "minority"? Are Asian residents part of that group? LGBT residents? The truth is that Newark is about one-quarter white, so it would be hard for Teachers Village not to have many non-white tenants  That doesn't mean it won't be attracting residents with a different demographic profile than those in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beit also says, "70 percent of all residents are educators," but he immediately qualifies that by noting that 44 percent of those are tutors working for Great Oaks Charter School, one of the three charters renting at Teachers Village. The tutors at Great Oaks are the core of the school's signature program, as described by its website:
Who applies to the Great Oaks Tutor Corps?
The majority of Great Oaks Tutor Corps fellows are recent college graduates who:
  • Are generally interested in education and want to give a year of service.
  • Are interested in education policy and wish to experience life on the ground in an urban school.
  • Plan to pursue a career in medicine, law or enroll in another graduate program and wish to first give a year of service.
  • Want to become high-performing teachers. In Newark and New York City, people in this category may choose to apply to the Great Oaks Teacher Residency.

Where will I live?
Tutor Corps fellows in Newark will live in Teachers Village. Fellows for the New York City campus will receive housing in Brooklyn. Bridgeport fellows will live near downtown Bridgeport. Wilmington Tutors will live in the heart of downtown Wilmington. All fellows will receive a modest living stipend. [emphasis mine]
You'll note the program specifically says that at least some of the Tutor Corps fellows do not want to become teachers. Teachers Village, then, is providing a good amount of temporary housing for people who are not career educators.

I'll talk more about the teachers at Teachers Village later in this series; for now, let's acknowledge that Beit's contention that his development is "...building a vibrant, affordable, 24-hour neighborhood around our city’s working professionals..." is quite a stretch. By most people's definition (hey, if Beit can generalize, why can't I?), a tutor with a one-year commitment is not a "professional."

Keep in mind that the tutors are not paying their own rent: housing is provided to them at taxpayer expense. This year, 20 Great Oaks tutors are subsidized through a $268,600 grant from the federal AmeriCorps program as administered through the state. The tutor program also received $300,000 of Mark Zuckerberg's famous (and tax-deductible) donation to Newark's schools. I don't know of any program assessment that's been done, but the comments of the tutors themselves on Glassdoor are quite interesting.

In any case, this is yet another stream of taxpayer-funded revenue flowing to Beit's group through Teachers Village. And there isn't a lot of evidence that Beit is giving the school a break on its leasing fees for putting up the tutors in his building. According to Great Oaks's Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports for 2013, it paid $280,177 in rental fees for the tutors (p. 48). That fee rose to $399,994 in 2014 (p. 47), the year Great Oaks moved into Teachers Village. Granted, the school's enrollment grew by about one-third, so maybe the number of tutors being put up grew as well; again, I can't find a program assessment, so who knows? But even if it did, there's no reason to believe, based on these numbers, that Great Oaks is getting an especially good deal compared to what it was paying previously.

Look, it's perfectly fine to have a program that brings tutors into a school (although why the students who benefit from those tutors should have to go to a school that is under private control escapes me). But Beit has created -- with a great deal of assistance from this state's taxpayers -- a development that is housing a large number of "educators" who have no obligation or incentive to stay in Newark or in teaching. 

The tutors are temporary residents of the city. Granted, they are young and college-educated: exactly the sort of folks urban developers want to bring in to "revitalize" neighborhoods. But there is no reason to believe they are invested in the city in the same way homeowners and career professionals would be.

It's worth noting that Beit's company, RBH Group, boasts that it has, "...acquired through 30 transactions, over 79 properties in Newark’s downtown core." Who, then, benefits from bringing in a steady stream of college-educated youngsters in Newark? Certainly not career teachers, who might be offered incentives to buy housing in Newark and would see any gains in the value of their property then accrue to themselves. The money that might have provided those incentives is, instead, being channeled into properties that, if they increase in value, will benefit RBH Group.

Let me be clear: it's perfectly fine for Ron Beit and his group to make money developing properties in Newark and elsewhere. I don't even have a problem with providing some sort of incentive to help that process along. Newark needs investment if it's ever going to become a vibrant, thriving community. But let's get something straight:

Teachers Village is a very big investment of public dollars. It is not a philanthropic undertaking; it is a profit-making enterprise. As such, the public deserves a clear-eyed view of how its funds are being spent. It also deserves a serious analysis of whether that spending is a good investment in education, not just real estate development.

Let's take a look at that next.

Next: Part II -- Who Is Teaching At Teachers Village?

Teachers Village Ground Breaking, 2012.


Dienne said...

Hmmm, why is the name "Foxconn" coming to mind?

Michael Fiorillo said...

White colonization; Black displacement; Overclass enrichment.