Since I last posted in his series, we've had some very disturbing news about Newark's schools. Bob Braun, the best reporter covering Newark, broke the story that lead has been found in the water supplies of 30 different K-12 schools in Newark.
I have to wonder: what would happen if the same story broke in Millburn or Livingston, two affluent suburbs in the same county as Newark? Would any of the parents in those affluent communities have been satisfied with the answer: "Hey, it's only a fraction of the contamination found in Flint"?
I ask because this series started in response to a piece on Campbell Brown's reformy "news" outlet, The 74, written by Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon Schools:
The thing is, there are schools out there right now — as you read this and as I write it — that are giving lie to the implication that school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty.
We can’t wait, and we don’t have to.
Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test.
In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%.
A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate.
The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to.
Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally.
And, there’s good evidence it’s working. [emphasis mine]
Now, any fair reading of this piece would lead us to conclude that Chiger attributes the "success" of North Star to its "systems and strategies." But perhaps it's worth pointing out that, according to Braun, only one charter school in Newark has been affected by high lead levels, and only because that school is co-located in a public school building.
As I've noted many times, it seems that we never have enough money to renovate urban public district schools, let alone build brand new ones. But there always seems to be enough money to build new charter schools.
In Camden, State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard really, really, wishes he could get the financing to fix his city's crumbling school infrastructure. But the only way he can, apparently, is to turn the schools over to private charter operators, who somehow seem to have access to capital his district does not. And other well-connected charter operators always manage to get that Wall Street love when they need some cash to expand.
In Newark, the schools have been crumbling for years. But the charters are "held harmless" in their funding, while the district schools struggle to maintain a dilapidated infrastructure. Some charters even get brand new facilities with gobs of tax incentives attached to their financing, with the added bonus of acquiring housing for their teachers and "tutors."
In Paterson, rodent feces adorn the textbooks of children.
The district faces an enormous fiscal crisis, yet charters -- including those associated with the Gulen movement -- are allowed to expand all over North Jersey without first addressing the finances of their host districts.
In addition to this: when a charter school educates fewer students with a special education need, or who don't speak English at home, or who aren't in the deepest level of economic disadvantage, that charter doesn't have to expend the same amount of resources as the hosting public district school that does serve those children. There is a resource advantage in enrolling the students who are the least expensive to educate.
When charter cheerleaders talk about the "successes" of a select number of charter chains, they usually attribute their test-based gains to things like "systems & strategies." But there never seems to be an acknowledgement of the obvious:
"Successful" charter schools owe their "success," in part, to having resource advantages over public schools.
Are the charter school students at Newark's Teachers Village in any danger of lead contamination while learning in their brand new school? How about the students at the brand new KIPP school in Camden at Lanning Square -- a school that was supposed to be a public, district school? What about North Star's students, who attend a five year old school?
If new schools are good for charter students, why aren't they good for all students?
I'll pick up this series from where I left off in Part I next.