If this is the case, it will be the third time since this spring that Chris Christie has visited a charter school linked to the controversial Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish expatriate living in seclusion in the United States.
On May 16, Christie visited Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School in Franklin. Two days later, he trekked to Bergen Arts & Sciences Charter School in Hackensack. Thomas Edison, Bergen A&S, and Paterson Science & Tech have all been linked by the Gulen Charter Schools website to the Gulenist movement in the US.
As I've written previously, the proliferation of Gulenist charter schools is not some wild-eyed conspiracy theory: it's been reported on by CBS News, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Wall St. Journal. These schools, all linked to Gulen's movement, have been popping up all over the country and are the subject of concerns expressed by the federal State Department due to their use of H1B visas to admit Turkish nationals into the US.
Given how closely tied Christie is to Donald Trump -- who wants a ban on Muslims entering the country (although even he doesn't seem to understand his own plan) -- I can't understand why no one in the state press has pursued this story. Why is Christie praising so many Gulen-linked charters? Why is he visiting so many of them?
Back in 2011, Leslie Brody, when she was writing for The Record, broached the subject with the CEO of Bergen A&S:
In some states, such as Texas, charter schools led by Turkish immigrants have caused controversy, with critics claiming the schools were used to bring in teachers from Turkey and give contracts to Turkish businesses without fair bidding. In June, The New York Times ran a lengthy examination of these schools, citing some researchers' findings that many were inspired by the views of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher. Gulen, who lives in the Pocono Mountains, has promoted peaceful dialogue and tolerance but had critics who feared his influence in Turkish government.
Sorry, but that's way too easy. The concern over Gulen-linked charters isn't about staff ethnicities or creeds; it's about transparency. The Ohio press has reported on Gulen-linked charters' use of H1B visas to import Turkish nationals as teachers. In 2011, the NY Times investigated how Gulen-linked charters in Texas made deals with Gulen-linked contractors. The Turkish government (admittedly, hardly an impartial party) recently filed a complaint in Texas related to this investigation. New Jersey taxpayers have every right to know whether there are similar issues with the Gulen-linked charters in this state.Guvercin said he admires Gulen — just as he admires Gandhi — but his teachers never talk in class about Gulen's philosophy. He stressed that charter opponents should visit before forming opinions. "Some people are not comfortable with any ethnic backgrounds," he said.
Chris Christie recently proposed a radical transformation of the state's school aid system. Under his plan, aid would be slashed for urban districts -- but, supposedly, not for charter schools. If charters are going to get more state funding than their host districts, that's all the more reason to start asking how that money is being spent.
Here is comparative spending by category for the Paterson Public Schools and PCSST, according to NJDOE data. Yes, budgetary per pupil costs are higher in the public schools -- but much of that is driven by this:
The Paterson Public Schools enroll more students proportionally with a special education need than PCSST. Notice, in the spending graph, that PPS spends about $3,300 per pupil on support services: the services that are especially critical for special needs students. The charter, however, spends nothing on those services according to this data. Instead, they spend more on administration, and much more on their physical plant.
Where is that money going? The Gulen Charter Schools website has a detailed description of the byzantine financial transactions involved in the leases PCSST pays to Apple Educational Services, and how New Jersey Economic Development Authority Charter School Revenue Bonds were used to finance the deal. Apple ES is a foreign non-profit corporation registered in New Jersey. According to its 2014 tax forms (obtained at Guidestar.org), Apple ES controls $36 million in net assets, but also has $34 million in liabilities, primarily bonds issued by the NJEDA. It also pays out $738 thousand in compensation to its staff.
This sort of behavior is quite typical for the charter sector: taxpayer-backed bonds are being used to acquire property that is transferred to private, albeit non-profit, hands,and the bonds are paid off with public funds collected by charters from their host districts. The only way this works, of course, is for the charters to keep expenses low enough to divert enough funds into their lease payments. How does PCSST do this?
PCSST certificated staff have far less experience than Paterson Public Schools staff. And that helps keep costs low:
PCSST staff are actually paid slightly more than PPS staff when accounting for experience. But there isn't even one PCSST staff member with more than 10 years of experience according to staffing files -- and that keeps overall staff expenses low. The money can then be diverted into lease payments. Of course, the evidence continues to pile up that teaching experience matters, even in the later part of a teacher's career. PCSST's students are being denied the benefits of an experienced faculty, but there appears to be plenty of money for bond payments.
Now, all this might be acceptable if PCSST was getting far superior results. But when you account for different student populations as I do here*, it turns out the charter is doing OK -- but not much better than that (click to enlarge).
Compared to PPS, PCSST does relatively well on Adjusted Grade 5 math -- but it's not at the top of the pack.
PCSST's Algebra 1 scores are relatively weak.
PCSST does fairly well on adjusted Grade 6 English Language Arts scores.
Grade 10 ELA is average.
PCSST is, undoubtedly, full of hard-working, talented students and dedicated teachers. I congratulate them on their successes, but let's be clear: Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology is not far and above the Paterson Public Schools in terms of its test-based outcomes.
I wish someone in the NJ press corps cared enough to ask these rather basic questions.
Fethullah Gulen? Never heard of him...
ADDING: By the way:
PATERSON – The city school district is in the process of making as much as $20 million in last-minute spending cuts in its 2016-2017 budget, a belt-tightening that comes on the heels of $45 million in reductions made several months ago.
Paterson Press reported two weeks ago that the district would have to make millions of dollars in extra cuts, but at that time officials had not disclosed exactly how much spending would have to be trimmed.
Board of Education President Christopher Irving said state-appointed schools superintendent Donnie Evans informed him that between $15 million and $20 million must be trimmed from the district’s $468 million budget that takes effect on July 1. An extra $20 million in cuts would amount to about 4.2 percent of the budget.
Charter advocates are always making the case that parents are "choosing with their feet" when they enroll their children in charters. But if a parent has to choose between chronically underfunded public district schools and charters that serve fewer special needs children and are not transparently managed...Cuts imposed a year ago eliminated more than 350 district jobs, including about 170 teaching positions. The district struggled to recover from those reductions and had to use substitute teachers for some classes during this past academic year. Local education advocates say the relentless series of spending reductions will undermine the district’s moderately-successful efforts to improve graduation rates and student test scores. [emphasis mine]
What kind of "choice" is that?
* I use a linear regression model to adjust scale scores on the 2015 PARCC exams. The model is:
ScaleScore = f(pctFreeReducedPriceLunch, pctSpecEd, pctLEP)
Free lunch and LEP are from 2016; there are some clearly misreported 2015 demographic figures for PPS, so I opted for more recent figures but matched them with 2015 test scores. Special education is a three-year average from 2012 to 2014. FL and SpecEd are significant at the p < 0.01 level. LEP significance varies; I decided to keep it in all models for consistency's sake.
Robust standard errors (N is between 1215 (Grade 5 Math) and 393 (Grade 9 ELA)) with typical colinearity checks (VIFs).