First of all, Simmonds doesn't say outright that this child was classified with a special education need. But the remainder of Simmonds' piece does frame the issue of charter school funding in those terms:This year, for the first time in eight years, I cried because of my work. As many times before, I was called in to restrain a student whose physical tantrum, prompted by a family issue, threatened his own safety and the safety of others.His lone teacher was overwhelmed, with no co-teacher to support, because it was deemed too expensive. We no longer had the mental-health staff on site to support him in crisis, because it was not financially sustainable. The parent coordinator who could have intervened had to be laid off.He was only 5 years old. In his rage, he seemed as strong as a 20-year-old.With all my might I hugged him in a safety hold so he would stop punching the wall, hitting his head on the floor, and throwing furniture. After some time he calmed and a crisis team arrived. I released him and returned to my office and sobbed.As executive director at University Heights Charter School (UHCS) in Newark for the past eight years, I have seen firsthand the tough decisions that need to be made to fund our public schools in this fiscal climate. I am grateful that our per-pupil funding level has held steady this year, but like many other schools across the state we are still facing challenges to serve the students with the greatest needs. [emphasis min]
As a result of these circumstances, our young scholars have tremendous emotional, academic, and social needs that challenge our mission to develop in each of them the character, scholarship, and leadership necessary for success in college, community, and life.
Anticipating this, we initially envisioned a classroom model that would put two full-time certified teachers in each classroom to enable more personalized instruction. As enrollment grew over time, we planned to provide a comprehensive education including deep learning in the arts and Spanish.
We sought partnerships with mental health providers to provide onsite psychiatric and counseling services so that students could overcome trauma and be ready to learn. We hired a full-time parent and community coordinator to partner with families to support their children in achieving excellence.
When I started in the 2008-2009 school year, this all seemed possible. Our government funding at the time from both federal and state sources amounted to $17,588 per pupil. Based on recently released state school aid figures, we expect to receive $16,015 per pupil for next school year. This difference in real per-pupil aid leaves us $1.3 million short of anticipated funding if government aid had kept up with inflation.I don't doubt Simmonds' sincerity here for second -- but this argument most certainly needs some scrutiny.
First of all, as I have reported multiple times, charter schools have been "held harmless" in their funding over the past couple of years, thanks to the Christie administration's policies. This has hit Newark Public Schools particularly hard, as they've had to transfer more and more money over to charters even as their own aid per pupil shrinks.
Second, while University Heights CS does have a large population of students in economic disadvantage, they are by no means enrolling the highest percentage of free lunch-eligible students in the city.
UHCS is right at the media for FL percentage; good for them. They're clearly serving more students in disadvantage than "successful" charters like Robert Treat or North Star. But what about all those public schools that are serving even more FL students than UHCS? Don't they need resources too? Don't they need support? If so, why have they not been "held harmless" in their funding like the Newark charter sector's schools?
This year, Christie has promised to help make up the "held harmless" penalty for NPS by giving more state aid to the district. The catch is that aid must pass through to the charters; NPS can't touch it. How can anyone say this is fair -- especially when so many charters (not all, but many) aren't pulling their weight in educating children in economic disadvantage?
Here are the classification rates -- the percentages of children who have been identified with a special education need -- at NPS and all of the charters in Newark. In New Jersey, charters are essentially their own districts, so the comparison here is warranted. No charter school in Newark serves as large a proportion of special education students as the Newark Public Schools.
NPS's classification rate is 17.1 percent; UHCS's is 8.5 percent. I can certainly sympathize with Simmonds' plight here, but isn't the problem even greater at NPS?
Now, there is a caveat here: charters do get money from their host district based on the number of children enrolled with a special education need. A charter that enrolls a smaller proportion of special education students gets less per pupil than a charter that enrolls a greater proportion.
But the issue is actually even more complex than that, because not all children have the same special education need -- and the costs can vary significantly. According to the state's own consultants, Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairments (SPL) are "low" cost disabilities compared to more expensive ones such as autism, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, visual impairments, and so on.
We know that charters enroll fewer special education students overall; but what sort of disabilities do special education charter students have?
What I'm showing here are the breakdowns by disability for NPS and the Newark charters of the entire population of special needs students; that's why all charter and NPS percentages add up to 100. NPS's special education population has proportionally more students with "high cost" disabilities than the charter schools.
If you look at a charter's aid notice, you'll see that special education students are sorted out by speech or non-speech; that's it. Given NPS's high classification rate of "high cost" disabilities, there's plenty of reason to believe the Newark school district is taking a major fiscal hit because it educates a greater proportion of students with the most profound special education needs compared to the charters.
And yes, there is extraordinary special education aid available from the state (scroll down), but it doesn't come anywhere close to covering the local share of costs for high-needs students.
Let me put this all together in one graph:
And so here it is:
1) NPS educates a greater proportion of special needs students than the Newark charter sector.
2) NPS educates a greater proportion of "high cost" special needs students than the Newark charter sector.
And yet, because of the "held harmless" provisions, and because of the way special education aid is distributed to the charters, NPS is bearing an even greater fiscal burden.
I don't doubt Misha Simmonds' sincerity. I don't hold it against him that he's advocating for his own students. But I think Newark's beautiful and deserving special education students -- the neediest of the needy -- aren't well served by a system that creates these inequities. And that's why I question this final paragraph:
As we are faced with this reality of limited resources, it is imperative that all schools -- traditional, charter, magnet, and private alike -- work together to come up with innovative ways to serve our most at-risk students and continue to share best practices throughout the state. Collaboration, not combativeness, is what will help ensure all children have the resources they need to thrive.I'm sorry, but that is very, very difficult to swallow. "Best practices" should include putting resources where they are needed -- it's very hard to make the case that this is what's happening right now in Newark. Simmonds is absolutely right when he says that children in economic disadvantage and who have special education needs deserve more money so they can get more services.
But if resources are really that scarce, how does it make any sense to create a system of redundant school governance in the name of "choice"? Wouldn't a better "best practice" be to start consolidating a system that currently replicates administration at the cost of getting more resources to the children who need it the most?
If we're going to "work together," let's start by asking this basic question.