- Franklin, NJ
- Princeton, NJ
- Vineland, NJ
I was in Franklin, NJ a few weeks ago for a panel on charter school expansion. The town already has two charters, and a third is in the works (founded by, of all people, a winner on The Apprentice). One of the schools currently open, Central Jersey College Prep Charter School, has been granted a huge expansion by the NJDOE. This expansion is part of what appears to be a rush to swell charter enrollments across the state before Chris Christie leaves office next year.
What's so discouraging about the Franklin charter expansion is that the community has been split apart. The charter families feel they have been served well by their schools, and want to see them grow. The families of public district school students, on the other hand, rightly worry that the charters are harming their district's finances.
This tension is being played out across the state and across the nation: charter families' demand for "choice" inherently conflicts with public district school families' demand for adequately funded schools. There are also the interests of other taxpayers, who want efficient schools and worry that charters, because they are redundant and usually inefficiently small, waste funds that could be used to either expand programs or reduce taxes.
The conflict is so great that citizens in towns like Franklin are now bringing civil rights complaints against charters, alleging the charters enroll a fundamentally different student population than the district. There is no doubt they are correct: While it may not be intentional, Franklin's charters do not enroll the same types of students as the district.
I don't know why charter parents in the town, and professional charter cheerleaders in the state, find this statement at all controversial. We know New Jersey charters don't enroll nearly as many special education or Limited English Proficient (LEP) students as their hosting school district. We know charters often have different racial profiles compared to their hosts. As I showed at the panel, the data really is beyond dispute:
Thomas Edison EnergySmart clearly has many more Asian students and many less Hispanic and black students proportionally than Franklin Public Schools. Central Jersey College Prep is trending away from the district.
The charter advocates in Franklin have made the case that they don't discriminate because their lotteries are open to all. They neglect to mention, however, that sibling preference can contribute to segregative patterns. Further, we know from a large and growing body of evidence (see the lit review here) that parents negotiate school choice systems differently, and that distance and social networks play a large role in how their children eventually wind up in their schools.
Again, I don't understand why this is a controversial statement: similar people will make similar choices. To be clear, this is exactly what happens when families make school choices through the real estate market. But a community like Franklin, which is relatively integrated compared to many other New Jersey suburbs, should be concerned about how school "choice" is affecting the racial profile of its schools. For example:
I won't go through my full presentation, but here are a few more slides:
As is typical for New Jersey, Franklin's charter schools enroll far fewer special eduction students.
The few special education students the charters take tend to have low-cost disabilities, such as specific learning disabilities (SLD) or speech disabilities.
Charter teachers have far less experience than public district teachers. As Martin Carnoy recently pointed out, this creates a "free rider" problem in staffing (more on this later in the series).
Charters spend far more on administrative expenses, likely because they can't achieve the economies of scale found at public district schools.
Let me add a few thoughts before I share these last two slides. There's been a lot of study and debate about the alleged charter school "advantage" -- whether charters get better test scores than public district schools. As I have pointed out time and again, it is simply wrong to compare test scores between any two schools without controlling for their differences in student characteristics (and if we want to be really thorough, we should also take into account differences in spending and other resources).
But there are other issues when comparing charter and public district outcomes. Comparing proficiency rates, for example -- as the Franklin charters did in a handout the night of the panel -- masks all the growth that takes place for students who are above or below what is basically an arbitrary cut point. And even growth measures like SGPs are problematic, because they equate growth at different parts of the test score scale.
All of this, by the way, leaves aside the question of whether the tests themselves are high-quality measures of student learning. But I'll set that aside for now, and instead show some PARCC scores in math for Franklin's schools last year:
I made a statewide model to assess the "value" the schools add to their test scores after accounting for student differences:
If I had to point to one particularly striking finding, it's that Franklin Middle School does exceptionally well with its Algebra 1 students. But even then: these are the kids taking algebra in Grade 7 or 8, as opposed to the kids who take it in Grade 9 or beyond at the high school. Is anyone shocked by this difference?
Which is really the larger point in all of this: If test scores are so dependent on student characteristics, what, then, is being gained from separating Franklin's students into different school governance systems? Is it really so important to sort the kids into these different school communities? Shouldn't Franklin value having all of its students together? Is individual achievement the only thing the community should care about?
There's another issue that is particular to Franklin: Northjersey.com recently reported that the charters are linked to the Turkish Gulen movement. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fethullah Gulen himself pointed to a network of charter schools in the United States to obtain his green card. Are Franklin's charters in fact part of this network? Who are their vendors? What lease deals do they have?
These are questions that public school boards have to answer regularly as part of normal standards of transparency and accountability. Yes, the system does break down -- I am the first to point this out. But charters don't have to answer to the taxpayers in the same way public district schools must.
I won't answer that question -- because the people who should be making the decisions about charter proliferation are the people affected by those decisions. But Chris Christie's NJDOE has the only say over charter approval and expansion; the local school board, elected by the town's citizens to ensure the delivery of a quality education for all students, can go hang.
According to FPS Superintendent John Navally:
In other words: The "choices" charter advocates crave come at a price for other students and for local taxpayers. Districts have fixed costs and must enroll all of the students who are not attending the charters -- students who are more likely to have needs that require more revenues. Taxpayers must come up with the additional funds to support redundant school systems, without any say in the extent of charter proliferation or the benefits of increased accountability and transparency.
Trust me -- we are going to see this set of circumstances time and again as we travel across New Jersey. Next stop: Princeton.
Fool's gold: it's shiny, but...