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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Facts About Charter School Finances in Camden, NJ

Here's Part I of my U-Ark series.

Here's Part II.

This post really should be called "U-Ark Screws Up A Charter School Revenue Study, AGAIN: Part III," as it is a follow-up to my last two posts about how the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform messed up its latest study of charter school revenues. I'm retitling it, however, because I think the facts I present below have significance beyond critiquing U-Ark's report.

As I showed, U-Ark's claim that Camden's charter sector is receiving far less funding than the city's public schools is completely bogus (and this almost certainly applies to the other cities in their study). They double count revenues going to charter schools without attributing them to those schools' students. They don't understand that since the district has the responsibility for transporting charter students, revenues allotted for that purpose shouldn't be attributed to the district.

I'd go on about the many other methodological failures in the study, but Bruce Baker covered them when he reviewed U-Ark's report from 2014. Amazingly, U-Ark cites Baker in their latest report -- but then goes back and makes the same mistakes. Which wouldn't be so bad if the study was being ignored and wasn't influencing policy makers; unfortunately, it appears stakeholders are heeding the study's conclusions.

This, by the way, is a huge problem in education policy journalism right now: reporters will often trumpet a "new study" that knowledgable critics haven't had time to properly vet. Even if it's a piece of junk, it still gets attention; at best, the critics are given a "he said-she said" positioning that leads stakeholders to believe that even if the study has problems, it's probably still making at least a somewhat valid point.

Let's use Camden's charters and the U-Ark study as an example of why this is such a problem. Here's a quote from page 14:
Inequitable funding between public charter schools and TPS could be due to differences in the number of students identified as requiring SPED [special education] services, as described in Table 2. To test this ubiquitous claim regarding the charter school funding gap, we depart from our normal approach of focusing exclusively on revenues and consider SPED expenditures by both school sectors.

The Table 3 column labeled “SPED Expenditure Gap Per Student” presents the results from subtracting the amount of dollars spent per student in the charter sector from the amount of dollars spent per student in TPS sector. All totals are positive, indicating that TPS spend more on SPED than charters in all 14 of our metropolitan areas. The largest SPED expenditure gap is in Camden, where TPS spend $3,383 more per student on SPED than charters spend. The smallest SPED expenditure gap is in Tulsa, where TPS only spend $32 more per pupil on SPED than charters do. [emphasis mine]
As I've noted previously, the documentation of data sources in this report is so bad it's impossible for me to replicate the report's analyses. There's also a serious problem when making these comparisons, as the amount spent on special education is not necessarily the amount that should be spent. In other words, if the charters or TPSs are short-changing what ought to be spent to properly educate a special needs student, that's going to affect the spending "gap." In no way, then, is this analysis adequate for making claims about charters being underfunded.

There's one additional flaw here, and it's huge: Not all special education students are the same, which affects how much a school spends. So far as I can tell -- again, the documentation of methods is so lacking I can't say for sure -- U-Ark treated special education status as a binary variable: either a child is classified or she is not. But that is a terrible way of assessing the true reasons for a charter school revenue "gap":

2014 is the last year for which we have good data on the types of learning disabilities students have. Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) and Speech/Language disabilities (SPL) are lower-cost classifications (that comes directly from a report commissioned by the state in 2011). Students with the other disabilities, such as autism, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, and so on, require more resources to receive an adequate education.

Very few students with the costliest learning disabilities enroll in Camden's charter schools; this is also true across New Jersey, and across the nation

Let's look at this as a percentage of total student population:

As a percentage, Camden City Public Schools enroll far more special needs students with the costliest disabilities. It's worth noting that most of these students in the charters are classified as "Other Health Impairment," a catch-all phrase that includes students with asthma and ADHD. Which means many of these students could still have disabilities that are relatively easily treated and don't require much support.

This alone is enough evidence to dismiss U-Ark's blanket claim that special education status isn't a major factor in Camden's revenue "disparity." But let me point out a few more pertinent facts U-Ark simply doesn't consider:

The percentage of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in CCPS is consistently greater than the percentage in the charter schools. This obviously requires CCPS to spend more per pupil, as LEP students needs special services.

Camden has many free lunch-eligible (FL) students in both the charters and in CCPS schools. The New Jersey funding formula, SFRA, directs more resources to schools with more at-risk students (as it should). But recently, CCPS moved to a universal enrollment system for subsidized student meals. I certainly applaud this, but it makes research more difficult. There is now no incentive for CCPS families to enroll in the program; in contrast, charters do rely on FL enrollment numbers to pass more money through to them from the district. Which makes the FL statistics unreliable.

But the measure was never very good to begin with: all it shows is how many students fall below 130 percent of the poverty line. There are lots of reasons to believe there's great variation within that group of students. I'm not sure U-Ark could have done anything about this, but they should at least acknowledge the issue.

Some other points:

The charter sector relies on staffs that have far less experience than CCPS teachers. We know teachers gain the most in effectiveness in their first few years, so this is a serious concern. But there's another problem related to U-Ark's study.

CCPS has many more teachers with a decade or two of experience than the charters. This affects the payrolls of each sector.

I was a bit surprised when I saw this, because teacher salaries tend to be much lower in charter schools. But starting around year 3, salary schedules are about the same... until you get to the second decade. That's when CCPS salaries start to rise at a steeper slope, leaving charter salaries behind.

Why does this matter? As Martin Carnoy has recently pointed out, it sets up a "free rider" problem for CCPS. Charter teachers accept less pay because they don't expect to stay in the job very long. Maybe they will move on to another field; maybe they'll switch over to a public school district, which will give them better pay in the future. The charters can offer less pay now because teachers can expect more pay later when they aren't working in the charter.

Between the special needs students and the free-riding on salaries, it's increasingly clear the charter sector couldn't sustain its model without the public schools spending more money. But the charters still draw significant revenues. What do they spend it on?

Charter school administrative spending is far in excess of public school spending. It's possible charters have to spend more because they churn their teachers, requiring more administrators to work with perpetually inexperienced staffs. It's also likely charters are too small to achieve economies of scale, a fact Bruce Baker pointed out recently.

Charter schools spend far less on student support services, likely because they have fewer students who need those services. Services include child study teams, therapists, school nurses, and other staff who spend much of their time serving students with special education needs. Some charters don't report any spending on these services.

None of these realities are explored in U-Ark's report. And yet every one of them is relevant to U-Ark's claim that: "Public charter schools in Camden, New Jersey, are the most underfunded, receiving an average of $14,771 less in per-pupil funding that TPS, representing a 45 percent funding inequity."

This is a bogus, sloppy, unwarranted comparison; no policy should be enacted based on U-Ark's claims. In fact, based on their analysis of Camden alone, the entire report should simply be dismissed as unreliable.

Again: this isn't anything new. U-Ark has been repeatedly criticized for its work in this area. And yet they plow ahead, with the blessing of both their funders and the university that hosts them. Why?

You tell me.

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