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 20, 2017

U-Ark Screws Up A Charter School Revenue Study, AGAIN: Part II

Here's Part I of this series.

Here's Part III, which is actually a presentation of relevant facts about Camden, NJ charter school finances.

If this is true, it's really disturbing:
Colorado’s General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill giving charter schools the same access to a local tax funding stream as district schools have, The Denver Post reported.
The bipartisan compromise measure, which supporters say is the first of its kind in the nation, would address an estimated $34 million inequity in local tax increases. It came a day after the University of Arkansas released a study that found charter schools receive $5,721 less per pupil on average than their district counterparts — a 29 percent funding gap. [emphasis mine]
It is, of course, standard operating procedure for outfits like the U-Ark Department of Education Reform to claim their work led to particular changes in policy; that's how they justify themselves to their reformy funders.  Maybe the connection between the report and the Colorado legislation (which is really awful -- more in a bit) is overblown...

But if the U-Ark report did sway the debate, that's a big problem. Because the report is just flat out wrong. 

As I explained in Part I, the claim that Camden, NJ, has a huge revenue gap between charters and public district schools seems to be based on an utterly phony comparison: all of the revenue, both charter and district, is linked to only the CCPS students -- not the charter students. Because the data source documentation in the report is so bad, I can't exactly replicate U-Ark's figures, so I invited Patrick Wolf and his colleagues to contact me and explain exactly how they got the figures they did.

So far, they remain silent.

But that isn't surprising. When U-Ark put out its first report in 2014, Bruce Baker tore it to shreds in a brief published by the National Education Policy Center. The latest U-Ark report cites Baker's brief, so they must have read it -- but they never bothered to answer Baker's main claim, which is that their comparisons are wholly invalid.

Further, what I documented in the last post is only one of the huge, glaring flaws in the report. Let me point out another, using Camden, NJ again as an example. We'll start by looking U-Ark's justification for using the methods they do:
This is a study of the revenues actually received by public charter schools and TPS. Revenues equal funding. Revenues signal the amount of resources that are being mobilized in support of students in the two different types of public schools. Some critics of these types of analyses argue that our revenue study should, instead, focus on school expenditures and excuse TPS from certain expenditure categories, such as transportation, because TPS are mandated to provide it but many charter schools choose not to spend scarce educational resources on that item. [emphasis mine]
"Choose" not to spend the revenues? Sorry to be blunt, but that statement is either deliberately deceptive or completely clueless.* In New Jersey, hosting public school districts are required to provide transportation for charter school students. The charters don't "choose" not to spend on transporting the kids; they avoid the expense because the district picks up the cost.

Baker pointed this out explicitly in his 2014 brief -- but U-Ark, once again, refuses to acknowledge the problem, even though we know for a fact they read Baker's report, because they cite it repeatedly.

And it gets worse.

For the sake of illustration, here's a simplified conceptual map of what Camden's public district school bus system might look like. We've got neighborhood schools divided into zones, and buses transporting children to their neighborhood school.** There are exceptions, of course, primarily for magnet and special needs students, but the system on the whole is fairly simple.

Now let's add some "choice":

There has been a marked decline in "active transportation" -- walking or biking -- to school over the past few decades, and school "choice" is almost certainly a major contributor. As we de-couple schools from neighborhoods (which may well have many other pernicious effects), transportation networks become more complex and more expensive.

As I said: New Jersey law requires public school districts like Camden to pay for transportation of charter school students. Which means all of these extra costs are borne solely by the district.

And how much does this cost Camden's charter sector?

So any comparison of revenues that doesn't exclude transportation -- and, again, it appears that U-Ark didn't exclude it, although their documentation is so bad we can't be sure -- is without merit. Claiming that charter schools have a revenue gap when they use services paid for by public district schools makes no sense.

Folks, this issue is so simple that it doesn't require an advanced understanding of school finance or New Jersey law to understand it. Which makes it all the more incredible the U-Ark team didn't account for it in their findings. And again: if the Colorado Assembly made their decision to raise the funding for charters -- at the expense of public district schools -- on the basis of a report that is this flawed...

Let's take a look at some better -- not perfect, but better -- financial comparisons between Camden's charters and CCPS next.

 * Granted, it might be both...

** It's worth noting that in a dense city like Camden, many of the students will be within walking distance of their neighborhood school. But when you introduce "choice," you make the school system much less walkable, because students are likely traveling greater distances. I was at a conference at Rutgers yesterday where researchers were looking into this issue -- more to come...

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