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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

NJ Charter Schools - A Fool's Gold Rush: Vineland

Here are all the parts of this series so far:

Prelude

Franklin, NJ

Princeton, NJ

- Vineland, NJ

Here in New Jersey, the state's school funding formula has become a topic of intense debate. Now that Chris Christie has abandoned his "Fairness Formula" -- a ridiculously unfair and inefficient proposal -- attention has turned to Senate President Steve Sweeney's school funding proposal:
HAMMONTON — Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Friday he wants revisions to the school-funding formula in place for the 2017-18 school year.
“Every year, the gap gets greater,” he said during a visit to the Hammonton School District to discuss school funding. “Every year there is flat funding we are losing ground.”
[...]
Sweeney said he recognizes some districts would lose funding under a revised plan, but those districts have known for years they are getting more state aid than they should, and they should have been making plans. [emphasis mine]
Sweeney's plan is to create a commission to recommend changes to the state's funding formula, SFRA. I don't necessarily have a problem with asking some districts with relatively high property values to pay more in local taxes, but the devil's in the details, and those details are scarce. I'll save a larger discussion of school funding for another day; right now, I want to focus on this:
Helen Haley, the business administrator for the Vineland School District, said they would lose money under the proposed revisions, and it would be devastating for the district, which is among the poorest in the state.
“We have cut 57 positions through attrition,” she said. “We are a large rural area, so transportation costs are high. Our special-education population is growing. But we have trouble raising taxes because of economic conditions.”
Sweeney said special education is an area that must be addressed, and the district could get additional aid there to make up for losses in other aid.
According to data from the Education Law Center, Vineland's local fair share of taxes is relatively low. Whether the town should pay more is an open question, particularly because, as Jeff Bennett notes, many districts paying low school taxes actually have high municipal taxes. Is Vineland in that group? I can't say at this time...

But I do know this: Vineland, like all other New Jersey school districts, should be seeking to make its schools systems as fiscally efficient as possible. If funds are scarce, and if taxpayers want the maximal value for their investment, school systems should keep administrative costs low and get as much money "into the classroom" as possible.

Which brings us to the Great NJ Charter School Rush of 2017, and the NJDOE's push to approve as many charter school expansions as possible before Chris Christie's term ends -- including the Vineland Charter School.

VCS has a colorful history. Its founder, Ann Garcia, was accused back in 2011 of interfering in an investigation into the fact that she held five concurrent positions in taxpayer-funded schools:
The report states that Garcia held positions in five school districts in 2010-11, earning almost $300,000. That is not illegal, but an attempt to alter one of the contracts during the investigation could lead to future sanctions.
Garcia worked full time as the school business administrator in Winslow Township, earning  $156,375 in 2009-10 and 2010-11, according to the state report, obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through the Open Public Records Act.
 In those two years she was also paid to be the executive director of the Vineland Public Charter School, earning $50,000 in 2009-10 and $60,000 in 2010-11. She also served as the part-time business administrator for two other charter schools, the Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, where she earned $54,080 in 2009-10 and $56,243 in 2011-12, and the Environment Community Opportunity Charter School in Camden, where she earned $22,000 in 2009-2010 and $18,640 in 2010-11. She also served as the appointed treasurer for the Voorhees school district, earning $6,780 in 2009-10 and $6,900 in 2010-11.
For all five jobs Garcia earned $298,158 in 2010-11, according to the state report. The Millville charter school opened last month and was not included in the report. [emphasis mine]
Nice work if you can get it. Garcia was cleared of the charges by the Education Commissioner's office, although they noted that holding five positions at a time was highly questionable:
Colleen Schulz-Eskow, of the Department’s Charter School Office, testified that it was common for business administrators – but not lead personnel – to work at multiple charter schools. 6T52-53. Since she was aware that – at the time VPCS was starting up – Murphy-Garcia was doing business administrator work at other schools or districts, Schulz-Eskow questioned Murphy-Garcia about whether her time and commitment to VPCS would be sufficient to adequately oversee the school. 6T44-47. Ultimately, when the DOE approved VPCS, they were not worried about Murphy-Garcia being at the school on a part time basis. 6T55. 
It is not clear to the Commissioner, however, whether Schulz-Eskow was aware of how many schools employed Murphy-Garcia. If she was, it appears that she did not share the concerns of her Department of Education colleague, Martin, about the implications of Murphy-Garcia’s multiple employment. However, as a matter of common sense, the Commissioner must register misgivings about Murphy-Garcia’s – or anyone else’s – ability to actively devote to each of five employers the respective number of hours of work which were promised them. It is likely that such a concern motivated OFAC’s continuation of its investigation into Murphy-Garcia’s employment. 
In sum, after a full review of this case, the Commissioner rejects the specific conclusions about Murphy-Garcia on page 11 of OFAC’s report. However, the Commissioner cautions petitioner VPCS to improve its business practices and administrative oversight and to ensure that its contracts are properly memorialized and that all of its records are secure and accessible. The Commissioner also reiterates his concern that petitioner Murphy-Garcia may have contracted with more employers than she can properly serve. [emphasis mine]
So here's the thing: even as this investigation was going on, the NJDOE was approving expansion plans for Vineland Charter School. In other words, despite the Commissioner's misgivings, VCS was given the green light to grow -- even if the local community had its own problems with expansion:
4/16/15 -- VINELAND – Vineland Public Charter School families are waking up today to the possibility the school may not have a place to call home come September. 
After hearing close to three hours of passionate testimony, the Zoning Board early this morning issued a resounding rejection to a request to allow the charter school to lease space at the former Wallace & Tiernan factory at 1901 W. Garden Road. 
Boiled down, members agreed with municipal staff findings and argument from opponents that the board's priority should be to uphold a quarter-century of city development strategy and investments.
According to this newspaper account, Garcia did not like how the meeting went:
Charter school Executive Director Ann Garcia, who testified extensively at the prior meetings, did not at the final hearing. However, Garcia made her presence known with loud comments and fidgeting from the front row of the audience area during a Magazzu-Stanker exchange. Garcia has acted similarly at previous meetings. 
The display irritated board chairman and Solicitor Frank DiDomenico, who chastised her and suggested she should leave if she could not keep quiet. 
Garcia responded to LoBiondo that she might go and she did leave a few minutes later. She returned as the board started its voting process. 
[...]
Greenberg noted that the city's principal planner had found that a school in an industrial zone was a significant problem. Another reason she gave was testimony from the charter school that the factory would provide room for an expansion to accommodate a high school.
The commissioner of the N.J. Department of Education in March denied that expansion request. He laid out why in a letter sent to Garcia. The executive director was asked at the last meeting, under oath, to explain the letter and the commissioner's reasoning. 
Garcia answered then that the denial was based on the charter school, at present, lacking adequate space. However, the education department officially denies her claim and says the reason for the denial was an organizational weakness. [emphasis mine]
So the NJDOE approved VCS's expansion in 2013, even though they were conducting an investigation. In 2015, they found, according to this report, "organizational weakness" in the school. And yet expansion plans went ahead, including the building of a new facility last year.

That facility, and five others in New Jersey, has been financed by Highmark School Development, a Utah-based company that, according to this report, loans funds to aligned non-profit corporations, who in turn build schools which they then lease to a charter.

As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron have pointed out, this practice essentially uses taxpayer funds to put school facilities into private hands. If this facility was being built by the Vineland Public Schools, the taxpayers would own it. That isn't the case here, even though the taxpayers, through payments to VCS, are footing the bill.

Just like they're paying the costs of transporting VCS students:
VINELAND - Transportation issues with the Vineland Public Charter School could cost the district about $400,000 not included in the 2016-17 budget, the district’s transportation director told the school board Wednesday. 
It’s a problem the school district brought upon itself, said Ann Garcia, VPCS executive director. 
“The charter school is a very fragmented business right now; they are supposed to be in one location within the City of Vineland and they are in four locations, one being in Millville, which created a transportation problem for us,” Joe Callavini, the district’s transportation/registration coordinator, told the board Wednesday. 
The VPCS is building a new school along Pennsylvania Avenue to serve pre-school through ninth grade. During construction, the school is using a network of sites on Landis Avenue, Park Avenue, and Main Road as well as Wheaton Avenue in Millville. [emphasis mine]
There's a lot of he-said/she-said here, but the central point is that VCS is creating many extra costs for the taxpayers of Vineland, and New Jersey as a whole: the redundant administration, the building of extra facilities the public will not own, the addition transportation costs, and so on.

If Senator Sweeney and any other stakeholders are interested in saving money on schools, they should be asking if the "gains" Vineland Charter School gets are worth the costs of its expansion.

So let's go to the data and find out what the costs and benefits of VCS really are:

VCS and Vineland Public Schools had close to the same proportion of free lunch-eligible students in 2011. The gap, however, has grown in recent years.

Like so many other charters in NJ, VCS does not educate students whose first language is something other than English.*


And, like so many other charters, VCS educates a much smaller proportion of special needs students, year after year.

The few special education students VCS does take have lower-cost disabilities. This concentration of higher-cost students puts a strain on VPS. I'm glad to see Senator Sweeney acknowledge special education funding is important, but does he understand the effects of this type of concentration, thanks to charter schools?

Let's look at the staff:

Over two-thirds of the VPS certificated staff has less than three years of experience in the classroom. And that staff is still paid less than the teachers in VPS:


Once again, we have the "free rider" problem for VPS: because charter teachers know they can make more if they transfer to a public district school later in their careers, they are likely more willing to take less money at a charter where they start their careers. VCS, in other words, gets away with paying their teachers less because those teachers know they can transfer out in a few years and make more money.

How does VCS spend its funds?


What's interesting here is that VCS spends much more on administration than VPS -- as is typical for charter schools -- but the gap closes considerably when looking only at salaries. Are VCS payments to Highmark going to come in this category? 


Yes, the budgetary costs are less at VCS, but, again, that is largely driven by higher costs at VPS for teacher salaries. VPS also spends more on support services, undoubtedly because they have more students who are classified and need those services. For example:


If we take their preschool out, we find VPS has many more support staff per student than VCS. Again, that's a function of VPS having many more classified students on their rolls.

So there's the cost for Vineland to maintain a charter school: higher administrative costs, lower teacher salaries, fewer experienced teachers, and student segregation by educational need.

So what's the benefit? Again, as I have throughout the series, I use a linear regression model to account for differences in student characteristics when judging test scores. Let's start with English Language Arts:


The "value" that VCS adds is on the order of 10 to 15 points in Grades 3 and 4 -- on a test that has a range of 200 points. Is that impressive? Considering the mixed bag in VPS schools, and the low value added in Grade 5, I'd say it's a decent showing, but hardly a superior outlier.

Here are the upper grades:


There's no denying this is a better showing, although, again, we're talking less than 20 points on a  test with a 200-point scale. The situation gets muddy, however, when we look at math:



VCS adds no value in Grade 3 math, does well in Grade 4, but then plummets in Grade 5. When you see inconsistent results like this, it's reasonable to assume that the school's instructional practices aren't the major factor: more likely, peer effects, self-selection, and unobserved student differences are driving the results.

That's even more evident in the upper grades:


Not a great showing in Grade 6, and little advantage in Grade 7 and Grade 8. But wait -- what about Algebra 1? Doesn't VCS offer it to their students? According to the data files, no scores were reported  for VCS in Algebra 1 -- which is odd, because there were scores reported for Grade 8 Math, which is the test students take if they aren't taking algebra. So data suppression isn't likely the issue (although I can't say for sure).

Notice how well the VPS middle schools do in Algebra 1? You might think that's a function of good instruction. I'm not saying VPS doesn't do a good job, but there's really another explanation: kids who take algebra in middle school instead of high school are much more likely to do well because they wouldn't be enrolled if the district didn't think they were talented in math. But the data doesn't sort students according to their "talent," or "ambition," or whatever.

Which, again, is a critical point to understand about charter school "gains": Self-selection sorts students on characteristics we can't observe, meaning the charter students, on average, are not the same as the public district students. So when you see inconsistent gains, like here, ask yourself: is this an indication of school success, or of student success?

My takeaway is that VCS, like many charters, is a doing a decent job -- but they are hardly far superior to their hosting public school district. Which brings us back to the relevant policy question:

Senator Sweeney says the Vineland Public Schools should have been making plans for years in anticipation of a funding cut. OK... but VPS has no say over charter school approval or expansion. 

If the VPS school board knew cuts were coming, would they have approved a charter school that spends much more on administration, free-rides on staff salaries, builds facilities that the district will never own, segregates students by special need, and gets, at best, inconsistent test score gains?

If Senator Sweeney is serious about getting school budgets under control, he would do well to step back and think a bit about whether NJ school districts and the state can continue to subsidize charters like Vineland Charter School while simultaneously demanding their host districts lose state aid. Maybe the NJDOE's rush to approve as many charters as they can before the end of the Christie era is worth a bit of the Senator's attention.

Middlesex County up next...

It may be shiny, but...


* Corrected. Sorry about that - peril of being your own editor...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

NJ Charter Schools - A Fool's Gold Rush: Princeton

Here are all the parts of this series so far:

Prelude

Franklin, NJ

Princeton, NJ

Vineland, NJ


As in Franklin, NJ, it appears that charter schools are splitting the community of Princeton apart. Go to planetprinceton.com, the town's hyperlocal, and you'll find lengthy and heated back-and-forths in the comments section about Princeton Charter School and the consequences of its expansion on the Princeton Public Schools.

This was brought about by the NJDOE's rush to expand charter school enrollment before Chris Christie's term ends. PCS will grow from 348 to 424 students in grades K-8; as I explained before, this will undoubtedly put additional fiscal strain on the public district schools. And, as always, the local school board and the local voters have no say in whether the expansion should take place.

Before I get to the data, a few things: first, while a particular charter school may work well for a particular student, personal stories are a poor way to make public policy. I have no doubt many PCS parents are happy with their children's school: good for them. But, as I have explained previously in this series, their ability to enroll their children in a charter school comes at a cost to the other families in Princeton and the town's taxpayers.

The real question in school "choice" policy is whether the alleged gains for charter school families outweigh the costs to all of the stakeholders. Those costs, by the way, include having parents within a town battling each other over charter school expansion.

Second: you can go to GuideStar.org and look up the tax records of Princeton Charter School and its affiliated 501c3 organizations, of which there are at least two: PCS Endowment & Capital Fund, and Friends of PCS. In 2015, these two nonprofits held over $1.2 million in assets, and granted over $300K to the school. I assume most of this was raised by parents.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with raising outside funds for your child's school: public district schools do so all the time. But any charter school that relies on such large amounts of philanthropic giving -- by my calculation, over $900 per student in 2015 -- ought not to make a claim that they are "doing more with less."

Which brings me to my third point: while the data clearly shows that PCS enrolls students with special needs, the proportion of their student populations with those needs is considerably lower than PCS's. Again, it's great that individual parents may have had positive experiences with a particular charter school -- but that doesn't make overall trends showing segregation by special need any less true.

Let's get to the data:


Like most suburban New Jersey charter schools, PCS enrolls fewer students eligible for free lunch, a proxy measure of economic disadvantage. This is true year after year.

The proportion of white and black students in PCS and PPS are similar; however:

PCS enrolls fewer Hispanic students...

... and considerably more Asian students. But these students do not appear to speak a language other than English in their homes:

Across the state, charters enroll few to no LEP students. PCS is no exception. And, like most NJ charters, they enroll proportionally fewer students with special needs:


Year after year, PCS enrolls fewer classified students than PPS. The last year where data was not suppressed on specific learning disabilities was 2014. That data clearly show that PCS not only had very few classified students; most of those students had lower-cost disabilities (Specific Learning Disabilities and Speech/Language):


The state's 2011 cost report clearly delineates between these disabilities -- but charter school reimbursements only divide students into speech/not-speech categories. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed; until then, the concentration of higher-cost special education students into public district schools and away from charters remains creates profound fiscal stress for districts like Princeton. 

Let's look at staff:

PCS actually has a relatively experienced staff compared to most New Jersey charters; still, they have fewer highly-experienced staff compared to PPS. As Martin Carnoy recently noted,* this potentially creates a "free rider" problem for public school districts: charter staffs know they can potentially transfer to higher-paying jobs in district schools after a few years, so they are willing to put up with lower pay earlier in their careers.

Which explains this:

The data is noisy because the number of PCS certificated staff who aren't administrators is small. Still, with the exception of the initial bump (which appears to be caused by one exceptionally well-paid novice teacher -- is this data error?), PCS teachers are generally paid less than PPS teachers with similar experience. 

But there is one area where PCS spends considerably more than PPS: administration.


The charter spends much more than the public school district on administration, and that includes spending on salaries for administrators. Again, charters generally can't leverage economies of scale like public school districts can. Which means the luxury of "choice" is costing taxpayers money they would save if charter schools were more efficient.

Now, the response you'll often here to this is that charters spend less in other areas. But that doesn't necessarily translate into efficiency:


I use "budgetary costs per pupil" as the measure here because, as I've explained repeatedly, you can't compare budgets that includes, say, transportation if the charters rely on the districts to provide that transportation. Anyone who compares overall budgets of charters and public district schools without taking this simple fact into account has no idea what they are talking about and should be ignored.

Yes, PCS spends less per pupil. Part of that is that they spend less "in the classroom" -- on salaries for more experienced teachers (again, there's that "free rider" problem). But they also spend less on support services: things like librarians and child study teams and school nurses who provide valuable services, especially for children with special needs.

Let's see one way this plays out between PPS and PCS:


According to the staffing file I have, PCS had one school counselor for 348 students -- that's all of their support staff. I can only go with the data I've got, folks, and this shows PCS doesn't have occupational therapists or social workers or any other number of certificated support staff. 

Maybe PCS, given its student population, feels they don't need them. That's fine... but it also illustrates that different student populations create different staffing needs and, therefore, different fiscal pressures. Which is why the claim of PCS supporters that their school isn't stressing the host district is very weak.

Let's finish up by looking at outcomes. Again: You can't compare student outcomes between different schools without taking into account differences in student characteristics. And there are other factors to consider:



This year's PARCC results had a lot of data suppression regarding opting-out. We know from the year before that some communities had many parents pull their students from testing. Princeton, by many accounts, was one of those places -- data from the high school this past year (which is really all we have that wasn't suppressed) appears to show opt out rates remained high. But we just don't know...

Still, I use a standard technique here to show the "value" added to test scores for PPS and PCS. This is based on a statewide linear regression with five covariates for student characteristics included. It's crude, but it's better than simply comparing mean scale scores or, worse, proficiency rates. Let's start with English Language Arts:


In Grades 3 through 5, PCS pretty much looks like any other school in the town. "Value" fluctuates grade-by-grade, likely due to cohort effects. PCS is behind Witherspoon in Grade 6, and then ahead in Grades 7 & 8 -- but only by a few points. Keep in mind: the PARCC scores go from 650 to 850, so 5 points or so is really not a very big deal.

Here's math:



Again, from Grades 3 to 5, PCS does OK, but is hardly over and above every PPS school. Witherspoon has the advantage in Grade 6; that turns around in Grade 7 and for algebra. But why? If PCS had some clear instructional advantage, wouldn't we see that in many grades? And a 13 point gain in algebra is nice, but is it really earth-shaking? Might it be explained not by differences in schooling, but by unobserved differences in students?

One point worth making about these graphs is that both PPS and PCS regularly beat predicted scores; not always, but quite a bit. Looking through some of the comments at Planet Princeton, at least some of the PCS advocates agree that PPS is a good school system. They contend, however, that PCS is better for their child. Again, that's fine -- but as a matter of policy, we have to weigh the preferences of these parents against the costs of "choice." So what do we find?

The data shows that Princeton Charter School's inconsistent gains on test scores come at the cost of:
  • Segregation by race, class, and special education need;
  • Increased administrative costs; and
  • A "free rider" problem with staff salaries.
Now, maybe PCS advocates think the test scores aren't the true "gain" -- that there is a value in being able to have a "choice" in your child's school. OK... but why, then, must PCS expand? Can't it survive at its current enrollment level? Must it continue to grow, no matter how that harms PPS, or how much running a redundant school system costs taxpayers? Shouldn't one of the "choices" for Princeton's parents be a public school system that isn't fiscally stressed by an expanding charter school?

It would be great if we had unlimited resources to pour into schools, and we could spend money to give every parent exactly what he or she wants for their child. But we can't even fund the state's own law when it comes to school funding. How can we, therefore, possibly justify spending extra money to satisfy the desire of a small group of families in an affluent township -- which already has a very good school district -- to send their children to a redundant and separate school system?

In addition: the Princeton area is well-known for having many fine private schools. Bifulco and Repack (2014) note that "...charter schools can be expected to attract some number of students from private schools." How many PCS students would be enrolled in a private school if the charter did not exist? What extra burden have the citizens of Princeton taken on by having to host a charter school? How much will that burden expand when PCS's enrollment grows? 

These are important questions, and they can't simply be brushed aside because some parents demand "choices" for their children. Public schools are meant to serve the public -- all of the public. And it's very difficult to see how all of Princeton's citizens are served by allowing this expansion to go forward.

We'll head to another town to look at how the Great NJ Charter School Rush of 2017 is affecting their schools -- right after we take care of some other business...

It may be shiny, but...


* Carnoy makes his point in the case of private voucher schools, but the argument is germane to charters as well.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

NJ Charter Schools - A Fool's Gold Rush: Franklin

Here are all the parts of this series so far:

Prelude

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:

This slide shows that TEECS recently moved from a census tract where 32 percent of the population is black to a tract where the black population proportion is 10 percent. CJCPCS is in a tract where the black population is 7 percent. I don't know how this can possibly help the schools become more integrated.

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:



Looking at this, it's clear Franklin's charters have an advantage... but is it really that great? Is 20 to 30 points on a test with a 200-point scale really earth-shattering -- especially considering the charters enroll far fewer students with special needs?

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.

Are relatively small, inconsistent test score advantages worth the costs of increasing segregation, redundant and inefficient school management, a relatively inexperienced teaching staff, and lower standards of transparency and accountability?

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:
This is less about your choice and more for us about the rapid expansion, the number of dollars we spend now and the potential number of dollars that could be spent,” he said.
“That, for the board, has become the issue, one of economics,” Ravally said. “There are things that we have to work on and there are things that we can do better, but the one thing that we’ve been doing in the last year, year and a half, is we’re trying to listen.” [emphasis mine]
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...

Saturday, March 11, 2017

NJ Charter Schools - A Fool's Gold Rush: Prelude

Here are all the parts of this series so far:

Prelude

Franklin, NJ

Princeton, NJ

Vineland, NJ

Chris Christie begins his last year in Trenton as the least popular governor in the nation. But that doesn't mean he still can't impose his will on New Jersey; the governorship here is one of the most powerful in the nation. So even though many communities throughout the state may not like Christie, he can still act against their wishes and jam through any numbers of policies in his last year simply because he can.

Take, for example, charter schools:
Trenton, NJ – The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) is announcing decisions on new public charter school applications, charter renewals, amendment requests for expansions, and closures. 
“All New Jersey public schools, which include charter schools, must be held to a high standard in order to ensure that all of our children receive the quality educational experiences they deserve,” said Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington. “These decisions reflect this Administration’s continued commitment to hold low-performing charter schools accountable, while expanding access for New Jersey families to high-quality charter schools.”
Sure, it reflects Christie's commitment to charter schools -- no matter what local communities may think. As regular readers know, New Jersey charters are only answerable to the NJDOE, which is under the direct control of the governor. Local school boards have no say in charter approvals or renewals, even though they must fund them -- no matter how damaging those charters may be to the local public schools.

The greatest fiction produced by the New Jersey charter school industry -- and, for that matter, charter cheerleaders nationwide -- is that charter school funds simply "follow the student," and have no impact on district finances or programs.

This is nonsense. Charters are self-contained, redundant school districts that are usually so small that they can't leverage economies of scale. Empirical research shows charters have had detrimental effects of the finances of districts in New York State and Michigan. Furthermore, while there is variation across the nation, Bruce Baker and I have shown that charters, on average, spend less on instruction than public district schools.

And I have shown clearly New Jersey's charter schools spend far more on administrative costs and far less on student support services than their public district hosts. Keep in mind these support costs are for the services special education students need the most; however, charters enroll, proportionally, far fewer of these students than the public district schools. Charter schools are, therefore, a serious fiscal burden on public schools.

But it's as if NJDOE hasn't considered any of this, opting instead to allow charters expand for one final year before a Democrat gets into the statehouse and puts a halt to their growth:

Public Charter School Expansion Requests
Nine charter schools requested an expansion as part of their renewal that each charter school undergoes every five years, and the NJDOE granted seven of these requests. The NJDOE granted 15 additional charter school expansion requests through an amendment process that allows the school to expand outside of their renewal. (Charts that identify the approved expansions are below.) 
[...] 
The NJDOE evaluates all charter schools every five years that are up for renewal on their academic performance, fiscal viability, and operational stability. Of the 22 charter schools up for renewal this year, the NJDOE renewed 21 schools. Due to continued low academic performance, the Camden Community Charter School was not renewed. [emphasis mine]
That is an extraordinary amount of growth... but what are the consequences? Did NJDOE ever stop to ask themselves what they might be doing to the local school districts by forcing charters on to local communities without any say?

At a talk earlier this month, I pointed out that NJDOE collects a lot of data -- but they rarely ever seem to want to use it. Let's correct that: let's take a dive into the data and see if we can determine the impact of this massive charter school expansion on local communities that are already suffering because Chris Christie refuses to follow the state's own law and fully fund local districts.

Will the Great New Jersey Charter School Rush of 2017 actually help students and taxpayers? Or is it nothing more than prospecting for fool's gold? Stand by...

It may be shiny, but...

Monday, February 27, 2017

Blaming Public Employees For NJ's Fiscal Mess: Today's Dopey Episode

Whenever I want to read something really ill-informed and contemptuous of public employees, I turn to the always reliable Star-Ledger:
Property taxes in New Jersey are the highest in the nation. Since 2000, they have doubled and have risen at over twice the rate of inflation. No wonder people are forced to move; no wonder we have the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.
That's from guest columnist Tom Byrne, who apparently is so busy with his gig on the State Investment Council that he doesn't have the time to find out that out-migration due to taxes is a totally fabricated myth.

Or the time to read the Star-Ledger itself (the news part, which is still pretty good), which pointed out that New Jersey's high foreclosure rate is due, at least in part, to the state's relatively long foreclosure process.

By the way -- New Jersey is not some sort of wildly high-spending state:


OK, we're top ten (barely), but we're not some sort of outlier -- and that's without accounting for the fact that this is an expensive state in which to live. Funny how stuff like this never made it into Byrne's piece:
The obvious way to control property taxes is to hold the line on expenses, but this is fraught with political consequences, especially for Democrats. Public-sector unions like the NJEA and the two police unions, whose members' salaries and benefits are largely paid by property taxes, wield enormous influence in both general elections and, particularly, Democratic primaries.
Yes, it's those greedy, greedy NJ public employees...
The data analysis in this paper, however, indicates that New Jersey public employees, both state and local government employees, are not overpaid. Comparisons controlling for education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, and disability reveal no significant difference between the private and public sectors in the level of employee compensation costs on a per hour basis. However, public employees, particularly higher level professional employees, have fewer opportunities to work overtime than those who work in the private sector. Therefore, on an annual basis, full-time state and local employees are under-compensated by 5.88% in New Jersey, in comparison to otherwise similar private-sector workers. [emphasis mine]
Real research? Tl;dr. Besides, Byrne lives in the world of "alternative facts," where he can use unsourced data points to make unfounded claims:
Positive change can be made. For starters, we could cut property taxes by about 8 percent simply by insisting that local employees get the same healthcare benefits that exist at the high end of private sector plans. That alone would save about $2.5 billion on $28 billion in annual property taxes. But what politician wants to risk the wrath of the unions?
I'm not quite sure who Byrne means by "local employees," as some, like teachers, are subject to state laws regarding premium payments, and some are on state plans. But when it comes to state workers:
In fact, the average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country. 
Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage. [emphasis mine]
Whether the insurance is "better" than private insurance is, of course, a more complicated question. But the notion that public employees are enjoying inordinately cheap health care is just not borne out by the evidence, no matter what Chris Christie's commission says. Byrne continues:
The most recent available data, from 2012-13, shows New Jersey with the highest starting teacher salaries of any state. But three states have higher average salaries than our $68,797. On top of this, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the value of total benefits added 29.4 percent or $28,520 to base pay for a total value of over $89,000. And then adjust as you will for a shorter work year.
First of all; even when you adjust for teachers' annual unpaid furlough every summer, teachers make less than similar workers:
New Jersey public school teachers are in fact undercompensated, not overcompensated. Using regression analysis to control for level of education and other factors that affect pay, we find that public school teachers earn 16.8 percent less in weekly wages and 12.5 percent less in weekly total compensation (wages and benefits) than other full-time workers in New Jersey. The percent by which teacher pay is less than pay of comparable workers is called the teacher pay penalty. An analysis of hourly compensation shows the teacher pay penalty at 13.7 percent for wages and 9.4 percent for total compensation. [emphasis mine]
In addition: the percentage of total compensation that is attributed to benefits is 30 percent for private employees.* So, no, benefits aren't completely out of whack for NJ public employees. In addition, Byrne makes the freshman mistake of not adjusting wages for geographical differences. His comparisons here are, in a word, worthless.

This is turning into a real mudder, but let's keep going:
It seems that the bigger issue is proliferation of non-teaching staff. There are far more vice principals and administrators than a generation ago, which has not improved education. One national study shows that the number of K-12 administrators has increased 2.3 times faster than the number of students in school. If we don't deal head-on with these issues, we will shortly be forced to increase class sizes.
No, it does not: the study, from the Friedman Foundation, shows that the combined group of administrators and "other staff" increased.


In the period between 1992 and 2009, federal special education law underwent significant changes; it was also the time when No Child Left Behind passed. Both set new high standards, so it was inevitable that schools would increase personnel (including instructional aides) to reduce class size, expand offerings, provide remediation, and improve special education programs. Money matters in schools, and the largest expense in schools is staffing. 

It's also worth noting the United States does not overspend on education compared to the rest of the world when making appropriate adjustments for student characteristics and other factors.

Keep going...
I heard one deputy commissioner of education say some years ago that if we had the same class sizes as the national average, we would save over $1 billion per year.
Casual conversations with bureaucrats are not serious sources of data. Instead:




Yes, New Jersey's class sizes are smaller than the national average, especially in primary schools -- but, again, we're hardly an extreme outlier. And maybe our outstanding performance in academic outcomes owes something to putting more resources into schools and reducing class sizes.

Yes, Massachusetts spends somewhat less and does very well, but we're not Massachusetts. Our kids are different and our labor costs are different. We aren't really far behind them, and we're not wildly spending more than they are.

Regular readers know that pieces like Byrne's frustrate the hell out of me. We should be having serious conversations about fixing New Jersey's fiscal crisis. I'm all for looking at finding efficiencies in our school system: one clear way would be to stop having small, inefficient charter schools with large administrative expenses continue to proliferate.

But facile, poorly sourced fluff like Byrne's op-ed keep us from having those conversations. And one more thing:
One more administrative example. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, who runs a well-regarded charter school in Camden, says her custodial costs are $400 per student, versus $1,200 per student for the unionized custodians in the Camden public schools. The NJEA pointedly asks gubernatorial candidates if they would do anything to change this. Not if they want to win a primary election.
Unless this is an extraordinary coincidence, Byrne gets this story wrong too. This anecdote and its specific dollar amounts are from Dale Russakoff's book, The Prize. This story is about a school in Newark; I debunk it here.

I don't know what Bonilla-Santiago told Byrne; she's quite a character herself. But maybe Tom Byrne should spend a little less time talking with her and a little more time looking at real, credible research before writing his next op-ed.

Keep those alternative facts coming, Tom!


* One of the things that makes me nuts about pieces like this is that they are unclear about how they use the term "percentage." Given the figures here, benefits didn't add 29.4 percent to base pay; benefits are 29.4 percent of total compensation. That's completely different. Didn't anyone at the S-L proofread this?