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 15, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Whither, Part IV

In the decade I've been writing this blog, I've seen some really horrible behavior towards teachers (a prime example here). But I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this:


This is from last September, when the Lakewood Education Association (LEA), the local teachers union, was, like all other local unions in the state, advocating for the health and safety of its members while districts made opening plans. 

Maybe you sympathize with the teachers; maybe you don't. But the truly obnoxious behavior of Michael Inzelbuch, the district's attorney, is remarkable. Inzelbuch wound up apologizing, as he should have, although as far as apologies go this one is awfully weak:

We'll talk later about how Lakewood's school district has responded to the pandemic. For now, let me restate that I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:
  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
#3 is precisely what's happening in Lakewood: a climate of disrespect for teachers working in public schools -- teachers who are educating only a small fraction of the community's children.


Again: Lakewood has highly segregated schools. The majority of residents send their children to private religious schools, mostly yeshivahs. 



The Hispanic minority in the community, however, sends their children to the public schools.


When your child attends a public school, and you actually see what teachers do for students, you're far more likely to appreciate their work and value it. But when the majority of a town's residents don't attend public school, they miss out on that perspective. It's not that they necessarily have disdain for public school teachers so much as they don't have a personal connection; they can't see the value of teachers through the eyes of someone whose own children were affected by them. Teachers might teach other people's kids, but they don't teach their own.

That manifests itself through things like Inzelbuch's embarrassing behavior. But it also may manifest itself in how well teachers are paid. Let's unpack this a bit:

When the majority of a town's children attend the public schools, there are at least two big reasons why residents will care about the quality of those schools. First, they care about the education their own children receive. They'll want good teachers, good facilities, and good administrators, and they'll be willing to pay for them, at least up to a point.

Second, the value of their homes will depend on the quality of the schools. The perceived quality of schools is a major driver of property values, so homeowners have an incentive to make sure that perceived quality remains high. To be sure, there are many negative consequences to this reality, especially because education is a "positional good," but there's little doubt concern about property values is a driver of concern about school quality.

In Lakewood, however, both of these drivers are switched off. The majority of parents in the town don't have a personal stake in the public schools; consequently, home buyers won't pay more for property in Lakewood if the quality of the public schools improve. I'm sure people in Lakewood who have opted out of the public schools don't want them to be "bad," but they have little personal incentive to make sure the those schools are "good" either.

A community like Lakewood, therefore, isn't going to have the same incentive to recruit and retain teachers for its public schools. And teacher salaries will reflect that lack of incentive.


This is a salary model I've used before. Basically, I take every full-time teacher in the state and predict their salary based on things like experience, labor market, job category, and so on. I then compare what the model says they should make to what they actually make; in this way, I can compare Lakewood teachers' salaries "apples-to-apples" with teacher salaries in the rest of the state.

Consistently, year after year, Lakewood teachers make less than what the average teacher makes in New Jersey, holding other factors constant. This is consistent with recent testimony in a trial about Lakewood school funding, which found Lakewood salaries were the lowest in the state compared to similar districts.

I'll write more about this trial in a bit. For now, let me conclude with this: in both their interactions with district officials and in their pay, Lakewood's public school educators are being disrespected. But this is an inevitable consequence of what happens when a community largely abandons its public schools.

More to come.

ADDING: A recent and telling story from this past March:

Most recently, eight Clarke teachers and staff were infected with the virus, including four who were hospitalized, according to Kimberlee Shaw, president of the Lakewood Education Association (LEA), which represents nearly 900 employees. 

But instead of closing the school and switching to all-virtual classes, the district chose to suspend Assistant Principal Madaly Rodriguez-Jones and moved an administrator from another school to temporarily take her place. 

“They should have closed it for two weeks and given everyone the 14-day quarantine,” said Shaw. “They claimed they did put in purifiers, but that was after.”

The Rodriguez-Jones paid suspension, originally set to end March 30, was extended this week to April 30, according to Shaw and the board agenda. District officials did not respond to requests for comment or explain why the move was made. 

[...] 

“I don’t know what the district thinks they know, but this is an ever-changing situation and I felt like my staff members were being blamed for getting COVID,” Shaw said. “And they felt that way, they were upset that it was looking like the district was blaming the teachers.

But the Clarke situation is just the latest concern for teachers in the 6,000-student district, which is among the few that have remained open for all students since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. 

Shaw said that has resulted in 371 positive tests, 214 students and 157 staff, since July 2020, but no school closings or even partial shutdowns.

“It is taking its toll, our staff is tired, they are covering classes because they are short of staff, they are worried about the virus,” Shaw said. “Right now staff is doing their job and trying to stay safe and we are hoping that if another outbreak occurs that the district will reconsider and shut that building, it worries the staff, they feel they are not being notified.” [emphasis mine]

I ask you: does this sound like a district where teachers feel respected? 

ADDING MORE: This should come as no surprise:

LAKEWOOD - More than 30 school district teachers are being let go at the end of the school year without clear explanation or cause, according to teachers’ union leaders who say the move is occurring at a time when the district faces a teaching shortage.

“We had staffing shortages before the pandemic and the pandemic only exacerbated it,” said Lakewood Education Association President Kimberlee Shaw, whose local represents more than 700 teachers and staff in the 6,700-student district. 

[...] 

“It’s chaos for our students,” added Shaw. “They crave routine and stability. They never know who their teachers are going to be from one month to the next. It’s stressful for all of us and makes me worry about our students’ safety and continuity of instruction.”

In a release, the LEA stated that more than 100 staff members had left the district since June 30, 2020. “The district has a history of firing non-tenured teachers without cause,” the union release added. “Most of these teachers and staff members report being ‘blindsided’ by their non-renewals since they had positive evaluations and no history of disciplinary issues.”

“Meanwhile, they’ve had little to no support from the district through mentoring or professional development. The district also lost nearly its entire guidance department and Child Study Team at the high school at a time when student mental health is at crisis level and the district is implementing a new Social-Emotional Learning initiative.”


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

COVID and "Learning Loss": Test Scores Should Not Be Our Immediate Concern

I'll get back to Lakewood in a bit, but I want to take a minute and talk about a new report out yesterday from JerseyCAN and others about learning loss and COVID-19.

Regular readers know I've had my issues with JerseyCAN over the years: too many times, their analyses have missed the mark, often because of a lack of understanding about things like what test scores actually represent and how they should be used to direct K-12 education policy. 

I might make similar complaints about this latest report. Using a convenience sample's outcomes on one test to extrapolate outcomes on another for an entire population is inherently problematic. Further, changes in proficiency rates on the same test are often artifacts of the process of setting those rates, and not indications of any changes in actual student learning. There's also a whole problem of equating "proficiency" across grade levels that tends to get pushed aside in these discussions. Plus the easy way we accept "grade level" as some sort of absolute when it's really a social construct...

But in the end, none of that really matters, because what the report is showing is almost certainly correct: student learning has suffered during the pandemic, and the losses are almost certainly greater for students of color and those in economic disadvantage. 

How could this be otherwise? There is a clear digital divide along racial and ethnic lines in this country; when learning moves on-line, the effects will reflect that divide. And, as I've shown repeated, access to in-person schooling has also been racially unequal, a reflection of the inequalities in New Jersey's school funding system. These factors are undoubtedly combining to disadvantage students of color and students in economic disadvantage. 

I suppose there may be some value in presenting these losses as changes in test outcomes, as there are plenty of policymakers in the state who act as if test scores are the only measure by which we can evaluate the quality of schooling. But in all honesty, the report is telling us something we already knew: the pandemic has been bad for students, and worse for some than others.

So if JerseyCAN had stopped there, I'd really have very little problem with their report -- at least, the problems I'd have would be confined to technical details. But they took upon themselves to tell the state what it must do given their findings:

JerseyCAN recommends that stakeholders and policymakers consider the following solutions to help accelerate student learning for our students.
  • Urgently prioritize the adoption and statewide implementation of extensive summer programming so that we can stem the COVID slide now and further stop more students from falling behind;
  • Adopt and implement personalized, research-based solutions for accelerating student learning like high-dosage tutoring;
  • Allow parents to exercise their choice to retain or hold back their child, if desired, to provide additional time to students for learning and the provision of social and emotional supports;
  • Incentivize all districts to adopt high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to statewide assessments, which canprovide teachers and parents with ongoing information about student academic growth and that can project proficiency on NJSLA; and
  • Administer statewide assessments in Spring 2022 that are comparable to those administered in Spring 2019 to establish a new baseline from which to measure student growth moving forward and to also enable comparisons to pre-pandemic statewide proficiency.
Let's take these one at a time.
  • I am all for high-quality summer programming. Summer slide is a real issue, especially for economically disadvantaged children. But if our metric for determining that "loss" is test scores, we're running the risk of creating programs that sit students in front of screens all summer long doing test prep. As an educator, it is my opinion that this is the last thing kids need after this very difficult year. How about a lot of physical activity and socialization, music, art, free reading, exploratory learning -- what those of us in the education research field refer to technically as "fun"! In fact, we could do that, and add access to counseling and health services, family engagement programs, early childhood education... golly, if only there was a model of schooling that did this...
  • Tutoring can be good -- but you have to remember a few things. Tutors need training. Good tutoring is not cheap. Tutoring is a supplement for high-quality curriculum and instruction, not a replacement. Again, if all we're doing is getting lower-paid workers to sit in classrooms with kids while they drill on test-prep instruction, we're missing an opportunity to help kids address the trauma they've experienced this past year.
  • Expanded grade retention is probably one of the most overhyped policies that has been pushed over the past couple of decades. There is good evidence that the games Florida has played with retaining kids was behind its unearned status as an educational "miracle." While I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of giving parents more of a say in the decision to retain their child, and while I do believe there are times when it is warranted, pushing retention immediately after a cohort has shown learning losses doesn't make a lot of sense: if everybody suffered, why hold only some kids back? Besides, are our schools really ready for a mass mixing of age groups? 
  • Everyone is for high-quality materials. But if the primary goal of those materials is to increase test scores, they will run the risk of emphasizing only those skills needed to pass the test, which can narrow the curriculum and constrain instruction. I am not against using test scores judiciously as a data point in helping to assess a child's learning, but state tests are simply not a practical, nor particularly useful, way to inform student instruction -- especially when teachers can't see the exam.
  • There are always items put in different administrations of standardized tests to help equate scores. And, to the extent possible, proficiency rates should be equivalent between different years. So, sure, we can use test outcomes to help determine where we stand. But what really matters is this: What are we going to do with those results?
This gets to the heart of my concerns about the premise behind JerseyCAN's report, which I see manifesting in the statements of other education policy stakeholders. We are coming through an unprecedented crisis in modern American history. Children are hurting. Families have been traumatized. Schools have suffered losses in their staffs. We haven't faced this kind of trauma since World War II. So what are these folks proposing to help kids?

Testing. Analyzing test scores. Instruction based on test outcomes in two areas of the curriculum. Tutoring in support of that test-centered instruction. Then... more testing.

Look, I like a good run at the data as much as the next guy. I've said consistently testing has its place. But our kids are hurting, and the last thing we should be doing is trying to recreate the test-obsessed pedagogy we were using before the pandemic. Further, we shouldn't be going back to the test-and-punish systems we used to hold schools and educators "accountable," which was doing nothing to address the root causes of unequal educational opportunity, like inequitable school funding.

We should instead be focused on getting kids to love school -- especially if they weren't loving it before the virus hit. We should get kids and families access to the health and emotional supports they need so students can arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn. We should be investing in our school infrastructure to make our buildings safe and healthy. We should be expanding things like arts education, a proven strategy for boosting student engagement and learning.

A less stunted, more comprehensive view of schooling is required at this time. Testing can be part of it, but students, not test scores, should be the focus.

Now, back to Lakewood...

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part III

 Here are the other parts of this series:

- Part I

- Part II


What happens when a majority of citizens rejects its own public schools? We need look no further than Lakewood, NJ -- a town that I contend is an object lesson in the consequences of school privatization. Again, I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
Regarding point #2: in the last post I showed definitively that Lakewood's public and private school populations are highly segregated. In this post, let's spend some time discussing point #1.

I'll note first that, as I've written before, there are plenty of examples of corruption and malfeasance in districts where the majority of children attend the public schools. And the problems with private schools enrolling special needs students in New Jersey have been well documented

But one of Lakewood's private schools had, according to the verdict of a jury, taken things to a new level (all emphases mine):

2/27/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school is guilty of money laundering and misconduct by a corporate official, but not guilty of corruption involving public funds, a jury said Wednesday after deliberating for about 20 hours over four days.

The jury's mixed slate of verdicts expose Rabbi Osher Eisemann, founder of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, to possible prison time of five to 10 years, according to prosecutors. He was acquitted of three charges, including the most serious count brought against him: First-degree corruption of public resources, which carried a prison term of at least a decade. 

Eisemann left a courtroom Wednesday afternoon surrounded by supporters and family members, who have occupied courtroom benches throughout the trial. He smiled as he thanked his defense team, which declared victory shortly after the verdicts were announced.

"The reason you saw the defense team is enthusiastic overall about the verdict is this case is not about money laundering or misconduct by a corporate official," said Eisemann's lawyer, Lee Vartan. "This was about theft of public funds. The state made that clear in its multiple press releases, at every court appearance, in their opening statement, in their closing statement. And on theft of public funds, he was completely vindicated."

It turns out the defense team had reason to be optimistic

4/29/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school will not go to prison, but will serve 60 days in jail and two years on probation for laundering $200,000 from the school, a judge here ruled Monday afternoon.

Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who founded the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, must also pay a $250,000 fine, according to the sentence handed down by state Superior Court Judge Benjamin Bucca, sitting in Middlesex County. Eisemann will begin the jail term on July 1. 

[...]

"The defendant is many things," Deputy Attorney General Anthony Robinson said. "He is a builder, a nurturer and an educator. But he is not a victim. ... The defendant has led a great life but that does not exempt you from the law.”

But Bucca found even the minimum prison term, six years, would be a "serious injustice" in part based on Eisemann's work in special education. More than three dozen letters were sent to the judge in support of Eisemann, many of them outlining Eisemann's dedication to students at the school he started to help his own son. 

The prosecution was not happy with this ruling, however, and appealed the original sentence. The appellate judges, according to the Asbury Park Press, "...issued a scathing opinion saying the judge who sentenced him to probation for money laundering and misconduct ignored the law and a jury’s verdict." At last report, Eisemann's sentence is on hold as his attorneys appeal the latest ruling.

It's worth noting that this would not be the only time SCHI found itself in trouble:
4/19/19: LAKEWOOD — A high-cost school for special-needs children, whose founder and director was recently indicted on charges he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money, overcharged the township's impoverished public school district and other schools by at least $340,000 in one year, the Asbury Park Press found.

The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence overbilled the districts by paying uncertified teachers; paying certain employees more than permitted by state law; and buying items deemed unnecessary for the school, according to an audit by the state Department of Education of the 2011-2012 school year. Some of those items were purchased at Costco, Staples and from merchants on eBay and mailed to the home of an employee not named in the audit. A large-ticket item, a power generator, was ostensibly purchased for the school's summer camp, but it could not be located by auditors. 

The school also failed to do background checks on 71 of the 77 employees it hired that year, the audit found. 
Rabbi Osher Eisemann, the school's founder and current director, was indicted earlier this month for allegedly stealing more than $630,000 in public funds and laundering much of the money. He was not blamed for the overbilling in the state's audit.

Now, I will confess that when I started following this story, my first reaction was: "Where was the oversight? Why wasn't the Lakewood Board of Education aware of this?" But the more I've thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that it's unreasonable for a board of education to oversee the proper use of monies when so much of those monies are spent by entities that are not regulated by that board.

Look at these figures again:


The rest of New Jersey has to keep watch over less than one percent of its students who are placed into private schools. Lakewood, however, has to oversee the placements of nearly six percent of its students.


The amount of spending on private schools is, on average, six percent of a New Jersey district's budget. But nearly sixteen percent of Lakewood's budget is spent on private schools. How can a local board of education keep track of this much money if it is given to entities out of their control? Local districts have enough to do keeping track of their own finances, let alone audit the accounts of private schools.

Eisemann's jury found he engaged in a complex financial scheme to evade the law. It took years for prosecutors to develop the case and win a conviction. It's not reasonable at all for any school board to be  expected to catch a private entity in this kind of act. But if that's true, it stands to reason that bad faith actors will see an opportunity and try to game the system. And when there is a lack of accountability, bad things inevitably happen.

Should New Jersey completely eliminate private schools for special education students? That's a question on which reasonable people can disagree. In my own career I've worked with people who run these schools, and they were all decent, committed professionals who had the best interests of their students at heart. There are much easier ways to make a living than running a school for kids with the most profound special needs, so I give anyone who enters the field the benefit of the doubt.

But public policy can't be run on faith. And the more public revenue that is doled out to nongovernmental entities, the more oversight is required. Lakewood gives out a lot of money to private interests, but it clearly hasn't figured out how to hold all of those entities fully accountable. How could it? Boards of education were never designed to be overseers of private schools... but, in this case, it's precisely what the situation requires.

But now imagine if we expanded the subsidies so all students, not just those with special needs, could attend private schools. Who would provide the necessary accountability? Boards of education clearly aren't up to the job. Who instead would protect the public's interest? Who would be in place to make sure public monies were being spent responsibly? For that matter, given how much support Lakewood provides to private schools right now...


... who's making sure that those private schools are spending it properly?

Point #3 on my list mentions disrespect for teachers. Let's talk about that next...


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part II

Here's Part I of this series.


In this series, I'm taking a look at Lakewood, NJ, with an eye toward what might happen if more communities abandon their public schools and, instead, embrace the idea of school "choice." Lakewood, in a state by some accounts with the highest ranked public schools in the nation, is a town where the vast majority of families choose to send their children to private schools.


The Star-Ledger explained what's driving this phenomenon back in 2017:
Lakewood has more than 6,300 students registered in its public schools and another 30,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish students enrolled in the town's 130 private schools. Under state law, towns must fund buses for students attending private schools more than two miles from their houses.

In the upcoming school year, Lakewood expects to spend $27 million on busing alone, more than it spends on classroom instruction, according to the school budget.

Town leaders say Lakewood is severely underfunded by the state, which does not consider the busing of large numbers of private school students when calculating how much state aid the district receives. A permanent source of school funding for busing and special ed would ease many of the town's problems, said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, one of the leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community.

"It would also make Lakewood a place where you wouldn't have people feeling that your children's future is at risk due to a budget problem," Kotler said.
As we'll see throughout this series, the argument that Lakewood is "severely underfunded by the state" is open to debate. For now, let's do what regular readers know always comes next: take a data dive into Lakewood's schools. 

Remember: the data I'm using above, given a very conservative estimate, suggest private schools students outnumber public school students by at least 4-to-1; the Star-Ledger's report suggests the real ratio is even higher. Let's start by looking at the population in the public schools.


Overwhelmingly, Hispanic students make up the population of the Lakewood Public School District -- far more than the rest of Ocean County, and far more than the rest of the state. It's worth noting that, as Bruce Baker and I point out, one of the best predictors of whether a school district in New Jersey is underfunded according to the state's own law is whether that district enrolls an inordinately high number of Hispanic students.


Lakewood's public schools students are also overwhelmingly in economic disadvantage, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. 


Given this population, it's not surprising that Lakewood Public School District's Limited English Proficiency (LEP) rate is very high: over five times the state average.

To recap: the public schools in Lakewood enroll students who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and disadvantaged, with many who do not speak English as their first language. 

Now, we don't have the same data for the private school students. But looking as the religious affiliations of those schools gives us much of the information we need.


The vast majority of private schools students in Lakewood go to Jewish schools. As I said in the previous post, the religious denomination of the private schools students isn't important: what's important is that the majority of the town's families have opted out of sending their children to the public schools. This is, for many in the school "choice" movement, exactly what they'd like to see: a large number of a community's families choosing not to send their children to local public district schools.

There are at least two consequences to the majority of Lakewood's families rejecting public education. First, the student population of the public schools is very different from the private schools. Second, the majority of the town's families do not have a personal interest in the public schools' success. Let me be clear: I'm not saying they want the public schools to fail; rather, whether those schools fail or succeed does not impact them personally.

This has profound effect on the Lakewood Public School District's budget. The local school board is elected by a citizenry that is not invested in the public schools in the same way as is found in most other towns and cities. Whose interests, then, will the district's budgetary decisions serve?


As I've written before, New Jersey must, by law, provide funds for all sorts of supports to private schools attended by local resident children: technology aid, security, nursing, textbooks, handicapped services, and so on. In general, it's a very small amount of the overall K-12 school budget – except in Lakewood. A huge part of the Lakewood school district's budget is spent supporting the needs of students who do not attend its schools.

The Star-Ledger also points out the district spends a lot of money on transporting private school students. The state data doesn't allow us to separate out that cost from the cost of bussing public school kids, but clearly there is an effect: Lakewood's transportation budget is very large.


There's another expense Lakewood incurs far in excess of other New Jersey school districts: private school tuition for special education students. Back to the Star-Ledger:
Lakewood expects to spend nearly $32 million on tuition this year to send special education students -- including hundreds of members of the growing Orthodox Jewish community -- to private and out-of-district schools. The bill is among the highest in the state and one of the reasons the booming Ocean County town is facing a school funding crisis. 
Why do taxpayers pay private school bills?

Under federal law, all children with disabilities are entitled to a "free appropriate public education." So, if a school district does not have the staff, programs or facilities to accommodate a child's specific disability, parents can request that the district pay for a more appropriate private school.

Many parents turn to lawyers and education consultants for help. Their cases often end up before a state Office of Administrative Law judge, who rules where a student should be placed.

In Lakewood, an estimated 361 current and new special education students will be placed in private schools at the district's expense during the upcoming school year, according to the school district's budget. Another 17 students will be sent to other school districts.

Lakewood sends more than a quarter of its special education students to private or out-of-district schools, according to the data.

If you look at the percentage of all students on-roll who attend private schools, the figure is, once again, far in excess of the rest of the state.



Lakewood's private school placement rate is nearly ten times that of the rest of Ocean County. Again, this has a powerful effect on the public school district budget.


Lakewood spends more than twice what the rest of New Jersey's districts spend on tuition to other schools.

So, given the data, what can we surmise about Lakewood?
  • The majority of the population has opted out of sending their children to the public schools.
  • That majority is ethnically separate from the minority that sends their children to the public schools.
  • The budget of the public school allocates inordinately large sums in support of the private school population.
Let's be clear before we continue: these are facts. We can debate the cause, but the data are unambiguous on what is happening right now in Lakewood, NJ's schools.

The question we must address next, however, has greater consequences for the larger conversation on education policy: What happens when a community abandons its public schools? Again, I contend there are at least three consequences:
  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
The data clearly support point #2. In the next post, we'll further explore point #1.


ADDING: I'm using 2017-18 data as that is the last year for which we have audited, actual figures for the Lakewood Public School District, as opposed to projected or revised data. Lakewood is not included in the latest NJDOE fiscal dataset (User Friendly Budgets) for 2020-21. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part I

If you follow K12 policy, you've probably noticed that the school privatization crowd has recently become reenergized. The folks from right-wing think tanks and the professional school "choice" promoters have been pushing the idea of school vouchers hard, certain that the pandemic has created widespread dissatisfaction with our current system of public school districts.

Many times I've seen these people make the argument that private schools are fully open, and the only reason public schools are not is the intransigence of teachers unions and fecklessness of school boards. Of course, it's hardly that simple: consider that many "no excuses" charter schools -- free of both unions and BOEs -- remain closed. We also really don't know how many private schools are open, or to what extent, or with what consequences.

Nonetheless, the privatizers see an opening. And considering the number of wingnuts out there who think COVID isn't a serious threat that requires extraordinary actions to secure schools, they may be right. School privatization was, to my mind, always a secondary part of the overall conservative agenda, but that may have changed, if only in the short term.

Given the renewed focus on vouchers, I think we're justified in taking some time to really think about what it would look like if we embraced the idea of privatized schools in a "choice" system. What would it look like? If they still existed, what would the public schools do? Which students would go where? How would it affect the community? How would it affect the taxpayers? 

In the upcoming series of posts, I'm going to argue that we don't need to speculate; we already have at least one example, right here in New Jersey, of what will happen if a community largely abandons its public schools. 

Welcome to Lakewood*:

An administrative law judge has determined the public school district cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide students a "thorough and efficient education," but stopped short of determining that the state funding formula is unconstitutional. 

In a non-binding decision Judge Susan Scarola recommended that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education conduct a needs assessment of the school district's ability to meet its obligations and make "appropriate recommendations to the district."

The decision scarcely binds the Acting Education Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan to do anything; the recommendation may be adopted, modified or rejected by Allen-McMillan. But the harsh assessment — that the school district cannot meet its constitutional mandate — puts fresh focus on the troubled school district and pressure on the state's top education official to intervene.

The 6,000-student district faces chronic budget gaps, owing in part to a state school-funding formula that fails to account for the fact the district must also pay transportation costs for 37,000 Lakewood students attending private schools.

Yes, that's right: only a small fraction of Lakewood's students attend the public schools. And, yes, that is very unusual -- especially for a state like New Jersey.

Private school data in the United States is at the mercy of survey methodology; in other words, it's very easy to make an incomplete count of private schools students in a community, because it's hard to get to every school, especially the small ones. The Private School Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics is, however, the best data source we have on private schools. When combined with state data, it shows a remarkable story about private schooling in Lakewood. Across the state, a little under 10 percent of students attend private schools. But four in five Lakewood students are in a private school, way more than the state and way, way more than any other town in Ocean County.

A few years ago, the Star-Ledger did an extensive series of reports on Lakewood, dubbing it "N.J.'s most controversial town." The first report gives some background:

Lakewood is booming. Thanks to an influx of Orthodox Jews, it has been New Jersey's fastest-growing town over the last 20 years. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Housing is going up at an unprecedented pace.

Why are there so many Orthodox Jews in Lakewood?

Lakewood had long been a popular resort for Jewish vacationers when a refugee rabbi fleeing Nazis in Lithuania arrived in the 1940s to start Beth Medrash Govoha, a higher education institution where men could study the Talmud, one of the religion's sacred text.

The yeshiva, known as BMG, grew over the years into one of the largest schools of its kind in the nation, with more than 6,500 students. A thriving Orthodox Jewish community grew around the yeshiva, which included many Jews from Brooklyn's Orthodox community looking for less costly housing and a more suburban setting to raise their families.

Who else lives in Lakewood?

The population exploded from 45,000 in 1990 to more than 100,000 now, making it New Jersey's fifth-largest city.

The town is 84 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. There is a growing Mexican immigrant community and a large community of seniors in sprawling retirement communities, including Leisure Village. The African-American community has been shrinking in recent years.

This last paragraph is perhaps the key to understanding Lakewood's schools: while there is a large and growing Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, it is not the entirety of the town's population. The Hispanic and Black students in Lakewood are not being served by the town's large network of yeshivas; instead, they are enrolled in the public school district.

Now, it's clear that very few communities in the United States are exactly like Lakewood. But that doesn't mean there aren't lessons about school privatization to be learned. I have three:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
It's going to take several posts to tell this story, because it's big and complex. Fortunately, there has been some excellent reporting on Lakewood's schools, particularly from the Asbury Park Press; I'm going to lean heavily on them as I work through this series.

But in spite of the story's many twists and turns, I think it's an important one to tell it. Lakewood is a cautionary tale, and the ethnicity of the characters in it really doesn't matter much. What's important is that we understand what happens when public schools are left to whither in a community that has largely abandoned them.

I'll dig into the data next.

* All emphases in this post are mine. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

We Don't Need Standardized Testing In a Pandemic

UPDATE: Just as I was finishing this post, I caught a glimpse of this news:

The U.S. Department of Education extended flexibility to states today in how and when they administer mandated end-of-the-year assessments, including allowing shorter tests that can be given remotely and, in the summer, or even in the fall. The federal agency advised states to blunt the impact of the tests, suggesting the scores not be used in final grades and grade promotion decisions.

However, despite the disruption to schools from the pandemic, the federal agency did not liberate states from administering standardized tests; it will continue to require statewide assessments. Some states, including Georgia, requested waivers that would allow them to forgo standardized testing altogether this year.
As I argue below, this is a bad idea. I really hope the Biden administration can be persuaded to reconsider.

* * *

A notable bit of education policy news in New Jersey last week:

New Jersey will apply to the federal government to waive standardized testing for the current school year as districts across the state continue to cope with the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.

Murphy said the state has not yet received word from President Joe Biden’s administration as to whether it will accept its application to waive the federal testing requirements.

“We also recognize the importance of statewide assessments to gauge where our students’ learning,” the governor said during his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. “But given the need to ensure our students’ instructional time is maximized and the levels of stress on them, our educators, our school administrators, and our families are minimized, we are putting forward this waiver request.”

The state is hardly alone, as several others have also applied for waivers from the federal mandate for testing. But there's plenty of pushback, as it's become an article of faith among certain education reformers that we must have tests, and that in a time of crisis testing is more important than ever. In Florida, for example, students will be required to show up to take their tests in person, even if their parents have been keeping them home during the pandemic. Why?

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an order this week requiring the tests. The order said the tests are more important than ever because many struggling students are learning at home and falling behind.

Test results will “ensure that each student is given the services and supports they need to succeed in life,” the order says.

If you take Commissioner Corcoran at his word, he's going to use the tests to make sure students get what they need. But that's coming from a state that chronically underfunds its schools. If students weren't getting the supports they needed before the pandemic, what would make anyone think they'll get them now -- but only if they take a test?

Corcoran is engaging in the typically facile thinking that has become the hallmark of many who espouse the virtues of standardized testing. I have a set of questions I like to ask whenever anyone says students must take a standardized test:

- What are you going to do with the test results? 

A core concept of assessment is that tests must be shown to be valid for the purposes in which they will be used. In other words: you should make a separate argument for every proposed use of a test. A test that may be valid to use for, say, determining whether there are enough overall resources in the education system isn't necessarily valid for the purpose of determining whether a student should pass to the next grade.

Psyshometricians often speak of making a validity argument in favor of the use of a test for a particular purpose. That argument should touch upon the relevancy of the outcomes to a specific use, the consequences of making decisions based on these outcomes, the opportunity to learn the content in the test, and other factors.

One of the biggest failings in our current testing system is that we use statewide standardized tests for many purposes -- even if no one has presented an argument for those uses. Some lawmakers have argued that these tests should be used as a graduation exam or to determine grade promotion, even though most have never put forward an argument that the test is valid for that purpose. Some say test outcomes run through a statistical model should be used to evaluate teachers, again without making an argument against the many reasons that's a bad idea.

That's especially true this year. The fact is that too much of what is happening in schools is out of the control of teachers, administrators, or students. Students have had wildly uneven opportunities to learn during the pandemic, and it's not fair to visit consequences on them or their teachers based on outcomes in this year's tests.

One implication those who argue for standardized testing make is that teachers need the data to help students make up for the learning they've lost over the past year. But these tests provide little meaningful information for teachers. First, the results take a long time to come back, so they aren't useful in real time. Second, teachers aren't allowed to see the questions, which makes them mostly useless in informing instruction. Third, there usually aren't enough items in each area of content knowledge to provide reliable data. Teachers need to assess their students and get to work quickly; these tests weren't designed to help with that task.

So, if the tests aren't going to be used for teacher evaluation, or promotion/graduation, or allocating resources, or informing instruction... why do we need to give them? For what purpose, exactly, should they be used? No one should advocate for administering tests unless they can give a specific answer to this question.

- What is the cost of administering the tests?

I'm not just talking about dollar costs, although those can be significant. But the truth is that we have known for a good long while that administering standardized tests in math and English has extracted a price on students, educators, and the K-12 education system aside from mere dollars. 

Testing has narrowed the curriculum, especially in districts with high levels of student poverty and, consequently, relatively low average test scores. The pressure on students to perform on these tests has been well documented. Several major cheating scandals highlight the pressure adults also feel, leading to moral compromises that would likely be absent in an environment without such high-stakes attached to the tests.  

Add this to the current worries about contracting COVID-19 in school and it becomes clear that the cost of administering these tests this spring will be very, very high. Which leads me to ask...

- Is the cost of testing worth it?

What, exactly, will statewide standardized test outcomes tell us that we didn't already know, or that we couldn't find out some other way? That students didn't gain as much learning as they would have without the pandemic? We already know this; and again, it's not like the tests will give educators data they couldn't get other ways that are much faster and more detailed.

Will we learn that students who are economically disadvantaged need more resources to equalize their educational opportunity? We already knew that before the pandemic. And does anyone really think that otherwise reluctant politicians will be persuaded to dole out more funds when they see this year's test scores? Really?

It's worth noting that all tests are subject to construct irrelevant variation, a fancy term that means the outcomes can vary based on things other than a student's knowledge. Students who take tests in less-than-optimal conditions, for example, are more likely to do poorly than they would if they were in better circumstances. 

This year, the differences in the testing environments will be more stark than ever. Students in districts that remain fully remote will take their tests in widely-ranging home environments. Students who take their tests in school may be in smaller cohorts, or crammed together in full classes. The COVID mitigations they face during the tests varies widely, as does the technology available to take the tests. 

Variations in test-taking conditions has always been great, but now those conditions will very even more than before. How, then, can we trust that the test is measuring what it's supposed to actually measure?


Normally, I believe that test data can be useful for research and policymaking purposes -- although I think we could get data just as good as we have now for a lot less cost and bother by cutting back the amount of testing and removing unvalidated attachments to high-stakes decisions. 

But the more I think about it, I the more I come to the conclusion that the data this year isn't going to be of much use. Why, then, go through the bother of testing kids when the cost is so high and the value of the results is so low?

The tests can wait a year. Give everyone a break.


ADDING: Honestly, this makes no sense to me:

“To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant education secretary, wrote in a letter to state education leaders.

What decisions exactly are you going to make based on those scores? If you can't answer that, you don't need the data.

Identifying the resources and supports students need is the job of schools. The government's job is to get schools the extra money they're going to need so schools can provide resources and supports. Go work on that and leave the educational decisions to educators.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Fiscal Impact Of Charter Schools on School Districts: Thoughts on My New Report

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed a few comments about a new report I have out with the Fordham Institute: Robbers or Victims? Charter Schools and District Finances. I'm putting my thoughts here so you know they are mine and mine alone. Hopefully, I can shed light on what the report finds and what I believe that means.

Let me start by saying I don't think a have a false sense of my place in the ongoing debate about education policy: I'm a teacher and blogger who went and got a PhD in the field, who continues to teach K12 (but also teaches grad students in education policy part-time), and has a bit of following on social media (although not nearly as large as others). My blog is full of posts that call out what I believe is bad research in support of education "reform" -- especially charter schools. I also put out reports now and then for a variety of groups that have cast doubt on charter school "success" stories.

Given this, it was a surprise to me when I got an email last year from Fordham, asking about a working paper based on my dissertation. Fordham is well known as a supporter of charter schools, and regularly produces research supporting their expansion. Why would they want to work with me? Did they know who I am and what I've done?

It turns out they did. They were considering doing a study very similar to what I had done in my dissertation, assessing the impact of charter school growth on the finances of "hosting" public school districts. In other words: what happens to district finances when charter schools start proliferating within a district's boundaries?

What I had found – and what I still found in this latest report – is that as charter schools grow, per pupil spending in school districts increases. This is in contradiction to what some charter critics have suggested: that spending in host districts schools goes down as charters grow. To be honest, it was contrary to what I thought I was going to find,,, until I started digging further into the data.

I'll go into that in a minute; first, let me explain why I took the gig.


Working With Fordham

We are obviously in a time of intense polarization along ideological lines -- and that includes education policy. For myself, I draw a distinction between those who I think are arguing in good faith, and those who aren't. I'll admit it's not always a bright, clear line; however, I am trying to be open to the possibility that people can disagree on things like charter schools but still have meaningful and productive dialogue. 

Before I agreed to working on the report, I did take a second look at Fordham's body of work. Some I think is just wrong -- not so much in its methods as in the conclusions they come to based on their findings. But some I think is valid and worthwhile. I disagree with Fordham's president, Michael Petrilli, about any numbers of questions around education policy. But I also acknowledge he's been one of the few charter school supporters who's willing to concede that "no excuses" charters do not enroll similar populations as public district schools (a point I find so obvious that I don't believe I can have a good faith discussion with anyone who doesn't agree).

I also knew that if I turned down the gig, someone else would do it, and I wouldn't get a chance to further my work in this field. Yes, I got paid... but it's hardly a fortune, especially considering the amount of time I've put in (and I understand my fee was substantially less than many other better-known researchers who have written reports for them).

There was always the agreement that there would be an introduction that would not be under my name. So long as everything else met my approval, I thought that was fair. I suppose I could have asked for a "rebuttal," but I didn't want it subjected to their editorial review; hence, this post.

Let me say one other thing that readers can take or leave depending on whether they want to trust my word: this was one of the most rigorous review processes I've been involved with. That's not to say the work couldn't be improved; as I say below, rereading after getting reactions this week, I do wish we had made some revisions.

But I was allowed to suggest my own reviewers, and considered myself lucky to have two of the best researchers working in this field, Paul Bruno and Charisse Gulosino, agree. David Griffith at Fordham was also quite demanding, and insisted on having me spell out in great detail nearly every decision I made in creating both the dataset and the models.

Again: this report is hardly the last word on whether and how charter school growth affects school district finances. There are several very big limitations on what I found, and the approach I took does not at all lead us to a definitive answer as to whether charter growth is helpful, harmful, or neutral to district finances. That said, I hope, at the very least, the report helps frame the question in a way that is useful. Because, until now, I don't think many charter supporters (like Fordham) or skeptics (like myself) have been viewing the problem the right way.

Fixed Costs and Charter School Growth

Let's set up an example with numbers that are easy to work with. Imagine a school district with 5,000 students in 10 schools, each with 500 students. Each of those schools has 20 classes of 25 students each. That means 20 classroom teachers –– but it also means one principal, one librarian, one guidance counselor, one nurse, etc.



The salaries and benefits paid to the classroom teachers in this example are instructional spending: spending that goes directly to the instruction of students. The principal, librarian, counselor, etc. salaries are support spending: spending that is for the support of students but not directly related to instruction. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Next, a charter school comes to town and begins drawing students away from the district. Let's say it takes away five percent of the enrollment, or one classroom's worth of kids.

We'll assume this happens across the district: every school loses 25 students to the charter.

What happens across the district? Well, each school now has the equivalent of 19 classrooms, not 20. To maintain the same instructional cost per pupil, the district will have to let one teacher go at each school. This might be through retirement and hiring freezes, or through outright firing of teachers. Obviously, the district will have the ability to shuffle teachers around as needed between buildings, so the teacher reductions can play out in various ways.

But the support personnel are another story: it's unlikely, especially in the early stages of charter growth, that the district can or will get rid of support personnel in a way that parallels enrollment losses as easily as it can shed instructional personnel. A principal, for example, is needed for every building: it isn't likely the district will close a building and get rid of a principal when it's only lost a few students in each building.


In this scenario, after enrollment losses to charter schools, instructional personnel (teachers) to students remains 25-to-1. But support staff to pupil goes from 500-to-1 to 475-to-1. This is an increase in spending per pupil: fewer pupils per staff member will raise the cost per pupil of that staff member.

This is an example of what we'll call a fixed cost. Scholars of school finance have, in fact, noted this for decades: some spending in schools is easier to adjust than other spending when enrollment falls. The question I tried to ask in this report is: does the data reflect this trend?

Spending, Revenues, and Charter Growth

It turns out that, in many states, we see what I'm showing above. Here's the graph from the report showing how charter growth correlates with instructional spending:


And here's the graph for support spending:


The correlation for support spending is significant in many more states than instructional spending; further, the effect measured is larger for support than for instruction spending. I believe this is fairly solid evidence that there are differences in the ways different types of spending respond to charter growth, something economists refer to as elasticity.

Now, an important question is why the spending is allowed to rise. Don't school districts have a limited amount of funds available to them? Wouldn't they just have to deal with the enrollment losses and fixed costs by adjusting their spending as best as they could?

Not necessarily. First, it could be that other areas of spending are being cut, possibly to the detriment of the district, that don't show up in the data. The spending I'm tracking is current spending, which excludes things like debt service and capital outlays. It could be that districts are holding off on facilities spending, or other types of spending not included in my dataset.*

But there's another possibility: that more per pupil revenue is actually being put into the system to help address those fixed costs. It could, in fact, be the same amount of revenue but spread out over fewer students. 

My analysis shows evidence that's happening -- but the type of revenue, like the type of spending, seems to differ. School districts get revenues from three main sources: the federal government, the state, and localities. Federal revenues average less than 10 percent of the total, although that varies from district to district. The rest is some combination of state and local revenues.

The report shows a significant difference in how state and local revenues correlate with charter growth.  Here, for example, is the correlation between charter share and state revenues:



And here it is with local revenues:


In many states, local revenue increases correlate more significantly with charter school growth. Why would that be? Part of the reason may be that, in states where charter schools receive funding directly from the state, local revenues don't decline when students leave local districts. The local school taxes, in other words, don't necessarily go down as enrollment declines. The same amount of revenue spread out over fewer students will lead to higher revenues per pupil. But if that same state is giving state funding based on a per pupil formula, per pupil revenues from the state won't increase. 

Now, a charter supporter may look at this and say: "Great! In many states, there's no fiscal harm to local districts as charters come in! This proves charter schools don't harm district budgets!"

Not so fast...

Cost vs. Spending

One of the worst errors people make in trying to understand school finance is conflating cost with spending. Spending is easy to understand: it's simply the monies you put out toward educating students. OK, it can get a bit more complicated, especially when trying to categorize different types of spending... but it's important to understand that spending is not cost.

Cost is the amount of spending you need to get a student to meet a particular educational outcome: a test score, a graduation rate, etc. You'll often hear critics of public schools bemoan what they say are the out-of-control spending amounts in public versus private schools, claiming this proves public schools are wasting money. What they don't understand (or do, but won't admit) is that different schools with different contexts having different students have different costs.

A school that is located in a more competitive labor market has higher costs. So does a school enrolling more children with a special education need, or who don't speak English at home, or is located in an area with a higher concentration of poverty. Getting to a place where these children have equal educational opportunity requires more resources and, therefore, indicates a higher cost.

Charter school supporters will often point out that charters educate their students at a lower level of per pupil spending than district schools. But that misses the point: charters often have a lower per pupil cost. Charters enroll fewer students with costly special education needs than district schools. In many jurisdictions, charters enroll smaller proportions of English language learners, or students in economic disadvantage. In these cases, their cost is less than a school district's; simply comparing per pupil spending figures misses this critical point. 

It also ignores the fact that most school districts have distinctly different responsibilities than their charter school neighbors. Public school districts have to be ready to find a seat for any child who comes into their boundaries at any time of year. They have to enroll students in all grade levels, and not just the ones they choose to offer. They have to offer curricular choices and extracurriculars to their students that those in charters may elect to forego when enrolling. And in many cases, school districts have to provide services for both district and charter students, such as transportation.

So it may be that districts need additional monies because their costs are higher. But it's also true that spending isn't always going to improve an educational outcome. It could be that more money put into a school doesn't increase student learning or opportunity: that spending would be inefficient. The term often carries a pejorative sense with it, as if anything inefficient can simply be addressed by better choices. But sometimes those choices aren't clear, and sometimes we expect greater efficiency from those who haven't had the power to make those choices -- like whether charter schools should proliferate.

It is, to my mind, very likely that the additional spending that accompanies charter growth is inefficient, because that additional spending is mostly for fixed costs. For that reason, it is also very likely that school districts can't improve their practices to make themselves more efficient; in other words, so that their additional spending could improve student outcomes. It may well be that the increased per pupil spending simply reflects the reality that districts need to do the same job as always, but for fewer students. For this reason, it's impractical to ask a district to perfectly reduce its administrative, support, and facilities spending in alignment with their enrollment losses to charters.

So, no, this report is not a finding that charters don't harm school district finances; neither is it a finding that they do. It is, instead, a description of what seems to be happening to school districts as charters come in -- although that description comes with many caveats attached...


Limitations

I'll be doing a wonky post about the problems with modeling spending and revenue changes when charters grow at some point in the next few weeks. But I want to address some questions I've received about the limitations on this study.

- A note on my analysis: what I'm using is known as a fixed-effects model. The basic idea is that every school district has unique characteristics, and we should account for those characteristics when estimating the effects of charter growth on district finances. We also need to account for changes that affect all districts year-to-year. A fixed-effects model allows for that, and for other varying factors that may also affect spending, such as different student populations, density, labor market effects, etc.

But a fixed-effects model cannot say with certainty that changes in charter growth caused the correlated changes in financial measures. It could be that there are other factors involved that account for the changes -- we just don't know. That said, the estimates in the report provide enough evidence that the relationship may exist that it's worth investigating further.

- My measure of charter school penetration assumes that all students in a charter school would otherwise attend public school in the district where the charters is located. There is no federal data available that directly ties a charter school student to their "home" district, so this is really the best I can do with the given data. 

We know, however, that charter school students can and do cross school district boundaries, so the percentages of charter penetration are not exact. There are also quirks in some state's charter regulations (California is a good example) where distant districts can authorize charters, making the figures even more imprecise.

That said, there is previous research that uses the same methods I do and compares it to actual district-level data that gives precise measures of charter penetration. That research generally shows the measures lead to similar estimates. So, yes, I'm using a proxy measure -- but there's reason to believe it's a pretty good proxy,.

- There is one aspect to this last point that requires more caution when approaching the estimates: virtual charter schools. While the overall percentage of students in these schools is low, there is more penetration in some states and districts than others. Tying virtual charter enrollments to district boundaries is obviously not going to work, and that will bias the estimates, although it's impossible to say how much.

I did some work to try to mitigate against this, and continue to work to solve the problem. The biggest issue is the data, which is not very good. That said, I should have been more clear in the report about this issue -- and that's entirely on me.

- One of the biggest issues we came across is dealing with the problem of scale. We could, for example, ask this as the research question: "How do charter schools affect district finances not including the effects of enrollment losses?" That would allow us to control for those losses in the model... but what if we think (as I do) that enrollment losses are the primary mechanism through which charters change district finances? If we included a scale measure in the model, it would "eat up" the charter effect, because detangling charter effects and enrollment losses is impossible.

The problem is further complicated because other scale effects unrelated to charter growth are very likely impacting district finances. So we have to account for scale, but not scale changes due to charters. This was tricky, and, as the appendix on this in the report suggests, the solution is definitely up for debate. I'll discuss this more in the next post.

Let me just add this: if anyone thinks one report using one method and one set of data by one guy settles any question of public policy... then you really don't understand how social science works. Which brings me to...

My Takeaways On All This

As I've said on this blog and elsewhere many times: I am not for abolishing charter schools. I started my K-12 teaching career in a charter, run by good people who were committed to their students and their school. I have seen repeatedly in my teaching career that some students are not well suited to the "typical" public district school, and would benefit from an alternative that better suits their needs. I have no problem with charters being proud of their students and their schools, and I have never and would never criticize a parent for making the choice to enroll their child in a charter.

What I am against are the facile, often lazy, and sometimes outright mendacious arguments made in favor of charter schools by some -- some -- of their most ardent supporters.

There is no question that there are bad actors in the charter sector, and that they have caused unnecessary waste, fraud, and abuse against the taxpayers and families they are supposed to serve. There is no question that the current charter authorization and oversight system is completely inadequate to the task and needs to be reformed; consequently, many charters act in ways that are not in the best interest of citizens.

I am also deeply concerned that charters, particularly of the "no excuses" variety, are imposing a type of education on students of color that would never be tolerated by white parents in affluent school districts. The stories of students being denigrated and subject to carceral educational practices are well-known and far too common.

Some argue the gains these schools show are worth it. I first want to point out that the overall effect of charters on student outcomes has been little to nothing; at best, the positive effects are confined to "no excuses" urban charters. The peer-reviewed literature on charter schools of this type often shows a positive effect; what usually gets missed, however, is why those effects occur. I've seen no evidence that these charters have pedagogical or organizational advantages that lead to better student outcomes. What seems to be happening instead is that certain self-selected students benefit from longer days, longer years, and one-on-one tutoring.

These things cost money, which begs a question: If we can find additional funds for some students in charters to have more resources, why can't we find it for all students, including those in public schools?

My point in reiterating all this is that the debate about charter schools has to move to a new level; the old tropes weren't accurate and we have to get past them. So I have little patience at this point with those in the pro-charter camp who dismiss the many, many problems charter schools are creating for public education. And no, I don't think there is equivalent bad-faith argument on "both sides."

But neither do I think the charter-skeptics, of which I count myself, have had the issue of charter school growth's effect on district finances completely right. There are mechanisms and compensatory policies that, in many states, appear to increase per pupil spending and revenues at school districts as charters move in. This doesn't mean that districts don't suffer fiscal harm; rather, the simple story of "charters taking money away from districts" is more subtle and complex than what some have understood.

One last, completely self-indulgent thought: the more I do this kind of work, the more humble I've become about it. It is far too easy to screw up a dataset, or make a mistake when coding a model, or make a conceptual error, or overlook some critical factor. I tend to get obsessive about triple checking things, but my biggest fear remains putting something out that is just flat out wrong.

Yes, some research is more rigorous than others. Sometimes people come to conclusions their analysis doesn't warrant. Some people are clearly hacks. But if you're transparent, and you're open about your limitations, and you're willing to have a good faith discussion about your findings, I'm not going to fault you, no matter what you believe or what you find. Because I know this stuff isn't easy.

I didn't always take that view; I try to now. More to come.



* I did do some modeling on this, but I grew suspicious of the data, as it's not clear states report capital spending consistently. More later.