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, August 10, 2011

Portrait of a Charter Cheerleader

Derrell Bradford, Executive Director of the corporate "reform" shop, Better Education for Kids (B4K), has been pushing charter schools for years. But his Deputy Director's career highlights the very problem with charters Bradford doesn't want to acknowledge: namely, that they serve a far more affluent group of students with far fewer special needs than neighborhood schools.

Unfortunately, this same charter advocate, Shelley Skinner, has used her connections and media influence to obscure the problem: she has repeatedly stated that charter schools serve a disproportionate number of at-risk children, when research shows exactly the opposite.

Maybe that's why she has been rewarded with influential positions in Chris Christie's government. Here's her story:

* * *

Why would anyone downplay the most important part of their resume?

Case in point: Shelley Skinner, Deputy Director of New Jersey's local corporate "reform" center, Better Education for Kids (B4K). Skinner's bio on the B4K website describes her this way:
Shelley Skinner is the Deputy Director of B4K’s 501c4 efforts. For years Shelley worked as a producer and international distributor of high quality children’s programming, most notably Thomas The Tank Engine. A mother of two and a long-term resident of Jersey City, NJ, Shelley became politically involved and aware of an overall lack of vision and leadership in many areas of government, but specifically in education. Solving issues of teacher quality and limited school choices are crucial if urban centers are ever to stop the flight of working class families.
That's it. But it's not even close to to the entire story of Shelley Skinner.

Let's start with Skinner's own words from an interview she did in 2007:

"This really all began when I wrote a cranky letter to my councilman, because I was very frustrated that a lot of my friends were leaving to go to other places because the schools are not good... Five is the magic number. When the child hits five, and they're looking at kindergarten, off they go. Personally, I find that unacceptable."
Now, the flight of gentrifying yuppies from the cities when their kids get to schooling age is a well-documented phenomenon; Jersey City hardly stands alone in dealing with this "problem." Skinner takes the stance that the schools are the key. I think that's a little facile, but let's give her the argument: what should be done?

Skinner's list emerges throughout the interview: Schools are too big, especially high schools. Leadership could be better. Fiscal mismanagement, which she describes as "wildly out of control." Underperformance on tests. Poor management by the state (which, at the time, controlled Jersey City schools). Inequity in state aid.

What's missing from her list is the big "problem" that B4K and the rest of the corporate "reform" movement keep stressing: teacher quality. Funny how bad the teachers have become in the last four years... (h/t Mark Twain)

No, Skinner's biggest issue at the time seemed to be that there was a lack of resources for Jersey City's schools:
"I mean my overall concern is that, again, there are a lot of special needs families in this district. New Jersey has one of the highest rates of autism on the United States, and, again, these families come to the district, they have to fight tooth and nail to get the services that they're legally allowed to have."
So, what was Skinner's response to her perception of Jersey City's problems? Charter schools.

Skinner not only enrolled her own children at Learning Community Charter School; she went to work there as the Director of Development. Which led to a seat on the board of the NJ Charter School Association, eventually chairing the Advocacy Committee. Which led to an appointment to Gov. Chris Christie's Transition Team. Which led to a spot on Christie's committee that reviewed applications for new charter schools (along with her current boss at B4K, Derrell Bradford).

Kind of funny how none of this is mentioned in her B4K bio, isn't it? But I digress...

By all accounts, Skinner did a bang-up job raising funds for LCCS. The William E. Simon Fund came up with a $250,000 matching grant, and the school was well on its way to meeting the match, thanks to events like a $100 a ticket gala. LCCS was able to pay $5.5 million for new digs in 2009, which helped bring in new students:
"My daughter is so excited to be here. It's only been a week and she already loves it at this new school," said a parent of a 3rd-grader. "Her and six of her classmates transferred from the same private school, and they're all so excited about coming here."[emphasis mine]
Wow - private school kids were coming in! Interesting, because Skinner's story for the press wasn't that LCCS was keeping the children of professionals in Jersey City, or that kids whose families could afford private schools were now coming into charters. No, Skinner was contending that LCCS was really all about serving at-risk kids:
"The State, quite rightly, has gone through great lengths to hold students across the state harmless from budget cuts despite the economic down turn. However, thousands of charter school students did not receive that same protection.

If you drill down even further into the story of these reductions you will discover that the vast majority of children affected are economically disadvantaged (they qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program) and are minorities. These kids, I believe we agree are the ones who can least afford to receive a reduction in aide.

My colleague, Councilman Fulop, has just described to you the tremendous demand from thousands of families statewide who are clamoring to send their children to a charter school. Yet for a school like Learning Community who has stepped up to meet community need and increase enrollment we have been financially punished for it." [emphasis mine]
Huh - a school that was having $100 a ticket galas and enrolling kids who came from private schools was serving "economically disadvantaged" and "minority"children? "Oh, yes," said Skinner:
"I’m really happy by the big vote of confidence for a sector that is clearly doing pretty good work," said Shelley Skinner, a board member of the state’s charter school association and development director of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City.
"It’s all great, but we cannot do this for free, especially with at-risk kids," she said.[emphasis mine]
In fact, Skinner has even expressed some disappointment with Christie, as she states that charters need more funds to educate "high-needs" kids:
“The governor has amazing vision for public education and we applaud his support,” said Shelley Skinner, who sat on the stage with the governor as a charter school leader in Jersey City and statewide.
“But until the funding inequity is addressed, it will be hard to implement,” said Skinner, development director of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City. “For a community like ours, we’re facing extinction without that support.” 
Jersey City has been the most notable example, and that leaves Learning Community getting little more than half of the $17,000 that the district spends per pupil, Skinner said. “We’re seeing high-needs kids, and at $8,900 per student, it’s nearly impossible to serve them,” she said. [emphasis mine]
Skinner sells LCCS's spending short, according to NJ DOE data, but no matter; the point is that she has stated - repeatedly - that LCCS serves "high-needs" and "at-risk" kids.

Oh, really?

The chart above comes from Dr. Bruce Baker at Rutgers (who else?). Dr. Baker compared LCCS to the other K-8 schools in its own zip code; roughly, to the other schools in its neighborhood. "% Free Lunch" is the best indicator we have as to whether a child lives in poverty. With the exception of Explore 2000, a county-wide magnet school, no school in this neighborhood has a lower incidence of poverty than LCCS (the schools in reddish-brown are the other charters in the area).

How about minorities? Using Dr. Baker's method, I came up with my own chart:

I've got some other charts below based on other metrics: race, learning disabilities, language, etc. They all show pretty much the same thing: LCCS is serving a different student population than the other schools in its neighborhood.

But how are they doing in educating their kids? Well, Dr. Baker ran some of those numbers as well. His methodology is admittedly complex: essentially, he's trying to compare how well schools do in standardized tests, with allowances for having a different student populations. How does LCCS stack up in, say, 8th Grade Math on the NJ ASK?

There's LCCS: right on the center of the x-axis, which means no better or worse than to be expected. And somewhat to the left, which means they have fewer numbers of poorer children than most of the other schools on this graph. Click through to see Baker's numbers for 4th Grade math.

I'm going to stop right here and make a few things clear: I am not criticizing LCCS. It's probably a great school, and certainly the deserving children who attend there should be proud of their accomplishments. Further, I am not criticizing charter schools. As I've stated here many times, I believe they have their place; I started my career in a charter school.

I am also not criticizing Skinner for working at a charter school, nor for sending her children to one. Every parent has to do what is best for her own child, and Skinner obviously cares enough about her own kids' education to work on their school's behalf. In fact, I think you could make a pretty good argument that staying in Jersey City and getting involved in her own children's school is commendable in comparison to her friends who fled to the suburbs.

No, my problem is this: Shelley Skinner has gone beyond advocating for her own school. She now occupies the world of corporate "reform," where charters are sold under false pretenses:
"There's a fundamental rub" between unions and charters, said Shelley Skinner, a board member of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. 
"What makes us work is we create our own rules," she said. "We're not cookie-cutter. If we see something at a school isn't working for our kids we can change it immediately. … When you start being into heavy-duty labor agreements it can hold you back from being able to have flexibility." [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but that's just wrong. If Skinner's school "works," it's not because she's free from allegedly onerous union contracts; it's because her school serves a different set of kids than the neighborhood school down the street.

Further, there's not any evidence that the charter schools in Jersey City - or anywhere else - are doing that much better than the neighborhood schools:
When taken together, the city’s charter schools scored a 56.6 on the math portions of the 2010 New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) tests for grades 3 through 8, a few points higher than the district, which came in at 53.5. On the language arts side, Jersey City’s charters scored a 50.1, compared to the district’s 46.2. Both sets of scores were considerably lower than the statewide averages of 66.6 (math) and 73.1 (language arts). 
“I think there is good news here,” says Learning Community Charter School director of development Shelley Skinner, a prominent local charter advocate. “I hate the ‘us versus them’ way of looking at student achievement. But after looking at today’s report I was really very proud of some of our colleagues who are doing heroes work in their schools with scarce resources.”
To the contrary: that is, at best, underwhelming - especially since, back in 2007, Skinner was so concerned with test scores. As Baker's work shows, student characteristics play a huge role in the test scores charter school students earn. Yes, some charters beat the odds; some charters, however, don't. No one should be surprised if charters do slightly better when they have fewer poor children, minorities, children who speak limited English, or children with special needs.

But Skinner has allied herself with a governor who not only refuses to acknowledge this; he actively withholds data from the public that would confirm the point. Considering how Skinner complains that charters do not get their fair share of funding, he's doing her a great favor: if the public realized that charters were not enrolling the children who are the most difficult and expensive to teach, they wouldn't stand for charters taking more money away from the schools that do teach those children.

As it stands, the public is starting to catch on. Support for charters is waning, especially as they are pushed onto suburban districts that neither want nor need them. Even Christie's political allies are backing away. But not Skinner; she's just changing her rationale:
"One of the reasons the DOE has struggled to close underperforming schools is another reason why parents choose charters and why they choose to keep their children at underperforming charters: safety," said Shelley Skinner, former head of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. She said former Education Commissioner Lucille Davy "told me there was a charter she wanted to close but the parents had their hair on fire because the local schools were not safe. It's so morally offensive. No parent should be in that situation."[emphasis mine]
My, how we've changed in a mere four years! What started as concern over fiscal mismanagement, low test scores, and school size has now morphed into worry about "safety." Might I suggest that no parent or child in any school should ever worry about "safety"? And that it's equally morally offensive to put children into a lottery to determine who gets to go to a school that is "safe"?

This is a poignant example of the ideology of charter schools: "We can't do anything to change all children's lives, so let's save a few - it's better than doing nothing!" But that is a false choice, and Skinner would do well to remind the governor, his cronies, and her corporate backers that it is an unacceptable choice. What's truly "morally offensive" is a "reform" agenda that offers little more to children in need than potentially segregated schools (filled with teachers who are judged with wildly inaccurate systems based on standardized test scores).

Charters may have their place. But building more charters is not going to rid us of poverty, racism, inequality, and lack of opportunity. Why isn't Skinner telling the governor that?

And make no mistake: Skinner has the ears of people who make these policies. She is quite the political animal - but that's a tale for another time...

EXTRA: BONUS GRAPHS FOR GEEKS: Here are some more charts, based on Dr. Bruce Baker's technique. We'll start with the enrollment of "black" children (the classification NCES uses - here's the data set) in LCCS's neighborhood:

It's interesting how the other three charters in the area have the largest enrollment of black students. Compare to the enrollment of Hispanic children above, and you'll find the area to have a fair amount of segregation: Number 5, which has a the lowest enrollment of black children, has the highest enrollment of Hispanic students. And vice versa for Schomburg, a charter school. Bruce Baker's written about this as well.

For the next two, I had to use NJ Department of Education enrollment data. Some of the schools above do not show up in the dataset - don't ask me why.

When schools report learning disabilities or LEP (Limited English Proficiency), they do so in different rows from ethnicity, gender, Free/Reduced Lunch, etc. It may well be that the dataset is corrupt, or reporting differs between schools - I don't know. Approach with caution.

First is LEP:

No surprise that the school with the largest Hispanic population has the most kids who have limited English proficiency. LCCS doesn't report any LEP children, but neither do any of the other charters, or many of the neighborhood schools. Again, caveat lector.

This last one's the most controversial, I'll admit, but I still think it's useful. I've bundled together all of the reported learning deficiencies in the database: autism, mild cognitive impairment, severe cognitive impairment, etc. Yes, they aren't equivalent, but I still think this tells us something about the relative populations of the schools in this neighborhood:

Again: maybe LCCS has children who have been classified under some of these categories, and it just hasn't been reported. Take this all with a grain of salt.

Last geek note: yes, I know my y-axes don't have the same scales. So what? You can't equate a percentage of a school's population of LEP kids to its percentage of black kids anyway. In fact, it would probably be MORE deceiving to make every y-axis 0% to 100%. Argue with me in the comments if you must.

No comments: