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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Glimmers Of Hope In the Charter Debate

I picked up my Sunday Star-Ledger and read the headline from Tom Moran's latest piece: "Demand for top N.J. charter schools exceeds available seats." Given my past with the Editorial Page Editor (type his name in my search engine), I was expecting to pull all of my hair out once again; imagine my pleasant surprise when I only yanked out half of it.

Because even though Moran misses quite a bit and comes to a faulty conclusion, he is at least beginning to acknowledge that there is a serious counterargument to be made against the Christie administration's plan to expand charter schools:
New Jersey has 80 charter schools today and, if Gov. Chris Christie gets his way, dozens more will open in the next few years.
That worries some people. They say conventional schools might suffer if charters lure away too many ambitious families. They say some charters find underhanded ways to enroll kids who are wealthier and smarter than the average. And they cite statistics showing that charter schools can fail, too.
“We have a large number of persistently low-performing charter schools,” said Bruce Baker, an associate professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. “We have to be honest about that.”
Grant them all of that. But the flip side is places such as the Learning Community, which spends roughly 60 percent as much as a conventional school in Jersey City, and achieves much better results. [emphasis mine]
Wow - that's a lot to grant. And Tom's also figured out he's going to learn a lot more from talking to real experts like Bruce Baker than from lobbyists like Derrell Bradford. His taste is improving.

Too bad he immediately blows it by citing the alleged low costs for Learning Community Carter School. See, I looked at LCCS very carefully this past summer, and I found the school has lots of extra money coming in that probably isn't a part of Moran's comparisons:
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:
Hmm... did Moran take this into account? I don't know, because - once again - Moran cites a statistic without giving us its source. I do know that Baker has written about the expenditures charters schools make that do not get included in cost per pupil comparisons; he also complains that these arbitrary comparisons don't really tell us much anyway.

But it's quite clear that LCCS can tap into sources of revenue unavailable to public schools - including their families. Are many parents in Jersey City able to pony up $100 a ticket for a school gala? Moran, to his credit, now seems to understand that the characteristics of the student body can have a lot to do with a charter's success; unfortunately, he is far to weak in his acknowledgement:
So are charters the answer? Sadly, there are no magic wands in education reform. Some charters are awful and, while the state closed down two of them this year, that’s probably not enough.
And yes, some undoubtedly game the system to filter out the toughest cases. That needs to change, too. [emphasis mine]
This, of course, speaks directly to the cost per pupil of a school, something I've pointed multiple times. But LCCS goes much further than "filtering out the toughest cases":
This is Bruce Baker's chart, and it clearly shows LCCS is not dealing with the same level of childhood poverty that the other schools in the neighborhood face. Here's a chart I made:

Click through to read how Baker's analysis also shows LCCS doesn't really "beat the odds" in educating its kids when you look at who their students really are.

Let me reiterate something else from that post:
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 [Shelley - hang on, we'll get to her in a minute, JJ] 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.
Which speaks to the real point of Moran's piece:
A Muslim woman, covered head to toe in black garb, shook her head as she prepared to leave, defeated. “I don’t like the regular schools,” she said. “It’s not safe.” 
Both parents worry about violence in the regular school system, and for good reason. 
Last year, Jersey City schools reported 148 acts of violence, 55 of them involving weapons. Add to that the fights that aren’t reported and the weapons that aren’t found. 
“That’s a huge concern,” Schery said. “You have fights all the time.”
"Safety" - isn't this really about with whom your child attends school more than anything else? Isn't this a big part of parental "choice"?

Thanks to researchers like Baker, we have more and more evidence that many "successful" charters owe their "success" to demographics. That's not say some charters don't beat the odds - but many do not. How many? Who knows? Certainly not ACTING Commissioner Cerf, who promised a report on just this topic "as quickly as his humanly possible" a mere 314 days ago. Moran would do well to stand with me and call for a moratorium on any new charters until Cerf's report is released and properly vetted.

Until then, we need to acknowledge that more charters like LCCS may lead us down a path to greater segregation of our already segregated schools. Is this really what we want? Is this acceptable in a pluralistic society?

We need to have an adult conversation about this, and we need to have it now. I'm glad to see Moran is at last willing to acknowledge this is part of the debate; he would do well, however, to hold off on calling for more charters until we get the data and fully explore where we're heading.

One other thing: again, I'm glad to see he's talking to folks like Bruce Baker. But Moran has an unfortunate habit: the examples he chooses to write about often seemed to be pre-packaged for him by reformy types whose primary qualifications are media savvy.

Take the Queen of Tenure, Janine Walker Caffrey. Moran gave her lots of space to whine about tenure; turns out she has far more experience in promoting herself than actually running a public school system.

Now he uses LCCS as a model. Where did he get the idea? Could it be from Shelley Skinner (told you we'd get to her), the former Director of Development for LCCS and current Deputy Director of B4K, the hedge fund-supported, reformy lobbying outfit? Skinner is quite hip to the way the press works and was a member of the double-secret charter review panels ACTING Commissioner Cerf set up. She is also a veteran of the political scene in Jersey City. Skinner was quite good at raising LCCS's profile; it's easy to see why Moran would gravitate toward the school to make his point.

May I make a suggestion, Tom? For your next piece, do what Michael Winerip of the NY Times did, and talk to some families who have not been served well by the charter school experience. Then take another cue from Winerip and look at the charter application process.

You've come a long way in acknowledging the other side of this debate, Tom. But take the next step: let's get this all out on the table before we start cheering on more charters.

ADDING: NJ Parents Against Gov. Christie School Budget Cuts cuts to the heart of the matter:
More and more, NJ parents are seeing through the hype and demanding quality public schools for every child rather than the privatization of our public education system. That's why Christie couldn't get his education agenda passed in 2011, and he's going to run up against some powerful opposition in 2012.

ADDING MORE: Bruce Baker weighs in.
When one estimates what I would call a “descriptive regression” model characterizing the differences in proficiency rates across district and charter schools in the same cities, one finds that compared against schools of similar demography, and on the same grade level and subject area tests, the charter proficiency rates, on average are no different than their traditional public school counterparts. [emphasis mine]


Unknown said...

Hi Jazzman,
There's another constituency who endorses charter schools that you might want to query NJ power-players about:
"Segregated Charter Schools Evoke Separate but Equal Era in U.S."

Do you think Corey Booker or Christie want a picture with members of "The Knights Party?

Duke said...

Yeah, this has been passed around the NJ edublogosphere. Pretty awful.

czarejs said...

My favorite from Moran's article is this... "An immigrant from Haiti found his number was deep on the waiting list and his shoulders sagged. “I’ll move, probably to Linden,” he said." I teach in Linden, lost a student in the last week who didn't live in the district. I wonder if Moran or any of the other reformers ever think what impact this kind of student mobility has on schools and students.

Duke said...

czarejs: I notice he didn't consider moving to Chatham or Cherry Hill or Franklin Lakes. As if he had that option...

There is a serious discussion to be had here. I've seen exactly what you're talking about in my travels as well. This is not easy stuff to talk about, but talk about it we must.

I do know one thing: you folks have some kick-ass Polish delis in Linden. Who stole the kishka?