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, May 1, 2013

NJDOE Brings Segregation, Attrition, High-Spending to Camden

UPDATE: Howdy, Ravitch readers! Note I wrote this in May of 2013, before the latest NY State test results came out. I'll try to have an update on this soon. Also, note a formatting change to make things more clear below.

NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf has made no secret of his wish to bring more charter schools to New Jersey. Less well known is his desire to bring in national charter management organizations (CMOs) to take over locally-run charters. This happened before at Paul Robeson Charter in Trenton; now he's bringing a New York CMO into Camden:
When Freedom Academy Charter School was put on state probation last year - its charter was in jeopardy because of poor academic results - it hired a New York charter management organization as an academic consultant while continuing a partnership with a local group to oversee its finances. 
Eventually, both of those groups submitted bids to run the troubled Camden school as it came up for a five-year charter renewal this year. 
On Thursday, the state Department of Education renewed Freedom Academy's charter after asking for and receiving a management agreement between Freedom and Democracy Prep Public Schools, the New York charter school network that recently received a $9 million federal grant to expand its footprint. 
The choice, however, was shrouded last week in a fog of confusion. 
Freedom Academy's board initially chose the local group, Foundations Inc. of Mount Laurel, to run the school. 
Foundations was the lowest responsible bidder for the management contract at the grade 5-8 school, board president Keisha Usher-Martin said. It came in at less than half of Democracy Prep's $585,000 bid. 
But then "there was an uproar within the school and the state" over the choice of Foundations, she said. 
"Then Foundations withdrew its bid," Usher-Martin said, adding that the board was left with no option but to hire Democracy Prep. She called it a "touchy subject." [emphasis mine]
I'll bet it was "touchy." But as we found out earlier, dissent is no longer tolerated in Camden; not on the city's school "advisory board," and not on charter boards:
"We brought in Democracy Prep knowing of their work in New York," Usher-Martin said. 
But Democracy Prep's methods gave some pause. It brought in its own school leaders, which some on the board said was inappropriate because they were not certified as principals in New Jersey. 
"They were conducting one-on-one interviews with all teachers without approval of the board," said Maurice Suggs, a former teacher at Freedom Academy who was appointed to the board of trustees in May. "The whole situation was shady from the beginning." 
Suggs was voted off the board in August, along with Nilsa Gonzalez, a parent who also had raised questions.
Oh, my. And this is being aided and abetted by the USDOE, which, again, gave Democracy Prep a multi-million dollar grant for expansion. Yes, your federal tax dollars are being used to force local charters to accept national-level CMOs while dissenters are forced off of their boards. Everyone OK with that?

If this is the m.o. of the NJDOE, than I have to admit that Democracy Prep is actually the best possible candidate for a hostile takeover of a "failing" charter. Not only does DP have lots of powerful friends; they also have plenty of experience in charter vulturing:

[Update: to be clear, this is from March of 2012, not "yesterday." The source is Leonie Haimson writing at the NYC Pubic School Parents blog, but she herself is quoting from the NY Times. I indented the graph that comes from the NYT, and kept the rest of Haimson's post unindented. Hope that clears up any confusion - JJ]
This is how NYT/SchoolBook reported it yesterday: 
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is speaking at a benefit on Tuesday night for Harlem Prep Charter School — a formerly independent charter school called Harlem Day that had its charter revoked for poor performance. In an unusual arrangement, the state allowed Democracy Prep, a charter management organization that oversees several other schools, to reopen the school with the same students and a new staff. The event is being held at a restaurant on the Upper East Side and top flight tickets go for $15,000 — the cost of educating five Harlem Prep students for one year. 
Now that is NOT really the cost of educating five Harlem prep students in one year, of course.  Actually, the city provided $16,660 per pupil in charter schools housed in public school buildings in 2009-2010,  considerably more just in public funding per student than regular public schools receive, according to the Independent Budget Office.  
The IBO also concluded that the disparity between the public funding that co-located charter schools receive for each student compared to district public schools would likely be increased over time. 
But that obviously doesn't stop Bloomberg from making sure that charters can raise even more private money to spend on their students, rather than the schools that he is supposed to be responsible for -- whose school budgets he has cut four years in a row.  Even without that extra subsidy of free space and services -- which we believe is illegal in state law -- the city is spending $737 million on charter schools this year alone. [emphasis mine]
So Democracy Prep came into a "failing" school in Harlem, took it over, and jacked up the per pupil spending. As Bruce Baker points out, that extra funding is a big help:
Figure 7 again shows that in New York City, charters tend to significantly outspend district schools with similar populations – well except Equality charter which is somewhat closer. On average, the average gains are indeed higher in these higher spending charters – actually moving upward in sort of a pattern. But remember, the peer groups in these schools also aren’t particularly comparable. KIPP AMP and Brooklyn prospect, however, don’t do so hot.  But, if there’s any case to be made here with these charters, resources just might matter. Not the same kids. More money. Some reasonable outcomes. 
Clearly, some deeper investigation is warranted. But, in each case there are also district schools, including lower spending district schools that outperform most of the charter schools. 
Figure 7. New York City Value-Added
There's Democracy Prep, spending more than $4,000 more per student, and getting better value-added scores for its teachers.

But what about the student population? Is Democracy Prep teaching "the same kids" as other schools? Well, here's a comparison to the public school Democracy Prep is co-located with in New York, the Academy of Collaborative Education:
Taking a closer look at Democracy Prep’s enrollment in comparison to ACE specifically (as we did in 2010) shows that other than the first year ACE opened, these patterns have been true throughout both schools’ existence. In addition, though Democracy Prep no longer publicly reports the type of services its Special Education students receive, evidence from 2008-09 showed that only 18% of its students with IEPs were mandated to be in self-contained classes, compared with 50% of Special Education students at ACE.
% Free Lunch
% Limited
% Special Ed
Academy of Collaborative Education2008
Academy of Collaborative Education2009
Academy of Collaborative Education2010
Academy of Collaborative Education2011
Democracy Preparatory Charter School2008
Democracy Preparatory Charter School2009
no public data
Democracy Preparatory Charter School2010
Democracy Preparatory Charter School2011
Sources: NY State Report Cards; NY State Charter SPED Invoices; NYC CSC Database
Fewer Special Ed children, fewer LEP children, fewer children eligible for Free Lunch. How does Democracy Prep make that happen? Well...
Tucked away in the middle was the notice that Democracy Prep was “working to open a new elementary school in the fall…”, neglecting to mention that this new school did not come out of the blue, but rather from the frequently pissed-on ashes of Harlem Day. Still, if you fire the staff, dump the administrators and redesign all aspects of structure and curriculum from scratch, it’s essentially the same thing. 
Then I took a poll, in each class, of the students who received such a letter. To a man, all the students—and ONLY the students—who received passing grades of Level 3 or 4 on their state English Language Arts (ELA) and Math exams in 4th grade were recruited by Democracy Prep. [emphasis mine]
OK, that's just one teacher's report. What else do we know about Democracy Prep's practices?
At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room. 
“Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention. 
Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.
And what does this harsh environment lead to?
The “no-excuses” culture at Democracy Prep could explain why one of its schools had a high attrition rate, according to data obtained by Schoolbook and WNYC. The data only included the network’s oldest middle school, where more than 23 percent of the students left during the 2010-2011 school year. That’s higher than most charters, although some regular district schools in Harlem also have equally high attrition. [emphasis mine]
Except those public schools don't claim to educate "the same children" as Democracy Prep, do they?

To recap: Democracy Prep's practices include more spending per pupil, a rigid "no-excuses" culture, high rates of attrition, and segregation by poverty, special need, and English proficiency.

This is your future, Camden - imposed on you by state-officials and outside CMOs. Don't even think about fighting back.

Resistance is futile.


Anonymous said...

As always, thanks for your fine reporting.

This result was baked in from the beginning, and inevitable: so-called reformers themselves always speak about "scaling up" charters, and the economies of scale provided by the chains are irresistible to them.

The small, mom-and-pop charters have never been strategically intended as anything but stalking horses used to ally community resistance to the diversion of funds away from the publ;ic schools. The medium-long range goal has always been to bring the Big Guys in.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the typo: "ally" should be "allay."

alm said...

23% attrition is very high. Attrition is a proxy for parental satisfaction, and it is a good sign about how families feel about the school.

Mrs. King's music students said...

You were mistaken when you said our special ed teachers were first on the chopping block. Ditto about arts. (possibly next though). Instead, our untenured K-5 teachers were pink-slipped today. Some of best and brightest cut to make room for a cheaper model-regardless of the impact on some of the neediest kids on earth. Don't hold your breath waiting for the NJEA to sound the charge. They were AWOL in 06, 07, 08, 09, 10, 11, and 12. And us, still desparate to believe they really care about us.

Tom Hoffman said...

In Rhode Island, our big charter reform law a few years ago wandered off-topic for typical parochial Rhode Island reasons, and we ended up with a "mayoral academy" law that was a mishmash of mayoral control and CMO charter management.

This meant that the first instance of this kind of school was managed by Democracy Prep, but managed by an independent board with 1 representative from each of the four urban and suburban participating communities.

Before the second year was out, they decided DP wanted too much money in fees, kicked them out, and went with local leadership.

Needless to say, the second mayoral academy (AF, natch!) has finessed the makeup of their board to show a little less... independence.