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

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Derrell Bradford's Fraudulent Voucher Argument

Andy Smarick, former New Jersey Deputy Commissioner of Education, interviewed B4K's Derrell Bradford for the Fordham Institute's Flypaper Blog. Masochist that I am, I just couldn't resist:

Lots of ed reformers, especially those on the political left, still oppose publicly funded voucher programs that would enable disadvantaged kids to go to private schools. What’s your response?

I am a Democrat, and I support vouchers, tax credits, etc. with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being. And there are a few reasons for this. First, I had the experience of getting a voucher when there were none in Maryland (as there still, unfortunately, aren’t any) and that experience literally saved my life. I never go to Dartmouth or the University of Pennsylvania without that, and I wake up every day knowing that more kids should have that chance. Second, I’ve had too many friends, family members, and neighbors, wrecked by schools that did not work and that had long histories of not working. Educational opportunity is a personal thing for me…and every kid’s future is more important than preserving anyone’s notion of residential assignment as the primary way we distribute education. [emphasis mine]
My friends, it is time to dispense with Derrell Bradford's foolish argument for vouchers once and for all.

As he told NJ Spotlight, Bradford went to the prestigious St. Paul's School in Baltimore, Maryland. St. Paul's has an operating budget of $19 million, and it enrolls 755 students, for a per pupil cost of $25,166. That's the operating budget, mind you: we don't even know how St. Paul's treats its capital expenses.

Comparing school spending amounts is notoriously complex*, especially when trying to measure the relative spending of public and private schools. I'll acknowledge this is only ball-parking it at best; however, let's use some figures from what is generally regarded as a reliable source, the US Census Bureau. Their latest published reports put the Baltimore City Public Schools per pupil spending at $15,483; Maryland's per pupil spending is $13,871. 

Keep in mind that St. Paul's is, by Bradford's own definition, a "hoity-toity high school" that does not and need not accept English language learners or children with even mild learning disabilities. The public schools of Maryland do not enjoy that luxury: they must take all children, including the most expensive ones to educate.

So Derrell Bradford's education - the one he says he wants for all kids "with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being" - cost far more than the education public school students get right now. The question, naturally, is whether or not he is willing to pay for the upgrade.

Nick Gillespie: New Jersey spends a ton of money on students. Why are the results not up to snuff? 
Bradford: Because we're spending on all the wrong things, like ridiculous facilities, right? Ridiculous, you know, bells and whistles that we don't need. And the most important things, like breaking the monopoly, empowering people with choice, focusing on teacher quality and compensation - we don't do that stuff. 
"Bells and whistles" are the problem, huh? "Ridiculous facilities" are keeping kids back?

From the St. Paul's website:
Middleton Athletic Center
Built in 2000, the 4,700 square foot Middleton Athletic Center has locker rooms for all Middle and Upper school students, a 2,500 square foot state-of-the-art weight room, an athletic trainer's room, a video room, three basketball courts, and a wrestling room with two full-sized wrestling mats. 
The Fields
The synthetic grass at Tullai Field is the same playing surface used by NFL teams. All of our football, soccer, and lacrosse teams play on the stadium field, where we have hosted MIAA playoff games, NCAA lacrosse teams, as well as various lacrosse tournaments and clinics. 
Blenckstone Field, our baseball diamond, is an immaculate all-natural field that is second to none in the area. All of our Middle and Upper School baseball teams play and practice on this field. 
Thompson field is named in memory of David Thompson '97. The field hosts soccer, football, and lacrosse games in the fall and spring. 
A new multi-purpose field has been constructed at the south end of campus. The area will contain two soccer fields in the fall and serve as a practice baseball facility in the spring. 
Tennis Facility 
St. Paul's has 10 har-tru courts and four hard courts for tennis. The har-tru courts are consider some of the best in the Baltimore area. Homeland Racquet Club operates a club program out of the facility, which has a beautiful clubhouse overlooking the courts. 
Kinsolving Gym 
Kinsolving Gym has great history as the School's original indoor athletic facility. The gym is used by all the basketball teams for practice and for sub-varsity level games in the winter. 
Kelly Gymnasium (Squash Courts) 
The Squash team practices and plays matches in the squash courts in Kelly Gymnasium attached to the Middle School. 
Other Practice Facilities
St. Paul's ice hockey team travels to Mimi DiPietro Ice Rink in Baltimore for practice and games. [emphasis mine]
I don't know about you folks, but I'd consider squash courts a pretty big "bell and/or whistle."

Just like a huge, new arts center:

A 28,000 square foot facility for the dramatic, vocal, and fine arts shared with St. Paul’s School for Girls.
320-seat theater
music and art studios
set design shop
sound and lighting booth
380-seat dining facility
Well, at least they share with the girls; times are tough, after all...

Here's the funny thing about these "bells and whistles": they may seem peripheral, but they actually help kids at elite private schools develop resumes that enhnce their college applications. Take, for example, Derrell Bradford (1993):
The BCMSLL [Baltimore City Middle School Lacrosse League] is working on a tracking program to follow players after they leave the program, but only a few are known to have attended private schools. Defensemen Derrell Bradford and Carroll Ford went to St. Paul's. Bradford later enrolled at Dartmouth and Ford at Bates College in Maine. Another graduate of the middle school program, Arthur Chen, is a ninth-grader who plays goalie at McDonogh. [emphasis mine]
So Derrell got to go to a private high school that allowed him to play a sport denied to most urban youth - a school that spends at least $25,000 per student a year. Tell me, Derrell: do you think many of the voucher schools in New Jersey would have had a lacrosse program on NCAA-level fields for the $9,000 a year the Opportunity Scholarship Act would have provided?

Do I really have to point out how utterly, totally fraudulent Bradford's argument for vouchers is? Does he believe for a second that Opportunity Scholarships vouchers will provide any children in Newark or Paterson or Camden with the opportunity to attend a school like St. Paul's? Especially when he himself says our schools are already spending too much on "bells and whistles"?

Let's do a simple calculation*: St. Paul's spends 62% more per pupil than Baltimore, and 81% more than all of Maryland. The census data doesn't have spending figures for individual cities in New Jersey, but it does put per pupil spending for the entire state at $15,968. If we were to raise per pupil spending by the same proportion that St. Paul's spends over Maryland's public schools, per pupil spending in New Jersey would rise to $28,902.

Then every kid in Trenton could have a school with squash courts and music studios. Every kid in Jersey City could have a school with a set design shop and an NCAA-level turf field for lacrosse: just like Derrell Bradford had when he was coming up. Wouldn't that be great?

Unfortunately, we live in the real world. In New Jersey, there are scant few openings at private schools in the cities to begin with (especially with the continuing closings of urban Catholic schools). The amounts of money available from these Opportunity Scholarships vouchers wouldn't even begin to cover the costs of a school like St. Paul's. And keep in mind that schools like St. Paul's do not enroll many - if any - children who are at-risk, or learning English, or have special needs: the most expensive children to educate.

The data makes clear that the overwhelming amount of money coming from the Opportunity Scholarship Act would go to yeshivas in Lakewood that already enroll the students whose families would claim the vouchers. Vouchers would do next to nothing to "save" children in New Jersey's cities. And yet Bradford has the audacity to pretend that "hoity-toity" schools would be available to all children if we just had more "choice."

St. Paul's, to their credit, offers financial aid to families that qualify; nearly every elite prep school does. These rarified institutions do not need government funding to open their doors to deserving, talented poor children, as most sit on top of large endowments which they can use to subsidize tuition payments. The children who receive vouchers will not be going to these "hoity-toity" schools; they will be attending small, urban, mostly religious schools. There is no evidence these schools do any better at educating children when accounting for student characteristics than public schools.

It is dishonest for Derrell Bradford to make the comparison between voucher schools and his own alma mater when he knows full well vouchers will not give children the same experience he had

There's much more to debunk in this interview, but I'll save that for another time.

* Spend some time reading around Bruce Baker's site to get a sense of the scope of the problem. Here's just one quirk from the Census data as relates to New Jersey:
An analysis based on derived statistics can be misleading and misinterpreted because of differences between school systems in accounting methodology, governmental organization, and economic structure. For example, current spending or per pupil current spending as a measure of a school system’s current expenses can be misleading because different school systems have different criteria on what they classify as current expenses. 
Most school systems in the United States have a capitalization threshold of $5,000 for supplies (meaning supplies with a unit cost of less than $5,000 are classified as a current expense, while supplies costing at least $5,000 are accounted for as capital outlay). Larger school systems, however, often have a capitalization threshold larger than $5,000 (thus will have more types of supplies classified as a current expense than smaller school districts). School systems in New Jersey, on the other hand, have a capitalization threshold of only $2,000 (thus will have fewer types of supplies classified as a current expense than most school districts). Any analysis involving current spending or per pupil current spending should note that school system and state disparities exist based on what is classified as a current expense.
Huh - I never knew that. Depending on where capital expenses are placed in comparative data, that could make a real difference in relative spending figures.

The easiest way to compare per pupil spending is to gather up all the money a school system spends in a year and divide it by the number of students enrolled. Sounds simple, right? Except that determining what goes into that pile of money, and (believe it or not) who gets listed as enrolled where is exceedingly complex.

So, no, I don't think my "simple calculation" is literally the difference between St. Paul's spending and that of public schools; I'm not sure we could ever arrive at an answer to that question that would please everyone. But there is no doubt that "hoity-toity" schools like St. Paul's spend way more money per pupil than neighboring public schools. That extra money buys lots of "bells and whistles": small class sizes, outstanding athletic facilities, arts centers, technology, etc.

My point stands: the voucher schools Bradford touts will never provide the type of education he enjoyed at St. Paul's. Arguing about which metrics to use when measuring spending distracts from this irrefutable fact.


Marie said...

For a look at all those 'bells and whistles that we don't need'; http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2013/06/assemblyman_reed_gusciora_frustrated_by_lackadaisical_timeline_for_trenton_central_high_renovations.html

Unknown said...

I find it particularly insulting that this individual would compare the type of "PRIVATE" SCHOOL education and experience he received at a St Paul's a NAIS SCHOOL, with a tuition price tag for the 2013-14 school year which begins for K -$19,925 to 9-12gd at 24,750. If you live in NYC the price tag is more like $40,000 starting at Pre-K. My daughter attend such schools and I thank the Lord I do not have kids to educate today. I can't imagine where or how one pays 40K for Pre-K. More importantly a Public School voucher doesn't begin to put a dent in the price tag of these "elite" schools...This individual is well aware that his comment and argument is flawed but even the blessed, which he is was to attend such a school, can turn-out to be one who prefers to sell his soul to the devil at the expense of other disadvantaged children. Shame on you Darrell Bradford!

giuseppe said...

Vouchers will only supply a small part of the tuition for some elite private schools such as The Hun School, The Lawrenceville School, Peddie, etc. These schools have tuitions of $25K to $36K and above. These elite schools are selective about whom they accept. What about transportation to these elite schools? Will the rich, the very wealthy be allowed to take advantage of these vouchers?

Off topic but that police chief (right wing gun nut) Mark Kessler has been suspended from his job.


Last NJ Poet said...

Vouchers and charter schools help only a handful of children while sucking funds out of the already hurting public schools and hurting the rest of the kids. What happens when your kid doesn't get the voucher and someone else's kid does? Your kid is stuck in the same old school which now has less staff, overcrowded classes, and more problems. Vouchers and charter schools create apartheid. When only the rich and a handful of lucky elites have access to education, the rest suffer thus increasing the divide between socio-economic classes. He is no better than Christie, hurting our children's education to give billionaire corporate buddies a tax break.

Jill said...

It's amusing to see how much you hate on Derrell Bradford. Keep it up, it just distracts you from the important stuff. So, hate on.

Deb said...

You are simply brilliant. Your breakdown of DB and his education does nothing to distract. It pounds the nail on the head for he and his hypocrisy represent everything going wrong in public education today. Brilliant. We are so lucky to have your ability to get it and share it with just the right doses of humor, snark, irony and wit.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Jill, why do you call pointing out facts "hating."
If one was to say you are a female, you would call that hating?
It seems you missed the story of the woman accused of adultery.

alm said...

DB is telling a personal story -- the quote is "[he] had the experience of getting a voucher". I don't see him arguing anywhere that vouchers would send every district school kid to St. Paul's. So your point that vouchers probably wouldn't cover St. Paul's --well, right. Who exactly is saying that they would?

It's pretty clear to me that you and I have profoundly different lenses when we read these stories, but one of the lessons I take away from Prof. Baker's work on charter finance (esp the NYC analysis he's done) is that the existing per-pupil in NYC probably isn't enough to get Democracy Prep/Success/KIPP etc results at scale -- that's why those organizations fundraise.

I think there are a lot of caring Americans who would be willing to stomach the tax burden if they knew that it would bring results. What gives a lot of people pause - me included - is runaway costs with seemingly no plan to fix broken management systems.

DB says "we're spending on all the wrong things" -- the elephant in the room here is the pension & health care costs 10, 15, 20 years out that threaten to swallow budgets whole. Defined benefit pension programs look pretty ill-conceived - hard to see a way forward that doesn't involve a transition to defined contribution/401k-style programs.