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

Monday, July 6, 2015

School Choice and Segregation in Hoboken; An Interview with Molly Vollman Makris

Last week, I interviewed Molly Vollman Makris, the author of Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City: Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity, for NJ Spotlight. Makris's book is one of the most compelling explorations of how segregation and school choice go hand-in-hand; I think it's well worth considering in any conversation about charter schools.

The NJ Spotlight article could only fit part of our entire conversation. Here's the full transcript, edited for clarity.

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Molly Vollman Makris in Hoboken
Weber: One thing that struck me right away is that your book isn’t at all a takedown of charter schools.

Makris: It’s not. It’s a larger analysis of the direction of education policy. The book does take a critical look at school choice and what’s happening in Hoboken, but it’s not about the individual actors. There aren’t heroes or villains per se; it’s about these larger systems of inequality that are happening in many places.

Weber: You take the charter school people at their word when they say they are genuinely interested in the inequality of their student populations and they want to do something about it.

Makris: I do. I think their intention was to create some level of socio-economic and racial diversity. But, given the demographic makeup of the founders, that was going to be a challenge. And part of that is charter school policies. It takes a lot of work to start a charter school. Many of these were stay-at-home parents and parents with flexible careers where they can spend hours and hours starting a charter school. So when you have them at the helm, it’s going to be harder to create a school that represents the entire community. There also are no policies in place that allow charter schools to easily “manipulate” their lotteries to create socio-economic and racial diversity.

Weber: Is it fair to say that starting and sustaining a charter school, by the nature of its structure, is going to attract a different sort of family than a traditional public school?

Makris: Yes; we see that everywhere. We see that in Newark and Harlem and other neighborhoods that don’t look anything like Hoboken. I think your research has shown this, in the difference between free and reduced-price lunch students, this level of creaming.

I call it charter confusion which is something we found in Hoboken and when I was working with the Newark Schools Research Collaborative. People are just confused about what a charter school is, who can attend a charter school, whether they were in Newark or Hoboken, whether they’re low-income or advantaged.

Weber: So you’re saying there is some global misunderstanding about charter schools.

Makris: I think it’s a bit of a global misunderstanding, but when it comes time to figure it out for your own children, you tap into your own networks. And if your network all goes to the local neighborhood school, and you went to the local neighborhood school, and you don’t really have the resources to do a thorough investigation of all your school options, you’re going to go to the local neighborhood school.

Weber: But if you cleared up that confusion, do you believe public housing residents would see the so-called “advantages” of a charter school trumping what they see as the advantages of their neighborhood school?

Makris: That’s a great question. It’s hard to predict; I do think there are enough families in public housing who would be interested in the opportunity – if they see that as an opportunity. I think there are some who still wouldn’t, which of course would still mean there would remain issues with the kind of creaming we see in Newark and elsewhere.

Weber: Is what you found here regarding school choice transferrable to Newark or Paterson or Camden, where the level of gentrification isn’t nearly what you would find in Hoboken? In other words, how generalizable is your research?

Makris: Well, that’s always the issue with any qualitative research: how generalizable is it? Obviously other researchers would have to go out and confirm that. Hoboken is a unique situation. But I think we’re going to see more and more of it; in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan and other cities as well.

The main thing that pushed people out of a gentrifying community was: “I’m having children. I want the house in the suburbs, and the schools.” I think now we see those people are more willing to stay in cities and raise their children, but the schooling is still the issue. And these parents have realized they can come together and create a school in their own interests.

I think school choice policy in general is not intended to create socio-economically and racially diverse schools.

Weber: What did you think about the commissioner’s decision?

Makris: I was not surprised. I’m not a quantitative researcher, so I don’t dive deep into the numbers. But right away when I looked at it, I thought: “He’s looking at the under age 18 population in Hoboken.” And a huge part of that population is under five. To use that to compare to the school-aged population is, to me, flawed to begin with.

But as I write in the book, I don’t think the whole problem is the charter schools. I also think it’s important to note that in some way these urban schools have always been segregated. So I don’t think the charters and intra-district school choice are creating segregation so much as inhibiting desegregation. I think we all could do a better job.

Gentrification creates this moment where we could have schools that have a huge population of people with social and cultural and economic capital. Because of our numbers, if we just threw everyone up in the air and shuffled them we could have these diverse middle-class schools. But these kind of school choice policies are preventing that from happening.

Weber: You spent a lot of time talking with Hoboken’s affluent parents. It seems that putting their kids into a school with a significant number of students who are in economic disadvantage is not an option for them, particularly when their children get up to high school.

Makris: For those parents, the idea of sending them to the public elementary school near public housing is totally off of the table. In the junior-senior high school, we’re starting to see a little change. There are groups of adamant advantaged parents – often early wave gentrifiers even some who were involved with the early charter schools, who are passionate about education in Hoboken – who send their children to the high school, and enjoy that diverse experience.

I’m seeing some preschool children whose parents really want to stay, and are really devoted to trying to figure out how to make the high school somewhere they would send their children.

But for the vast majority of affluent parents I interviewed, the high school is not an option. The public school near public housing is not an option.

Weber: So if that’s true, why are you optimistic about integrating the schools throughout the city?

Makris: Well, I would say we have the potential here, and we have that in large part because of gentrification. There is such a desire for urban living that you have more advantaged people who are choosing to live here and remain here. These people, when I interview them, say that diversity is one of the reasons they want to live in a place like this.

There are schools in this country and there are communities where people choose to send their children to socio-economically diverse schools. I went to a high school in Akron, Ohio; it was a large, urban high school, about 50 percent black students, about 50 percent free or reduced lunch eligible. There was a degree of in-school tracking, but they had programs that drew a variety of students into that school. And we did have very diverse networks because of that; I still do. So it depends on how you see the purpose of schooling.

Weber: And how do you see the purpose of schooling?

Makris: From my perspective, it’s so much more than social reproduction: where your child is going to go to college, what kind of job they’re going to end up with. There’s social justice; there’s learning about people who are very different from you, learning from people who are very different from you.

This is a big argument in the book: I’m not arguing for these integrated schools so middle-class capital can “rub off” on low-income children. I’m advocating for them so everybody’s capital can be shared and equally valued and everybody can learn from each other.

Weber: That’s an important point. If you talk to teachers of color, students of color, parents of color, that’s a concern: that outsiders are treating their community like it’s a pathology, and they’re coming in to “save” it.

Makris: That’s a huge concern of mine, because the neighborhood school here near public housing is valued by the community. Families that go there do feel quite a bit of social and cultural capital and comfort. In the book, parents say things like: “My friends can watch my kids from their window. My children feel safe and part of a community here.” If advantaged families come in and start taking over that school and making it a school they want, it may not align with those parents’ interests.

Weber: Part of school choice, to my mind, is this idea of values. Some people look at an advantaged charter school and say: “It makes no sense: why wouldn’t anyone want to send their child here?” But isn’t that an imposition of values on others?

Makris: I think so. You’re not recognizing the value of that neighborhood school, and what that school might represent: the history for the families of that school, the convenience, the idea of where your children may fit in.

It is hard to understand everyone’s own backgrounds and values. We saw that with the dual-language school. Some involved in the founding and/or beginning of the school thought using Spanish would attract more of the public housing population, but they found it wasn’t a draw.

Research led me to think that one reason public housing families may not choose a charter school is because of the progressive pedagogy. So I went into this thinking that might be part of the issue. But I found that wasn’t the reason for the decision, because there was such a level of charter confusion, and so many people thought these were private schools and would cost money; it wasn’t that they weren’t going because they perceived that the schools weren’t strict enough.

Weber: What was wrong with the way universal enrollment was done in Newark, from your perspective?

Makris: I would not want to see the universal enrollment tied to the closing down of certain schools and reopening them as charter schools, or closing them down altogether.

Weber: But isn’t that a precondition for open enrollment and charter schools? The more that you open up “schools of choice,” you’re going to close down district schools. It’s just mathematics.

Makris: Here in Hoboken, I wish we could just stop: no more additional charter schools. Which I think is where it’s going; the last charter school that was proposed did not happen. I would be surprised to see another one come in. Then I would like to see all public district and charter schools on one application so that all parents would know they have the option to choose between all of these schools.

Weber: One of the things you say in your book is that you can’t make an equation between Hoboken’s charter schools and the charters from the big CMOs, like KIPP or Uncommon or Mastery.

Makris: No, they’re not the same. The intention of these charters from these large management organizations that come into low-income communities is to keep kids in school as long as possible; increase the school day, increase the school year. We don’t have any of that with the charter schools here. We have fifth graders taking school trips to Puerto Rico and chocolate-making class. It’s a completely different situation. But they’re all somehow part of this larger narrative about school choice and charters.

Weber: That whole debate over school choice has become highly politicized, with stakeholders on all sides making claims about the effectiveness of charter schools. You live in a city where the debate is very politicized. Is it possible, in this environment, to have an honest conversation about school choice and segregation?

Makris: I think it can be difficult to talk honestly about what’s going on with the loudest voices in the room. In my research, I’ve tried not to rely solely on the loudest voices in the room. The quiet voices I think are open to having these conversations. I see that in public housing, too. I go to board of education meetings, housing meetings – there are always the loudest voices in the room, and you always know where they stand.

I’ve done two book talks in the community, and afterwards, there are always parents who say, “Thank you for writing about this. It seems like people were really honest with you.”

Again, they’re the quieter voices in the room. They’re parents of young children who have a social justice mentality, and they’re asking: “How can we talk about this? How can we meet as a community and talk openly about change without imposing values on people? What are positive solutions?”

Weber: You write about the use of test scores to drive a narrative about school effectiveness.

Makris: That’s something I think quite a lot about as a parent. I think parents often use it as a justification. It’s very easy to point to the test scores and say: “These scores are terrible. Why would I send my child to that school?” So it does become a justification.

But then the advantaged population is also not concerned about test preparation for their children – for those [state] tests (they are interested of course in college admissions tests). So if you have schools that have so much pressure to improve their test scores, and they’re serving a population that traditionally is going to struggle more on those tests, they’ve got to really focus their teaching on the tests. And that further drives the advantaged population away. The last thing I want to think about my daughter doing in early elementary school is test preparation.

Weber: You think the district schools, then, have something to learn from the charter schools in terms of how to get parents involved in schools and how to make themselves an attractive choice. Is part of that putting aside a test-prep curriculum?

Makris: Yes, but I worry about that for the schools. Because they are in such a difficult position to do that, because they are so scared about their test scores. And there are so many eyes on their test scores. There was a celebration at the Board of Ed meeting this week for the public housing neighborhood school because it was removed from federal “focus” status. So there is all this pressure.

I think there are other ways to give a vigorous, rigorous education. Of course, I know many of the teachers and administrators in the district schools are doing wonderful work. But I do think parent involvement is a huge draw for the parents in the charter schools. And again and again I heard from charter school parents that they tried to do things in the district and they weren’t able to.

You see this in the research elsewhere, such as New York City, where the parents say it’s easier to start your own school than to work within the district, which seems insane.

I always caution: I think the district can learn from the charters for some things, but not all things, because they’re not serving the same population, and it wouldn’t be fair to say: “Do it like they do it, because it’s always better.”

Weber: Geographically, Hoboken is a small community. If there was ever a place to implement a “Princeton Plan” – a fully mixed and integrated system of schools across the city – Hoboken would be it. But you document in your book how people tried that here, and the plan was shot down quickly.

Makris: Mark Toback, the former superintendent, tried that, and he was shot down, seemingly from what I heard from both sides. For advantaged families, there’s not really a huge interest in rocking the boat: are you really interested in going across town for elementary school? For public housing families, to be told your kid has to go to school across town, even though it’s the same community, it’s a haul. And if you don’t have a car, and you don’t have the job flexibility, it’s makes a huge difference.

So despite this being a small community, there were still concerns with that. There would have to be some sort of transportation that went with it to make it work. But I do think there’s potential, and parents still bring that plan up. There is still interest. But there’s really not a big conversation here about segregation; it’s still not a pressing concern.

Weber: Can you define neo-liberalism as you use it in the book? You’re using a more classical interpretation of the term, right?

Makris: Yes; it’s more a classic conservative strain of thought. Privatization of things that were once public; decrease in the social safety net; that sort of thing. Charter schools, alternative route teaching programs, data-driven assessment, on-line schools -- all are part of this larger neo-liberal movement.

Weber: This is where Hoboken seems to be so different: the charter schools aren’t aligned with that. They aren’t, for example, taking TFA (Teach For America, an alternate route preparation program) teachers.

Makris: And neither is the district. You don’t see the same kind of outside forces and consultants that you see in Newark.

Weber: Newark is a stage on which a larger drama is being played out. But that’s not the case in Hoboken.

Makris: It’s not the case. There’s a different drama being played out. But I do think unwittingly the charter schools here are a piece of that corporate reform model.

Weber: Your book is about much more than schooling; you also address the larger environment and how people from different socio-economic backgrounds interact with each other in a city like Hoboken.

Makris: When I started my research, my education findings weren’t very surprising to me, especially in light of research done elsewhere. But the environment findings were surprising, because here the public housing is in an isolated campus, and other research has shown that in similar communities, the public housing population might not have access to the same amenities as an advantaged population. In the book I demonstrate how that is not the case.

When I asked young people from the public housing population if there was any place they felt uncomfortable, the only example was one girl who said: “The sushi stores, because I don’t like sushi.” So there’s a great deal of social and cultural capital that does come from gentrification. The young people, and the grown-ups, really do come to Washington Street and take advantage of the parks and the fairs and the free events. Transportation was interesting, because the shuttle in town was intended to get cars off of the streets and be green, but it also allows families and older people from public housing to get to Washington Street and hang out at Panera.

But there is still a disconnect; it’s separate and different, but not isolated. When I asked youth living in public housing whether there were more rich people or more poor people in Hoboken in general, all but one said more poor people. Which I think speaks to the fact that they’re still in a separate community.

Weber: But isn’t there a threat to the character of urban communities? When cities start taking on the trappings of the more affluent suburbs, with organized sports leagues and franchised retail shopping, don’t they risk losing what makes them unique?

Makris: There we get into values again, and what we want our cities to be. A lot of scholars write about gentrification and the “death of the city,” how our cities are all becoming generic. They’ll write a lot about how Starbucks is the death knell of the community. But in all of my research, the low-income youth I work with love Starbucks. So for me to say: “We shouldn’t have a Starbucks” – well, some people do want to have that Starbucks.

So what are the values in a community? Are there groups of people that want to have those amenities? And is it my own middle-class urban aesthetic that I want to impose?

Weber: You talk about Hoboken moving to “supergentrification.” What does that mean?

Makris: It’s a theory that early-wave gentrifiers are eventually replaced down the road with people who work in FIRE industries: finance, insurance, real estate. They tend to be less social justice-minded than people who are earlier gentrifiers. I would argue that, at least along the waterfront, it’s supergentrified here.

Weber: Are these supergentrifiers all going to send their kids to private school? Are charter schools not even an option?

Makris: For some, charter schools are. There’s a private bus company that picks up at two of the big luxury housing apartment complexes on the waterfront and drives to the dual-language charter school across town. But largely, for many of the people I encountered living in those buildings, their plan is private schools, or living here for a few years and then moving to the suburbs.

Interestingly, we do have this crop of parents whose children don’t get into the charters, they send their kids to the district schools through the preschool programs, and I see some of that capital and energy go into the district schools. So there’s a network of parents of younger children who are very involved and actively engaged because they didn’t get into the charter schools. And they are becoming advocates for the district. It remains to be seen whether those people stay longer. Fourth grade, fifth grade seems to be the turning point for many.

So I argue that because parents can choose their preschool location and because they can then choose which elementary school location and in a large part because of charter schools, they’re staying longer. And that’s influencing real estate development.

Weber: It seems as if you attract enough affluent people here, it’s almost inevitable that at least some of them will stay and invest themselves for the long term.

Makris: I think I’m seeing some of that, and I hope that’s the case. The question then becomes is it a critical enough mass to change the demographics of the schools to create socio-economically and racially balanced schools that respect all of the voices.


StateAidGuy said...

Did you talk to anyone in Hoboken about how they feel about being NJ's worst aid hoarder? Unlike its charter schools, this is the issue with Hoboken that affects all New Jerseyans. Hoboken is not a district that NJ progressives should side with.
Although its students are mostly poor, Hoboken is an incredibly high-resource school district. Hoboken has $11.1 billion in equalized property valuation for only 2,639 students, meaning $4.2 million in property valuation per student, a figure more than double what Princeton and Millburn have.
If Hoboken had only a 1% tax rate, it would bring in over $110 million in school taxes. Enough money to send every child in Hoboken to Phillips Andover.
Hoboken, despite its enormous wealth, is an Abbott district and a beneficiary of Adjustment Aid. Hoboken receives $10.6 million in K-12 aid and $10.2 million in Pre-K aid. Its local tax levy is only $39 million, or a 0.36 tax rate. For K-12 alone, Hoboken gets over $4,000 a student, more than what genuinely needy districts like Bloomfield get ($3300 a student)
Hoboken is just being cheap when it complains about the financial harm of charter schools. Hoboken’s transfer to charter schools is only $8.2 million. At Hoboken’s GIGANTIC property valuation, Hoboken could easily make up for the lost money. If Hoboken just increased its taxes by $8.2 million its tax levy would be $47 million, a 0.42 tax rate. This is still ridiculously low.
Also, Hoboken replaces students lost to charter schools with students from other districts who come in via Interdistrict Choice. Most of these children are from Jersey City. Hoboken thus does to other districts the exact same thing it attacks charter schools for. I am not aware of any demographic studies of who participates in Interdistrict Choice, but anecdotally these children are wealthier than average for the districts they come from. Hoboken gets $2.9 million in Choice and Additional Adjustment Aid, so it makes up more than a third of its charter school financial losses.
Also, put some things in context. The HPS spend $24,000 a student. Hoboken Charter School spends $17,000 a student. Elysian spends $15,700 a student. HOLA spends $13,000 a student.

StateAidGuy said...

Another reason to direct your sympathy elsewhere is that Hoboken (along with Jersey City) isNJ’s biggest abusers of PILOTs. Towns that rely on local resources for school funding use PILOTs sparingly because because to PILOT a property cuts the school system out of significant tax money. If a town has a 1.0 tax rate, to PILOT a $50 million property is a loss of $500,000. But Hoboken, as a low-tax rate district, doesn't need to worry about financial negatives of PILOTs. For Hoboken to PILOT a $50 million property is a loss of $180,000 and as an Abbott, Hoboken’s state aid is guaranteed by the NJ Supreme Court. In fact, since a PILOTed building is "invisible" to NJ's formula for Equalization Aid, Hoboken is financially incentivized to PILOT as much new development as possible.

Read the following report and see how Hoboken and Jersey City are two of the worst abusers of PILOTs in NJ.

Did you talk to Molly Makris about how she feels about benefitting from "free" Pre-K for her children while children living in poverty in non-Abbotts get nothing for Pre-K? The money for her child's "free" Pre-K comes from taxpayers statewide. Hoboken is rich enough to pay for pre-K with its own resources. Given the acute need for Pre-K outside of the Abbotts, it is morally awful of Hoboken to hoard that aid when it doesn't need it. If Hoboken lost all of its Pre-K aid its tax levy and felt like making up for the money it lost to charters, its tax rate would would be ~0.55, still an unusually low rate.

You’re right to talk about all the strollers in Hoboken. You are wrong not to miss the financial implication of this. If Abbott Pre-K costs $15,000 a child, than for every 100 new Pre-K kids in Hoboken, the state has to find $1,500,000. When the state can only come up with about $5 million for all of K-12 education for 2015-15, that $15,000 a student in Hoboken is real money. My school district is growing by 80-100 kids a year and we have gotten NO NEW STATE AID AT ALL.

Pre-K is valuable and I want it for all low-income children statewide, but given budgetary realities, we need means testing in places like Hoboken. It's appalling that the children of i-bankers and professors in Hoboken and Jersey City get "free" Pre-K while kids in poverty don't. Does Dr. Makris realize how privileged she is? Does she realize that her privilege comes at the expense of needier families?

In short, whatever financial losses there are to the Hoboken Public Schools due to charters, Hoboken has the ability to make up that money. Hoboken is NJ’s worst aid hoarder. In a terrible budget era, every dollar that goes to Hoboken is money taken away from needier districts like Carteret, Bloomfield, Belleville, Atlantic City, and even ungentrified Abbotts. Hoboken is not a district that progressives should side with.