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, February 1, 2016

Charter School Realities: East Brunswick, NJ

This year, I'm doing an occasional series about the many unknown charter schools that aren't affiliated with the big, non-profit charter management organizations like KIPP or Uncommon or Success Academies. Last time, I showed how a small charter in Red Bank, NJ, was likely impeding any chance of the community being able to integrate their schools. Let's stay in the Jersey 'burbs and discuss another small charter, and how it's affecting the local public district schools.

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Nearly two years ago, the NJDOE denied an expansion request for Hatikvah Academy Charter School in East Brunswick. But if there's one thing to know about charter operators, it's that they can be a persistent bunch: a year later, Hatikvah got permission to enroll its current students, who were in grades K through 5, to stay until Grade 8. But even that wasn't enough...

According to this letter from the East Brunswick Public Schools -- the "hosting" public school district for Hatikvah -- the charter now wants to expand its enrollments for all of its grades. The reason, ostensibly, is that Hatikvah has more students on its wait list than it does available seats. But the district says there really isn't a community demand for the charter, because Hatikvah is drawing students from all over the state:

I made this map from NJDOE data provided to me by concerned citizens whose districts are affected by Hatikvah (more in a minute). The sending districts to the north are more than 25 miles away; the furthest to the east is more than 15 miles. But not only that:

About half of Hatikvah's students are in East Brunswick, where the school is located. But small numbers of students -- in some cases, a single student -- are coming from districts within a wide area. Florham Park, the northernmost district, is sending one student. What's going on here?

The answer is to be found in Hatikvah's unique curriculum: it's a Hebrew immersion school. Apparently, the NJDOE thinks it's so important for a publicly funded school to teach Hebrew that it's willing to allow students from a wide area to enroll in Hatikvah, dragging their share of taxpayer revenue with them.

If you're surprised to hear that tax dollars can be used to support Hebrew charter schools, you shouldn't be: there is actually a group called the Hebrew Charter School Center, which "...works with public charter schools and planning groups who focus on the instruction of the Hebrew language and culture, as well as the study of the culture and history of Israel and its immigrant communities." The group claims Hatikvah as one of its schools; according to spekaupnj.org, it has also funded a religious after-school program at the charter:
We have looked at all of the HCSC's available Form 990s, and what we found is that from 2010-2013 the HCSC has given over $1 million dollars to Hatikvah, and over $500,000 to create a religious after school program that ONLY serves students from Hatikvah. The stated goal of the program, called Nefesh Yehudi Academy, is "to provide a Jewish education to complement the curriculum of a Hebrew immersion charter school program, while encouraging students to appreciate the diversity of all Jews."

This is not surprising, since the mission of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is "to revitalize Jewish identity through educational and cultural initiatives that reach out to all Jews, with an emphasis on those who are on the margins of Jewish life, as well as to advocate for and support Hebrew and Jewish literacy among the general population."

While Mr. Steinhardt is welcome to use his vast fortunate to "revitalize Jewish identity," his efforts to do so using public tax dollars to create secular charter schools supplemented by religious after school programs, both created and supported with HCSC funds, is a misuse of the tax dollars that flow into the public charters. Steinhardt has essentially created a low cost alternative to a religious education (Hatikvah is free, and Nefesh Yehudi Academy is $2,800 as per their registration form). 
So the taxpayers pony up for the Hebrew instruction during the school day, and private funds supplement the religious instruction "after school." I guess that's one way around the First Amendment...

Now, this might not be all that serious if the hosting districts weren't feeling the effects of having to support a charter -- even one that enrolls just a few of their students. Districts, however, have fixed costs; depending on the size of the districts, losing students to a charter can have a real fiscal impact on the hosts. Ask East Brunswick:
As in the past, Hatikvah posits that increasing enrollment would not harm East Brunswick. They suggest that only approximately 9 students of the proposed expansion of 200 students would come from East Brunswick and this would only cost the district in year one an additional $100,000 or so. (Think what it would cost the other districts that have no say in Hatikvah’s expansion into their districts.) Even another $100,000 next year would harm East Brunswick. The East Brunswick Public Schools already spend a sum equal to 98% of the State imposed cap to support Hatikvah. Another $100,000 would make it more than 100% of the cap! The cost would increase each year as students move up through the grades.
That's the host district, again, sending about half of the students. But what about some of the others -- like, say, Highland Park, which makes up about 6 percent of Hatikvah's students? Well, funny you should ask...

Long time readers know one of my best blogging (and real-life) buddies is the intrepid Darcie Cimarusti, aka Mother Crusader. Darcie has been fighting for a good long time to bring sanity to the New Jersey education system, starting with her hometown of Highland Park. Her activism led her to run for the school board and win a seat; this past year, she was elected board president.

Darcie and I have been talking about Hatikvah and how its expansion will damage her own daughters' school district, which led me to look more carefully at the data and produce the analysis below. As Darcie recently told the state BOE in testimony, Hatikvah has done real damage to her district's finances:

My board would like to inform you that Hatikvah has essentially morphed into a statewide charter school, pulling students from 28 districts in 7 counties to fill their seats. Hatikvah was approved to serve East Brunswick, and East Brunswick alone. In fact, in their 2009 application to the state they stated that they didn’t anticipate any out of district enrollment. Now five years into their charter, 50% of their enrollment comes from districts other than East Brunswick, demonstrating a clear lack of interest in their district of residence.

There are no provisions in the state’s charter school law that allow a statewide charter to even exist. This Department has written no regulations, and this Board has approved no regulations to oversee the operation of a statewide charter. If Hatikvah were restricted to accepting students only from their district of residence, not only would they be unable to expand, they would be forced to close. Even if they were restricted to their district of residence and a handful of contiguous districts they would be unable to exist.

In order to keep their doors open they continue to draw more students from more districts, and as each year passes, more funds are lost. When Hatikvah opened in 2010 we lost $61,847. This year Highland Park lost $318,201. In 5 years time, Highland Park’s costs have increased fivefold.

But Highland Park is not part of Hatikvah’s district of residence, so Hatikvah is not required by law to notify our district of their plans for expansion, and our district is not given an opportunity to respond to the proposed expansion. 

We are essentially left in the dark and rendered voiceless.
And that is the insanity of NJ charter school law: because the state is the authorizer, a charter does not need local approval before it can enroll students and cause harm to a district's programs. A district, therefore, has to bear the fiscal burden of supporting a redundant school system simply to support a boutique curriculum that the vast majority of families in the town do not want.

How does this make any sense? Is it really so important that a few families, scattered over a wide region, get a publicly funded school to teach their children Hebrew? Is the benefit from this so great that it's worth negatively impacting the finances of local, district public schools?

And, perhaps more importantly: why should local towns have to support charter schools that increase economic and racial segregation?

Here's the free and reduced-price lunch percentages over the last five years for Hatikvah and its top seven sending districts. Hatikvah has never enrolled the same proportion of economically disadvantaged students as its largest sending districts. And the racial differences are also pronounced:

Hatikvah's concentration of white students is higher than any of its largest feeder schools. Is anyone really surprised that a Hebrew immersion school would enroll a mostly white population? In addition:

Hatikvah enrolls fewer special education students than its feeders -- in some cases, far fewer. This is typical for New Jersey charter schools, which largely under-enroll special needs students. When you look at the raw numbers, this becomes even more obvious:

In addition: the very few special education students Hatikvah does enroll tend to have lower-cost needs compared to East Brunswick.

Again, this is quite typical for a New Jersey charter school. And it matters not just in terms of cost: it matters for accountability measures.

You see, it's easier to raise your test scores when you serve proportionally fewer children in economic disadvantage, or fewer who have special education needs. But what if you control for those differences? As I've done many times before, I use a linear regression model here that adjusts test scores for differences in student populations (see below for specifics). The sample is every school in Middlesex County, NJ; the scores are from the last administration of the NJASK in 2014. Let's see how Hatikvah's 5th Grdaers did compared to East Brunswick's in English Language Arts (ELA):

The East Bruswick schools are in green: they all "beat prediction," meaning they all scored better than we would predict based on their free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL) and special education proportions. Hatikvah scored under prediction.

Does this mean East Brunswick's schools are "better" than Hatikvah's? I wouldn't ever make that claim based on a few tests scores, but I will say this: it's hard to justify Hatikvah's expansion based on any claim that the charter educates its students better than East Brunswick's schools. Here are the adjusted math scores:

Can anyone credibly make a claim that Hatikvah is a badly needed alternative to East Brunswick's public district schools?

I have more of these below for Grades 3 and 4; they vary somewhat, but there is no consistent pattern of Hatikvah outscoring East Brunswick. And it's the same in Highland Park:

Highland Park has more than twice the students, proportionally, who are FRPL than Hatikvah. Yet they outstrip the charter on adjusted Grade 5 ELA and math scores -- handily. Again, there's variation by grade... but where is any proof these districts' students need a charter for a "better" educational option than their already fine public district schools?

Folks, if you want your kids to go to a school where they learn Hebrew, then by all means, sign them up at a private school. Or send them for religious instruction after school -- it's your right, of course. But the idea that our schools should be able to cater to every parent's desire, every educational whim, is absurd.

The taxpayers should not be made to support redundant and inefficient systems of schools simply to fulfill the specialized wishes of a scant few families.

It took former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf a while to figure it out, but he eventually came to the realization that putting a bunch of boutique charters in the 'burbs was a really bad idea -- educationally, fiscally, and politically. After all, Chris Christie's (quickly eroding) political base was in the suburbs: why would they want to see their public schools, which enhance the value of their homes, damaged just so a few students could enroll in a Hebrew immersion school fueled by their tax dollars?

Unfortunately, a few of these charters out in the leafy 'burbs got approved; now, some are having trouble enrolling enough students from their own towns to justify their existence. I don't doubt that if I started a charter based on a clown college curriculum, I could probably find enough students across a wide area who would sign up. That doesn't mean allowing these schools to expand their reach is good public policy -- partially if they increase racial and economic segregation while damaging the public district schools' bottom lines.

Next in this series: let's stay out in the Jersey 'burbs for a bit more -- but then I want to get to Upstate New York...

Highland Park: One of the nicest small towns you'll ever visit.

ADDING: Here are some other adjusted scores. The regression model uses NJASK scale scores for the dependent variable, and school-level FRPL percentage or special education percentage (all courtesy of the NJDOE) for the independent variables. Residuals are expressed as scale score differences and are not standardized. For the Grade 4 models, special education percentage wasn't a statistically significant factor, so I removed it (yeah, we could argue about that, I know, but I ultimately decided it was more fair to do so if I couldn't get p < 0.05). I plotted the residuals on the y-axis against FRPL percentage on the x-axis just to give a little more description to the data.

Here are adjusted SGP or "growth" scores. It's a weaker model because SGPs account somewhat more for student characteristics, but again: there's no consistent pattern of Hatikvah outscoring its host districts.

 Here are the same graphs for Highland Park:

Again: where's the evidence Hatikvah is really needed in either town?


League of Women Voters of Teaneck said...

Thank you so much for this analysis: I find it deeply disturbing that the so called education reformers constantly bang the drum of "data-driven" decision making but then ignore the data. I only wish I had the skills to do a similar analysis for Teaneck, which has resubmitted an application to the DOE to increase enrollment ~18%, by adding 54 students K-8: needless to say, the Teaneck Community Charter School has all the same patterns of segregated enrollment as other suburban NJ charters. Sadly, our town council has passed a resolution in support of the expansion, and thus, increased segregation of our schools.

Alex said...

Are you as surprised that tax dollars support schools teaching foreign languages like Spanish as you appear to be surprised with Hebrew foreign language education?

My child just go accepted into this school and it is a godsend.
Our district middle school is terrible. My property tax money was being wasted and my child's time was being wasted at the public school learning nothing while teachers were trying to educate the kids whose families could not care less about education.

But, on the positive note, at least the teachers pay their union dues timely and that's the only valid purpose of schools according to the teachers' unions.