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

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Chris Christie: Charter School Blowhard

It figures: I start a series on Newark's North Star Academy and the myth of the "heroic" charter school (here's Part I - more to come), and the next day our prodigal governor decides to drop by North Star and deliver one of his patented, self-righteous fits against "special institutional interests":
"I'm going to continue to fight against the special institutional interests that say what we saw here this morning is not real," Christie said at a news conference in the Alexander Street Elementary School gymnasium, after students had answered math questions posed by their principal and applauded each other's correct answers.
Mirroring remarks from his State of the State address in January, Christie said Monday that his administration was "aggressively working to prioritize regulatory relief" for charter schools, looking at ways to create "greater flexibility" in teacher certification and make it easier for the schools to find facilities.
Christie declined to give details Monday on what his administration was doing to change charter school regulations. But he promised "there will be major changes."
The elementary school where Christie made his remarks was formerly a district school. It was taken over by Uncommon Schools' North Star Academy, which operates 11 schools in Newark, in 2014; since then, its students "are outperforming more students across the entire state," Christie said.
Asked whether Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who opposes the expansion of charter schools in Newark, was among the "entrenched forces" the governor had criticized, Christie said: "I hope not. But if he chooses to be, we'll run him over, too."
So let's stop right there and correct a few things:

As I pointed out previously, Mayor Baraka has not been against charter schools or their eventual expansion. What he has consistently complained about, however, is how many charter school operators in New Jersey seem to get preferential treatment when it comes to finances. North Star is one of the Newark charters, for example, that has been a beneficiary of Christie's "hold harmless" policy, which has ensured that the governor's repeated refusal to follow the state's own law and adequately fund schools has had minimal impact on the charters.

For the last two years, while much of the rest if the state has seen large decreases in state aid, charter schools have been guaranteed that their per pupil rate of funding will not decrease. This has meant that Newark in particular has had to turn over more and more money to the charters while struggling to provide an adequate education for its public district students: students who are more likely to be limited English proficient, to have a special education need, or to be in the most economic disadvantage.

If Chris Christie really wanted to get Ras Baraka on his side regarding charter schools, he'd raise taxes on his wealthy patrons, stop throwing money at his Wall Street pals running the public employee pensions, and use the money to fully fund the state's schools. Even reining in funding of New Jersey districts that are over-aided would be a more credible plan than his call to expand charters.

Why? Many reasons:

- There is no proof New Jersey charters as a sector outperform district schools. Even the state's own (flawed) report on charter effectiveness, which they commissioned from CREDO, shows a minimal effect for the overall charter sector.

- The expansion of "high-performing" schools in Newark has done nothing to improve the overall performance of the district. Bruce Baker and I showed that a little while ago.

- The data we have indicates the "high-performing" charters in Newark spend more on administration and less on student services and classroom instruction. This only makes sense, as charters are redundant systems of school governance, unable to leverage economies of scale. I've shown this in particular with the vaunted KIPP/TEAM schools; I'll have more to say about Uncommon/North Star in a little bit.

- Many of the claims of "success" within the charter sector are overblown, undocumented, or statistically inept. I dealt previous with the claim Christie made, pushed by the reliably reformy Richard Whitmire, that Alexander crushed it on the PARCC. The truth is we don't have the data to verify this: the school's results were aggregated into the rest of the North Star network so we can't confirm them independently, we don't know how the school's demographics changed, we don't know what effect cutting loose all the 5th through 8th graders had... we just don't know.

You'd think Christie would task his DOE with finding this stuff out -- but that's not their job anymore, is it?

To compound this statistical madness, Christie kept saying that Alexander School was "failing" before it was taken over. But that is an idiotic claim if you don't take into account the student population characteristics of the school. And, no, I'm not guilty of setting "low expectations" when I make this obvious point; if I were, I'd be as guilty as Christie's own DOE, which developed Student Growth Percentiles and peer grouping in school reports explicitly to acknowledge this rather obvious truth.

As my research has pointed out repeatedly, Alexander was actually "beating the odds" before it became a target for charterization. Now, I'll be the first to point out that North Star almost always "beats the odds" in these similar sorts of analysis. But that's likely because they have advantages that public district schools do not, and can't be properly represented in statistical models:

- North Star hires a teaching corps with an inordinately high number of inexperienced and alternatively certified teachers (again, more in a bit). Experienced teachers cost more, but Uncommon/North Star would rather put its money into very high salaries for its senior employees. Hiring inexperienced teachers also allows North Star to pay them more to work longer hours, which allows the students more time to engage in what Uncommon's curricular guru, Doug Lemov, refers to as a "muscle memory" style of learning. (*cough* "test prep" *cough*)

- North Star has one of the highest student suspension rates in Newark.

There is little doubt this contributes to...

- North Star's very high cohort attrition rate:

Many kids who start at North Star don't necessarily stay there. And, by all appearances, the school doesn't do much "backfilling."

- Uncommon takes in a lot of outside money from philanthropic contributions: nearly $18 million in contributions and grants on their 2012 tax forms. Add that to the "hold harmless" provisions, the access Uncommon has to special financing for facilities, and their employment practices, and you've got a substantial financial advantage for the school.

Which makes Christie's bloviating even more obnoxious. Because if there's a lesson to be learned from schools like North Star, it's that money matters. If it's so important for North Star to be held harmless in funding, why isn't that true for the Newark Public Schools? Why isn't Christie pushing to get all schools the money they need?

The answer, of course, is that Chris Christie would rather return home to fight his perpetually stupid war against "special institutional interests" -- which, as we all know, means teachers unions -- than take up a fight for fair and adequate school funding. That fight, however, would take integrity and guts.

New Jersey made up its mind a while ago as to how much of either Chris Christie possesses. America got a look and came to the same conclusion. So no one should take anything Chris Christie has to say about education, and how he's "fighting" for our deserving urban students, seriously. As on all issues, this blowhard only cares about how he can make a political play with cynical attempts at policy making.

More on North Star and the Myth of the "Heroic" Charter coming soon...

Why isn't anyone buying my crap anymore?

ADDING: A blast from the past -- 2011:

Chris Christie has always loved visiting charter schools -- so long as they are the sorts that serve fewer disadvantaged children than their hosting public district schools.

I need to update this at some point...

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