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

Friday, March 25, 2016

Our Idiotic Conversation About School Vouchers

Let's start with the obvious: St. Benedict's in Newark is a great private school:

This 60 Minutes report gained a lot of traction this past week. That's hardly surprising: St. Benedict's is a fine school, serving many boys in economic disadvantage well.

Unfortunately, because our current conversation about America's school system is completely idiotic, tripe like this gets published in Forbes:
“60 Minutes” did a great job Sunday night of telling the story of St. Benedict’s Prep, a boys’ Catholic high school in the heart of Newark, N.J., that year after year teaches students the skills to steer around crime and poverty and head to graduation and college. Misty eyed, I couldn’t help but wonder: Aren’t schools like this the way to fracture the “school-to-prison pipeline” that the Democrats love to invoke? Shouldn’t boys from low-income homes and lousy high schools get a voucher to attend a St. Benedict’s if that’s what they want and need? [emphasis mine]
Dear lord. It's the zombie idea that refuses to die: school vouchers. The premise, of course, is that a school like St. Benedict's can easily be scaled up, so more students can be saved from our horrible, failing, union-corrupted public schools:
Speaking of “quality standards,” in Newark’s 2012-13 faculty evaluations, 20% of the teachers were ranked as ineffective or partially effective. And that didn’t include the ones on the payroll who didn’t have a placement in a classroom. In 2013-14, according to a district report issued under former Superintendent Cami Anderson, 215 teachers and 17 principals and vice principals were in the Educators Without Placement Sites Pool, otherwise known as the “rubber room.” 
Newark reported that 601 students dropped out of its public high schools in 2013-14. The graduation rate was 68.63%. And a 2012 analysis of ACT scores revealed that 19% of testers were on track to be college ready in English, 17% in math, 12% in reading and 4% in science. 
At St. Benedict’s, 98% of students graduate and 87% go on to earn a four-year college degree within six years. 
Yes, Maureen Sullivan, who wrote this dreck, actually went there: comparing the graduation rates of St. Benedict's, a competitive admissions school, with the entire Newark Public School system. Had Sullivan taken about 30 seconds out of her day, she could have Googled St. Benedict's admissions office:
The admission committee looks for those candidates who daily demonstrate focused hard work in the classroom but also (just as importantly) in the studio,  on the playing field, the court or the stage, or the printed page. The students who are most successful here are active in school or community activities and have some strong academic, cultural, or personal quality with the demonstrated perseverance and courage to develop themselves in a demanding environment. The Admissions Committee gives preference to brothers and sons of active alumni, to brothers of current students, and to those who live in Newark and the immediately adjacent towns, although students come from more than thirty different towns. There is space for fewer than half of the students who apply for membership in St. Benedict's Prep

LOWER DIVISION We admit 40 new students in the seventh grade each year. We receive about 60 applications for these spaces. Since nearly all seventh grade students are promoted, we rarely accept applications for new eighth grade students. Please contact the Admissions Office for availability.

FRESHMAN YEAR: We admit 100 new students into the ninth grade each year in addition to the 40 members of our eighth grade promoted from the Lower Division. In recent years, we have received about 180 applications for the 100 places.

UPPER DIVISION: Each year there are about 10 candidates admitted into each level (tenth and eleventh grade) of the Upper Division. It is most rare for anyone to be admitted into Senior Year. [emphasis mine]
This alone is enough to disqualify the rest of Sullivan's nonsense. I'll also note that conflating "partially effective" and "ineffective" masks the fact that it's only 4 percent of Newark's teachers that were found "ineffective."

But Sullivan's piece gets even worse:
The goal, he [President Obama] says, should be a new “focus on disrupting the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.
Underfunded? Financially strappedIn 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark’s public schools. Newark spends about $17,000 per pupil on its 35,000 students. That’s an average of all grades so the spending on high schools is higher. The district notes, by the way, that 70% of its facilities are in “poor or very poor condition.”  
Tuition at St. Benedict’s is $12,500 plus fees. More than 80% of the 548 students in grades 7-12 receive some financial aid.
Did Sullivan actually watch the 60 Minutes piece? Because St. Benedict's headmaster states explicitly that the school relies heavily on corporate, private, and alumni donations. Comparing tuition at a private school to spending at a public school is inexcusably ignorant.

According to NCES, St. Benedict's enrolls 550 students. St. Benedict's reports its operating expenses at $9,266,000. That's a per pupil figure of $17,495 -- more than the figure Sullivan uses for NPS! In addition: the last time vouchers were being considered seriously in New Jersey, the per pupil amount given was about $9,000 for high school students. Where does Sullivan propose we get the extra $8,500 per pupil needed to send more kids to St. Benedict's?

Again: it took me less than a minute to Google these figures. But even they don't make a valid comparison. How much does St. Benedict's save in expenses by having faculty and staff who are in religious orders and therefore don't earn even modest salaries? How about their capital expenses? In-kind donations?

In addition: what expenses does NPS incur from educating students who would never be granted admission to St. Benedict's? Like students who have moderate to profound special education needs? Or who are early-stage English language learners? Or whose religion precludes them from even considering attendance at a Catholic school?

According to the report, St. Benedict's loses about a dozen students a year, and that's after the competitive admissions process. Are they prepared to expand and open their doors to more students like those who left?

The idea that private school vouchers can expand opportunities for students currently enrolled in urban public schools is transparently foolish. And yet, time and again, reformy types keep bringing it up, making comparisons to elite private schools that are utterly laughable -- especially when voucher funds will actually be going to schools that are nothing like St. Benedict's.

But as long as publications like Forbes shamelessly print this garbage, school vouchers are a zombie idea that refuses to die.

Vouchers... vouchers...

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