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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Special Education, Charter Schools, & Funding Disparities

I'll be the first to admit that I can be rough on charter school leaders when they take to the press. But this piece in today's NJ Spotlight by Misha Simmonds, executive director of University Heights Charter School in Newark, deserves a thoughtful response:
This year, for the first time in eight years, I cried because of my work. As many times before, I was called in to restrain a student whose physical tantrum, prompted by a family issue, threatened his own safety and the safety of others. 
His lone teacher was overwhelmed, with no co-teacher to support, because it was deemed too expensive. We no longer had the mental-health staff on site to support him in crisis, because it was not financially sustainable. The parent coordinator who could have intervened had to be laid off. 
He was only 5 years old. In his rage, he seemed as strong as a 20-year-old. 
With all my might I hugged him in a safety hold so he would stop punching the wall, hitting his head on the floor, and throwing furniture. After some time he calmed and a crisis team arrived. I released him and returned to my office and sobbed. 
As executive director at University Heights Charter School (UHCS) in Newark for the past eight years, I have seen firsthand the tough decisions that need to be made to fund our public schools in this fiscal climate. I am grateful that our per-pupil funding level has held steady this year, but like many other schools across the state we are still facing challenges to serve the students with the greatest needs. [emphasis min]
First of all, Simmonds doesn't say outright that this child was classified with a special education need. But the remainder of Simmonds' piece does frame the issue of charter school funding in those terms:
As a result of these circumstances, our young scholars have tremendous emotional, academic, and social needs that challenge our mission to develop in each of them the character, scholarship, and leadership necessary for success in college, community, and life.  
Anticipating this, we initially envisioned a classroom model that would put two full-time certified teachers in each classroom to enable more personalized instruction. As enrollment grew over time, we planned to provide a comprehensive education including deep learning in the arts and Spanish.  
We sought partnerships with mental health providers to provide onsite psychiatric and counseling services so that students could overcome trauma and be ready to learn. We hired a full-time parent and community coordinator to partner with families to support their children in achieving excellence. 
When I started in the 2008-2009 school year, this all seemed possible. Our government funding at the time from both federal and state sources amounted to $17,588 per pupil. Based on recently released state school aid figures, we expect to receive $16,015 per pupil for next school year. This difference in real per-pupil aid leaves us $1.3 million short of anticipated funding if government aid had kept up with inflation. 
I don't doubt Simmonds' sincerity here for second -- but this argument most certainly needs some scrutiny.

First of all, as I have reported multiple times, charter schools have been "held harmless" in their funding over the past couple of years, thanks to the Christie administration's policies. This has hit Newark Public Schools particularly hard, as they've had to transfer more and more money over to charters even as their own aid per pupil shrinks.

Second, while University Heights CS does have a large population of students in economic disadvantage, they are by no means enrolling the highest percentage of free lunch-eligible students in the city.

UHCS is right at the media for FL percentage; good for them. They're clearly serving more students in disadvantage than "successful" charters like Robert Treat or North Star. But what about all those public schools that are serving even more FL students than UHCS? Don't they need resources too? Don't they need support? If so, why have they not been "held harmless" in their funding like the Newark charter sector's schools?

This year, Christie has promised to help make up the "held harmless" penalty for NPS by giving more state aid to the district. The catch is that aid must pass through to the charters; NPS can't touch it. How can anyone say this is fair -- especially when so many charters (not all, but many) aren't pulling their weight in educating children in economic disadvantage?

In addition:

Here are the classification rates -- the percentages of children who have been identified with a special education need -- at NPS and all of the charters in Newark. In New Jersey, charters are essentially their own districts, so the comparison here is warranted. No charter school in Newark serves as large a proportion of special education students as the Newark Public Schools.

NPS's classification rate is 17.1 percent; UHCS's is 8.5 percent. I can certainly sympathize with Simmonds' plight here, but isn't the problem even greater at NPS?

Now, there is a caveat here: charters do get money from their host district based on the number of children enrolled with a special education need. A charter that enrolls a smaller proportion of special education students gets less per pupil than a charter that enrolls a greater proportion.

But the issue is actually even more complex than that, because not all children have the same special education need -- and the costs can vary significantly. According to the state's own consultants, Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairments (SPL) are "low" cost disabilities compared to more expensive ones such as autism, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, visual impairments, and so on.

We know that charters enroll fewer special education students overall; but what sort of disabilities do special education charter students have?

What I'm showing here are the breakdowns by disability for NPS and the Newark charters of the entire population of special needs students; that's why all charter and NPS percentages add up to 100. NPS's special education population has proportionally more students with "high cost" disabilities than the charter schools.

If you look at a charter's aid notice, you'll see that special education students are sorted out by speech or non-speech; that's it. Given NPS's high classification rate of "high cost" disabilities, there's plenty of reason to believe the Newark school district is taking a major fiscal hit because it educates a greater proportion of students with the most profound special education needs compared to the charters.

And yes, there is extraordinary special education aid available from the state (scroll down), but it doesn't come anywhere close to covering the local share of costs for high-needs students.

Let me put this all together in one graph:

And so here it is:

1) NPS educates a greater proportion of special needs students than the Newark charter sector.

2) NPS educates a greater proportion of "high cost" special needs students than the Newark charter sector.

And yet, because of the "held harmless" provisions, and because of the way special education aid is distributed to the charters, NPS is bearing an even greater fiscal burden.

I don't doubt Misha Simmonds' sincerity. I don't hold it against him that he's advocating for his own students. But I think Newark's beautiful and deserving special education students -- the neediest of the needy -- aren't well served by a system that creates these inequities. And that's why I question this final paragraph:
As we are faced with this reality of limited resources, it is imperative that all schools -- traditional, charter, magnet, and private alike -- work together to come up with innovative ways to serve our most at-risk students and continue to share best practices throughout the state. Collaboration, not combativeness, is what will help ensure all children have the resources they need to thrive.
I'm sorry, but that is very, very difficult to swallow. "Best practices" should include putting resources where they are needed -- it's very hard to make the case that this is what's happening right now in Newark. Simmonds is absolutely right when he says that children in economic disadvantage and who have special education needs deserve more money so they can get more services.

But if resources are really that scarce, how does it make any sense to create a system of redundant school governance in the name of "choice"? Wouldn't a better "best practice" be to start consolidating a system that currently replicates administration at the cost of getting more resources to the children who need it the most?

If we're going to "work together," let's start by asking this basic question.


Anonymous said...

Goodness, he's upset about this one child and the disruption caused, and the lack of funding for all the bells and whistles he wants for his school - but he doesn't seem cognizant of the fact that this is day-to-day for MANY poor urban TPS, only in bigger classrooms, with multiple kids like this. He wants funding for *his* school to have extra teachers and counselors and support staff....but where is the proposal for TPS to get the same, to have resources like that, to have low student-teacher ratios and a variety of support staff? That poor "lone teacher" in there, with no mental health staff on-site to support, as if a single teacher in a room full of students isn't the norm nationwide?

If he's crying about his job over this one incident, he needs to go volunteer in a truly disadvantaged school with 35 kids in a class. Might do him some good to realize that there are even more kids with "tremendous emotional, academic, and social needs" interfering with learning out there than in his own school. SMDH...

Nancy Flanagan said...

Excellent piece. And reflective of the charter vs. genuinely public school disparities (funding, %FRL, types of disabilities) in many states, so a great read for folks in all states. With so many for-profit charters here in MI (about 85%), PSAs that run short here in the Mitten State simply have fund-raisers to balance their budgets. Money that is raised separate from the public stream is much harder to account for, as well--so you know what happens.

Two thoughts:
#1) Holy Moses, your per-pupil allotments are high! I know, I know--cost of living, yada yada. But this charter principal was weeping because he ONLY gets twice--literally--what he would be getting were his charter in MI. If schools in my area were getting $16K per pupil--oh, the things we could do.

#2) What proportion of people in NJ--regular families living in the Newark area--understand the basics you laid out so cleanly here: Charters get more money. Charters serve different customers. And so on. It's a rhetorical question--people in MI don't particularly get it, either. I wonder why, though. Are we now primed, as a society, to get what's best for ourselves and our families, and let the rest of our community go hang?

StateAidGuy said...

Great post...

My take on the Simmonds op-ed, which I posted on NJ Spotlight, is that as a charter school in a high-state aid district, the University Heights CS isn't remotely among the most underfunded in New Jersey and therefore Simmonds implicit proposal for more state aid to Newark that could then be given to University Heights CS was unfair.

The following districts are the lowest spending in terms of Total Budgetary Cost Per Pupil. Most of them have just as many or more at-risk students than University Heights.

FAIRVIEW $10,143
GREENWICH TWP (Warren) $10,787
LAWRENCE TWP (Cumberland) $11,117
BELLMAWR $11,197
DOVER $11,352
HARRISON TWP (Gloucester) $11,466
BAYONNE $11,736
BERLIN $11,842
CLAYTON $11,908

These are the districts (who are all badly or severely underaided) should be the focus of any special budget relief.

Duke said...

CM: Well said.

Nancy: Yes, there are regional wage disparities, but there's no doubt NJ is one of the best-funded and more equitable statewide school funding systems in the nation. See:


As to knowledge about charters and funding -- I do what I can:


But there is a very well funded industry here and across the country whose sole job is to rebut these rather obvious facts.

Jeff: Bruce Baker and I were looking at this the other day. I imagine he's going to have quite a bit to say about it sometime soon.

Thanks, everyone.

Giuseppe said...

Simmonds says: "Collaboration, not combativeness, is what will help ensure all children have the resources they need to thrive." Isn't that nice, when it suits their purposes, charter school people want to have cooperation and collaboration. But under normal circumstances, charter school cheerleaders are bashing the real public schools and portraying them as failure factories. How can you collaborate with people who want to cut your throat (I'm not referring to Simmonds but to the pro charter cheerleaders). Last year, Laura Waters also made a similar comment that charter and district schools should work together and be more collegial. How the heck does that happen when charter schools are working in direct competition with the district schools and they are designed to chip away at and erode the district schools.
Good luck with that blarney.