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 15, 2017

NJ Charter Schools - A Fool's Gold Rush: Vineland

Here are all the parts of this series so far:


Franklin, NJ

Princeton, NJ

- Vineland, NJ

Here in New Jersey, the state's school funding formula has become a topic of intense debate. Now that Chris Christie has abandoned his "Fairness Formula" -- a ridiculously unfair and inefficient proposal -- attention has turned to Senate President Steve Sweeney's school funding proposal:
HAMMONTON — Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Friday he wants revisions to the school-funding formula in place for the 2017-18 school year.
“Every year, the gap gets greater,” he said during a visit to the Hammonton School District to discuss school funding. “Every year there is flat funding we are losing ground.”
Sweeney said he recognizes some districts would lose funding under a revised plan, but those districts have known for years they are getting more state aid than they should, and they should have been making plans. [emphasis mine]
Sweeney's plan is to create a commission to recommend changes to the state's funding formula, SFRA. I don't necessarily have a problem with asking some districts with relatively high property values to pay more in local taxes, but the devil's in the details, and those details are scarce. I'll save a larger discussion of school funding for another day; right now, I want to focus on this:
Helen Haley, the business administrator for the Vineland School District, said they would lose money under the proposed revisions, and it would be devastating for the district, which is among the poorest in the state.
“We have cut 57 positions through attrition,” she said. “We are a large rural area, so transportation costs are high. Our special-education population is growing. But we have trouble raising taxes because of economic conditions.”
Sweeney said special education is an area that must be addressed, and the district could get additional aid there to make up for losses in other aid.
According to data from the Education Law Center, Vineland's local fair share of taxes is relatively low. Whether the town should pay more is an open question, particularly because, as Jeff Bennett notes, many districts paying low school taxes actually have high municipal taxes. Is Vineland in that group? I can't say at this time...

But I do know this: Vineland, like all other New Jersey school districts, should be seeking to make its schools systems as fiscally efficient as possible. If funds are scarce, and if taxpayers want the maximal value for their investment, school systems should keep administrative costs low and get as much money "into the classroom" as possible.

Which brings us to the Great NJ Charter School Rush of 2017, and the NJDOE's push to approve as many charter school expansions as possible before Chris Christie's term ends -- including the Vineland Charter School.

VCS has a colorful history. Its founder, Ann Garcia, was accused back in 2011 of interfering in an investigation into the fact that she held five concurrent positions in taxpayer-funded schools:
The report states that Garcia held positions in five school districts in 2010-11, earning almost $300,000. That is not illegal, but an attempt to alter one of the contracts during the investigation could lead to future sanctions.
Garcia worked full time as the school business administrator in Winslow Township, earning  $156,375 in 2009-10 and 2010-11, according to the state report, obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through the Open Public Records Act.
 In those two years she was also paid to be the executive director of the Vineland Public Charter School, earning $50,000 in 2009-10 and $60,000 in 2010-11. She also served as the part-time business administrator for two other charter schools, the Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, where she earned $54,080 in 2009-10 and $56,243 in 2011-12, and the Environment Community Opportunity Charter School in Camden, where she earned $22,000 in 2009-2010 and $18,640 in 2010-11. She also served as the appointed treasurer for the Voorhees school district, earning $6,780 in 2009-10 and $6,900 in 2010-11.
For all five jobs Garcia earned $298,158 in 2010-11, according to the state report. The Millville charter school opened last month and was not included in the report. [emphasis mine]
Nice work if you can get it. Garcia was cleared of the charges by the Education Commissioner's office, although they noted that holding five positions at a time was highly questionable:
Colleen Schulz-Eskow, of the Department’s Charter School Office, testified that it was common for business administrators – but not lead personnel – to work at multiple charter schools. 6T52-53. Since she was aware that – at the time VPCS was starting up – Murphy-Garcia was doing business administrator work at other schools or districts, Schulz-Eskow questioned Murphy-Garcia about whether her time and commitment to VPCS would be sufficient to adequately oversee the school. 6T44-47. Ultimately, when the DOE approved VPCS, they were not worried about Murphy-Garcia being at the school on a part time basis. 6T55. 
It is not clear to the Commissioner, however, whether Schulz-Eskow was aware of how many schools employed Murphy-Garcia. If she was, it appears that she did not share the concerns of her Department of Education colleague, Martin, about the implications of Murphy-Garcia’s multiple employment. However, as a matter of common sense, the Commissioner must register misgivings about Murphy-Garcia’s – or anyone else’s – ability to actively devote to each of five employers the respective number of hours of work which were promised them. It is likely that such a concern motivated OFAC’s continuation of its investigation into Murphy-Garcia’s employment. 
In sum, after a full review of this case, the Commissioner rejects the specific conclusions about Murphy-Garcia on page 11 of OFAC’s report. However, the Commissioner cautions petitioner VPCS to improve its business practices and administrative oversight and to ensure that its contracts are properly memorialized and that all of its records are secure and accessible. The Commissioner also reiterates his concern that petitioner Murphy-Garcia may have contracted with more employers than she can properly serve. [emphasis mine]
So here's the thing: even as this investigation was going on, the NJDOE was approving expansion plans for Vineland Charter School. In other words, despite the Commissioner's misgivings, VCS was given the green light to grow -- even if the local community had its own problems with expansion:
4/16/15 -- VINELAND – Vineland Public Charter School families are waking up today to the possibility the school may not have a place to call home come September. 
After hearing close to three hours of passionate testimony, the Zoning Board early this morning issued a resounding rejection to a request to allow the charter school to lease space at the former Wallace & Tiernan factory at 1901 W. Garden Road. 
Boiled down, members agreed with municipal staff findings and argument from opponents that the board's priority should be to uphold a quarter-century of city development strategy and investments.
According to this newspaper account, Garcia did not like how the meeting went:
Charter school Executive Director Ann Garcia, who testified extensively at the prior meetings, did not at the final hearing. However, Garcia made her presence known with loud comments and fidgeting from the front row of the audience area during a Magazzu-Stanker exchange. Garcia has acted similarly at previous meetings. 
The display irritated board chairman and Solicitor Frank DiDomenico, who chastised her and suggested she should leave if she could not keep quiet. 
Garcia responded to LoBiondo that she might go and she did leave a few minutes later. She returned as the board started its voting process. 
Greenberg noted that the city's principal planner had found that a school in an industrial zone was a significant problem. Another reason she gave was testimony from the charter school that the factory would provide room for an expansion to accommodate a high school.
The commissioner of the N.J. Department of Education in March denied that expansion request. He laid out why in a letter sent to Garcia. The executive director was asked at the last meeting, under oath, to explain the letter and the commissioner's reasoning. 
Garcia answered then that the denial was based on the charter school, at present, lacking adequate space. However, the education department officially denies her claim and says the reason for the denial was an organizational weakness. [emphasis mine]
So the NJDOE approved VCS's expansion in 2013, even though they were conducting an investigation. In 2015, they found, according to this report, "organizational weakness" in the school. And yet expansion plans went ahead, including the building of a new facility last year.

That facility, and five others in New Jersey, has been financed by Highmark School Development, a Utah-based company that, according to this report, loans funds to aligned non-profit corporations, who in turn build schools which they then lease to a charter.

As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron have pointed out, this practice essentially uses taxpayer funds to put school facilities into private hands. If this facility was being built by the Vineland Public Schools, the taxpayers would own it. That isn't the case here, even though the taxpayers, through payments to VCS, are footing the bill.

Just like they're paying the costs of transporting VCS students:
VINELAND - Transportation issues with the Vineland Public Charter School could cost the district about $400,000 not included in the 2016-17 budget, the district’s transportation director told the school board Wednesday. 
It’s a problem the school district brought upon itself, said Ann Garcia, VPCS executive director. 
“The charter school is a very fragmented business right now; they are supposed to be in one location within the City of Vineland and they are in four locations, one being in Millville, which created a transportation problem for us,” Joe Callavini, the district’s transportation/registration coordinator, told the board Wednesday. 
The VPCS is building a new school along Pennsylvania Avenue to serve pre-school through ninth grade. During construction, the school is using a network of sites on Landis Avenue, Park Avenue, and Main Road as well as Wheaton Avenue in Millville. [emphasis mine]
There's a lot of he-said/she-said here, but the central point is that VCS is creating many extra costs for the taxpayers of Vineland, and New Jersey as a whole: the redundant administration, the building of extra facilities the public will not own, the addition transportation costs, and so on.

If Senator Sweeney and any other stakeholders are interested in saving money on schools, they should be asking if the "gains" Vineland Charter School gets are worth the costs of its expansion.

So let's go to the data and find out what the costs and benefits of VCS really are:

VCS and Vineland Public Schools had close to the same proportion of free lunch-eligible students in 2011. The gap, however, has grown in recent years.

Like so many other charters in NJ, VCS does not educate students whose first language is something other than English.*

And, like so many other charters, VCS educates a much smaller proportion of special needs students, year after year.

The few special education students VCS does take have lower-cost disabilities. This concentration of higher-cost students puts a strain on VPS. I'm glad to see Senator Sweeney acknowledge special education funding is important, but does he understand the effects of this type of concentration, thanks to charter schools?

Let's look at the staff:

Over two-thirds of the VPS certificated staff has less than three years of experience in the classroom. And that staff is still paid less than the teachers in VPS:

Once again, we have the "free rider" problem for VPS: because charter teachers know they can make more if they transfer to a public district school later in their careers, they are likely more willing to take less money at a charter where they start their careers. VCS, in other words, gets away with paying their teachers less because those teachers know they can transfer out in a few years and make more money.

How does VCS spend its funds?

What's interesting here is that VCS spends much more on administration than VPS -- as is typical for charter schools -- but the gap closes considerably when looking only at salaries. Are VCS payments to Highmark going to come in this category? 

Yes, the budgetary costs are less at VCS, but, again, that is largely driven by higher costs at VPS for teacher salaries. VPS also spends more on support services, undoubtedly because they have more students who are classified and need those services. For example:

If we take their preschool out, we find VPS has many more support staff per student than VCS. Again, that's a function of VPS having many more classified students on their rolls.

So there's the cost for Vineland to maintain a charter school: higher administrative costs, lower teacher salaries, fewer experienced teachers, and student segregation by educational need.

So what's the benefit? Again, as I have throughout the series, I use a linear regression model to account for differences in student characteristics when judging test scores. Let's start with English Language Arts:

The "value" that VCS adds is on the order of 10 to 15 points in Grades 3 and 4 -- on a test that has a range of 200 points. Is that impressive? Considering the mixed bag in VPS schools, and the low value added in Grade 5, I'd say it's a decent showing, but hardly a superior outlier.

Here are the upper grades:

There's no denying this is a better showing, although, again, we're talking less than 20 points on a  test with a 200-point scale. The situation gets muddy, however, when we look at math:

VCS adds no value in Grade 3 math, does well in Grade 4, but then plummets in Grade 5. When you see inconsistent results like this, it's reasonable to assume that the school's instructional practices aren't the major factor: more likely, peer effects, self-selection, and unobserved student differences are driving the results.

That's even more evident in the upper grades:

Not a great showing in Grade 6, and little advantage in Grade 7 and Grade 8. But wait -- what about Algebra 1? Doesn't VCS offer it to their students? According to the data files, no scores were reported  for VCS in Algebra 1 -- which is odd, because there were scores reported for Grade 8 Math, which is the test students take if they aren't taking algebra. So data suppression isn't likely the issue (although I can't say for sure).

Notice how well the VPS middle schools do in Algebra 1? You might think that's a function of good instruction. I'm not saying VPS doesn't do a good job, but there's really another explanation: kids who take algebra in middle school instead of high school are much more likely to do well because they wouldn't be enrolled if the district didn't think they were talented in math. But the data doesn't sort students according to their "talent," or "ambition," or whatever.

Which, again, is a critical point to understand about charter school "gains": Self-selection sorts students on characteristics we can't observe, meaning the charter students, on average, are not the same as the public district students. So when you see inconsistent gains, like here, ask yourself: is this an indication of school success, or of student success?

My takeaway is that VCS, like many charters, is a doing a decent job -- but they are hardly far superior to their hosting public school district. Which brings us back to the relevant policy question:

Senator Sweeney says the Vineland Public Schools should have been making plans for years in anticipation of a funding cut. OK... but VPS has no say over charter school approval or expansion. 

If the VPS school board knew cuts were coming, would they have approved a charter school that spends much more on administration, free-rides on staff salaries, builds facilities that the district will never own, segregates students by special need, and gets, at best, inconsistent test score gains?

If Senator Sweeney is serious about getting school budgets under control, he would do well to step back and think a bit about whether NJ school districts and the state can continue to subsidize charters like Vineland Charter School while simultaneously demanding their host districts lose state aid. Maybe the NJDOE's rush to approve as many charters as they can before the end of the Christie era is worth a bit of the Senator's attention.

Middlesex County up next...

It may be shiny, but...

* Corrected. Sorry about that - peril of being your own editor...

1 comment:

StateAidGuy said...

FYI, if you want to look up tax data for any town in NJ this is the page to go to.


Not only can you see interesting things like tax rates, but you can also see what percentage of a town's valuation is residential, industrial, commercial, & agricultural.

(Alas, you can't see how much PILOTed property a town has, but that's a separate problem.)

Vineland's municipal tax rate is 0.814, which is above the state's 0.694 average.

Vineland is one of a small number of NJ towns whose county taxes are higher than its muni and school taxes, but this is mostly a Cumberland County thing since Cumberland County performs more services than most other counties do.

Vineland's school taxes are indeed quite low (0.552), but the all-in taxes (2.449) are slightly above the state's average (2.345). On the other hand, Vineland's all-in taxes are below the Cumberland County average (2.911).