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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Correcting the Facts About NJ Charter Schools and My Research

I'm trying to keep this short because there are many other things that deserve my attention. But I feel compelled to respond to mischaracterizations of my work when they are directly affecting public policy, especially in my home state.

Last month, Newark Public Schools superintendent Roger León called for the NJ Education Commissioner, Lamont Repollet, to deny the renewals of four charter schools in the Newark city limits.

I'm going to hold off expressing any opinions about these specific renewals, or León's arguments about their impacts on the finances of NPS. Suffice to say that there is plenty of empirical evidence that small school districts -- which are, for all intents and purposes, what NJ charter schools are -- are not as efficient as larger ones. There is reason to believe, therefore, that small charter schools with redundant systems of administration can produce fiscal pressures on hosting public school districts, which have the obligation to fund charters. My own work in New Jersey shows how this pressure manifests, although the issue is complex. Again, we'll save a discussion of all this for later.

For now: León's letters to the commissioner refer to several pieces of research on charter schools, including a brief I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin: New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View - 2018 Update, Part I (2018). Here's how León characterized our work:
Research conducted at the Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Policy shows that the proportion of special needs students has historically been far lower in charter schools than in district public schools. According to the Bloustein School's report, New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, the percentage of students with special needs in Newark's District schools is approximately 40% higher than in Newark's charter schools, and the percentage of Newark students with high-cost disabilities is approximately 17% higher in District schools than in the District's charter schools. Even more startling, according to the same report, the percentage of students identified as English language learners is approximately 11 times greater in Newark's District schools than in the District's charter schools.
With all due respect to Superintendent León, let me correct him: the percentage of classified students with high-cost disabilities is 17 percentage points higher than that percentage in the charters.

Why does this matter? Federal law delineates 12 classifications of learning disability types. Of these, empirical research commissioned by the State of New Jersey shows that at least two of these types -- Specific Learning Disability (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairment (SPL) -- are "low-cost."* 

Imagine two school districts, each enrolling the same overall proportion of special education students. But one of the district's population of these students has higher-cost needs; in other words, they have the same percentage of classified students, but more of those students are designated as "autism" or "emotional disturbance" or "traumatic brain injury" than the second district. That district is obviously going to have more fiscal pressure to educate its students, because the cost of educating their students is greater.

As Julia and I showed in our report, this is exactly what's happening in Newark (and other NJ school districts).

Obviously, this is going to be a concern for NPS, which has to bear the costs of educating these children with higher-cost needs. It's an obvious point and it should be no surprise that Superintendent León is making it. So what's the problem? 

Well, a couple of pro-charter advocacy groups have stepped in to object to León's letters to the commissioner. And one of their objections, from the New Jersey Children's Foundation, calls into question our report.
Second, the report by anti-charter activist Julia Sass-Rubin, has already been discredited as under-counting high-need special education students at charter schools due to data suppression rules, and is not a disinterested academic paper, but rather was funded by anti-charter foundations.
That's it; that's everything in the letter attempting to debunk our work. The sole objection -- aside from our funding, which has nothing to do with our analysis itself -- is that we are "under-countin​g​ high-need special education students at charter schools​ due to data suppression rules."

Is it true?

I invite everyone to go to the 2016 Special Education Data page at the NJDOE website. You will, indeed, find a notification that data cells of 10 or less are suppressed. What you won't find is any specific notice of how this rule is applied -- and that's important.

Because if you drop down and click the "By Disability" link under the "Ages 6-21" column, you will get a spreadsheet that clearly does not suppress any cells, no matter how small the number is in those cells.** This is the dataset Julia and I used for our paper. I see no reason to doubt the veracity of these data: they are figures published by the NJDOE, available to all. What NJCF is asserting in their letter is not true -- we did not under-count high-need special education students at charter schools​.

Let's step back a minute from this minutia and instead think carefully about the issue. NJCF is saying that Julia and I are incorrect in stating that NPS's special education population has more students with high-cost needs than the special education population enrolled in the charter schools. The logical conclusion, then, is that the Newark charters*** are enrolling just as many kids with high-cost needs as NPS.

Does that make any sense to you?

NPS has a school specifically set up to serve deaf children, the Bruce Street School. No Newark charter school has anything even close. The Camden Street School has a series of programs for  Newark students with high-cost special needs that allow them to be integrated as much as possible with general education students, while still maintaining class sizes of 5 to 6 for instruction delivery that can't be done in a mainstream setting. There's no way small charter schools that were designed to enroll a mostly general education population could deliver the same services.

This is a rational policy choice on behalf of NPS: when a large district like Newark has children who have special needs that can't be met within a mainstreaming situation, bringing them all together from across the district makes sense. School districts do this all the time. But it's impractical to think a relatively small charter school can provide the same sort of instruction geared toward special education students with profound learning disabilities.

Let me be clear: that's not a knock on the charters. Of course we don't expect charter schools to serve students with the higher-cost learning disabilities. Of course we wouldn't expect the parents of the students with those disabilities to enroll them in schools that can't serve their needs. Why would anyone dispute this? Why is NJCF wasting its time arguing this very obvious point?

The question in NJ charter school policy is not whether charter schools will ever enroll the same proportion of Limited English Proficient or special needs students as hosting public school districts -- of course they won't. The question is whether the state -- which has the sole authority to grant or deny charter school applications or renewals -- is imposing the fiscal burdens of charters on districts without fully accounting for those burdens.

When the state calculates the payment a district like Newark must make to a charter school, it makes that calculation based on a student's special education status. But the only type of disability that changes a payment amount is speech/language impairment. Which means the state demands a district pay the same amount for a charter student who has a mild reading disability (which may not even require an intervention in a smaller general education classroom) as they do for a student who has a traumatic brain injury.

So if the charter is enrolling more students with lower-cost needs, there is an additional fiscal burden on the district. How much? No one knows... because the state came up with its charter funding formula on the basis of no empirical evidence. The 90 percent calculation in the charter funding formula is based on nothing, so far as I've been able to tell. So are the weights in the charter funding formula: instead, they assume the weights used in the state's district funding formula, SFRA, are relevant to charters. But we don't know if that's true (frankly, we don't even know if the SFRA formula is valid in this day and age of higher standards, more school security, more technology, etc.).

It's not "anti-charter" to point this stuff out. And you can agree or disagree with Superintendent León, or the charter advocates, or the charter skeptics, or whomever. But we are very much in need of a real conversation about charter school policy in this state, and that conversation has to be supported by the facts, and by logical, rational analysis.

I'm human, and I've made plenty of mistakes. If I get something wrong, I'll correct it. But the NJCF critique of my work with Julia is not accurate, nor is it logical. I'll be happy to accept their apology.

ADDING: There are a lot of other questionable assertions made in the NJCF letter, and the NJ Charter Schools Association letter, that I've discussed before.

ADDING MORE: Just remembered: the 2014 disability data are also not suppressed. So it's not like 2016 was unprecedented.

* I've recently come to the conclusion that Other Health Impairment (OHI) should be included in the bin of "lower-cost" disabilities. There's further evidence that educating an OHI student has costs that are closer to SLD and SPL students than the other classifications. OHI tends to include students who have asthma or ADHD, which is often treated at no cost to the district. I'm continuing to study the issue and, in formal reports, will back up any changes in my methods with an explanation.

** As of the writing of the post, Sunday, January 12, 10:00 AM. And let me add this:

I take the privacy rights of students, especially special needs students, very seriously, as both a researcher and an educator. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that suppressing these data is necessary to protect those rights. If there has ever been a case of a student's or family's privacy rights being impacted by the release of these data, I have yet to hear it.

If the NJDOE insists on suppressing these data, however, there should be some mechanism where researchers can obtain them for limited use. Other education datasets are available to researchers under these terms -- these data should be available as well.

*** By the way: what does the aggregate charter school special education rate -- or, for that matter, the aggregate test outcomes, LEP rate, etc. -- have to do with the specific applications for renewal of the four charters in question? Why defend the renewals of these specific charters with aggregated data for the entire Newark charter sector?


Julie Borst said...

Agreed about the suppression of special ed data. I'm really curious if anyone has been "outed" by district level data.

The ony place where I see an issue is if a district is attempting to have "anonymous" input from parents/students and the characteristics of the student's disability and/or services make them easily identifiable. I have run into that scenario myself, but not a general "outing" in district data.

Duke said...

Hmmm... I don't see how publishing the data changes that scenario; the district knows all the disabilities classifications anyway. Again, one way to solve this is to have limited use for bona fide researchers. There are provisions in NJ administrative code about using individual student data on HIB for this purpose.