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Opinion: Was It Something We Said About Garden State's Charter Schools?

Straightforward analysis of the data concerning charter schools and the children they serve draws the ire of supporters

mark weber (use)
Mark Weber

I always knew charter schools were controversial. But I never thought a straightforward look at the data on charters would evoke such a passionate reaction from their supporters.

Last month, I released a new report on New Jersey’s charter-school sector along with my coauthor, Julia Sass Rubin. Julia is an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers; she’s also one of the founders of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots pro-public-education advocacy organization.

We based our analysis on publicly available data that charter and district schools report to the New Jersey Department of Education. We used standard statistical tools, and clearly detailed our methodologies.

Certainly, data can be interpreted in different ways; however, our comparisons of charters to their host-district schools are the simplest and most illuminating way to determine if and how student populations differ.

The data is quite clear: as a sector, charter schools do not educate the same students as their host districts. On average, charters educate proportionately fewer students in economic disadvantage (as measured by eligibility for the federal free lunch program) than do the district schools in their communities.

Charters also educate fewer students with special education needs; further, the students with those needs that charters do educate tend to have less costly disabilities. In addition, the sector enrolls very few students who are English language learners.

I don’t know why anyone would find these facts to be at all controversial; after all, some of New Jersey’s strongest supporters of charter schools have already acknowledged that their student populations are not the same as their host districts.

Just last week, Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson admitted her city’s charter schools were serving demographically different students than her district schools:

“I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools,” said Anderson.

If the architect of the One Newark plan -- a plan that makes it easier for Newark’s students to enroll in charters -- admits that charter schools enroll different types of students, why would anyone else claim otherwise?

And yet, charter school advocates across the state have strongly objected to our presentation of the facts:

  • Carlos Perez, head of the NJ Charter Schools Association, makes the case that charters "cannot implement selective enrollment policies." That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that demographically different students are applying to and remaining enrolled in charters.

  • Janellen Duffy, executive director of the pro-charter group JerseyCAN, questions our funding and our objectivity. But our funder is named right on the cover of the report, and Duffy has nothing to say about the actual data we present.

  • Officials from individual charter schools have objected to our use of averages, claiming that their populations differ from other charters’ student bodies.

Certainly, individual charter schools can vary significantly in their populations. That’s why we included a web supplement with our report, so readers can see how specific charters compare to neighboring district schools as well as other charters.

But the sector, as a whole, is clearly not serving the same types of students as the district schools. Again, no one should be surprised by this: even the CREDO report on New Jersey’s charter schools, often touted by charter advocates, comes to the same conclusion.

So why the fuss? I can only guess, but I think our report is highlighting a problem with charter school expansion as a strategy for broader reform of urban education -- a problem even the most ardent charter supporters have acknowledged.

In 2011, NJ Spotlight sponsored a roundtable on charter schools. Former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, one of the nation’s foremost champions of charters, acknowledged their limitations:

“Nobody thinks charter schools are THE solution, or that we should ignore throwing all of our effort into doing what we can to reform and improve other public schools,” said Cerf.

In other words: charter schools were never designed to fully supplant public district schools. Charter school supporters believe, instead, that charters should be part of a “portfolio” of school choices that include district schools. Many regularly express their desire to work with hosting school districts, as in Newark and Camden, to share best practices and develop universal enrollment systems.

Those are laudable goals, but they don’t address the fundamental issue with school “choice”: families are likely to “choose” to send their children to schools that enroll other children like their own.

Doesn’t it stand to reason, after all, that a charter school that is the best “fit” for a certain student would attract other, similar students who also feel the school “fits” them? Wouldn’t we, therefore, expect families to send their children to schools that serve other families that are similar to their own?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, then, that the charter student population is fundamentally different from the district student population. “Choice” in schooling will likely lead to what we found in our report: the concentration of economically disadvantaged, special education, and Limited English Proficient students within district schools.

But there’s another issue Cerf touched on that goes to the heart of the debate on school reform: has the intense focus on charter schools kept us from seriously discussing what needs to be done to reform our urban districts?

I see three core challenges in New Jersey’s urban schools: segregation, inadequate school funding, and child poverty. None of these challenges will be solved by the expansion of charter schools.

As a report from Rutgers-Newark made clear last year, New Jersey’s schools are intensely segregated. The issue has far more to do with between-district differences than within-district differences. School segregation is toxic and a blight on New Jersey’s otherwise outstanding public education system.

For years, the state’s own school-aid formula, SFRA, has not been fully funded. Districts across New Jersey are not getting the fiscal resources the state itself says are necessary for all children to receive an adequate education. And there’s a real question as to whether SFRA , even if it were fully funded, provides enough funds for urban schools.

Childhood poverty remains a chronic reality in our cities. 44 percent of Newark’s children live in poverty; this in one of the wealthiest states in the most powerful nation on Earth.

Charter schools may have their place, but they do nothing to address these underlying issues. Perhaps our report is a turning point in the debate on charters: while there may be a place for these schools in our state, we must acknowledge they do not and likely will never serve the majority of our state’s neediest children.

Charter school expansion must not, therefore, become the excuse we use to ignore the pressing needs of our state’s urban students.

Mark Weber is a public school music teacher in Warren Township; a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy; an NJEA member; and a New Jersey public school parent. He blogs at Jersey Jazzman His opinions are his own and are not necessarily those of his employers, Rutgers, the NJEA, or NJ Spotlight.

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