With so much recent noise about the demographics of charter schools, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters to families and children most: access to high quality public schools that meet their needs.
Unfortunately, instead of a discussion about outcomes, innovations, and what is actually going on educationally in urban public schools, anti-charter school opponents seem intent on debating whether charter school children are “really, really poor and disadvantaged” or just “poor and disadvantaged.”
Charter school opponents like Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber (”New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, Part I”) claim that these recognized differences make charter populations “fundamentally different” demographically, and put their analytic energies towards claiming that the academic success of charter school students is a result of demographics rather than hard work in an effective school.
New Jersey has 87 public charter schools, which educate nearly 40,000, mostly urban, students. Those students, like their urban district peers, are overwhelmingly poor and minority. But, by and large, charter school students achieve superior results. Why is this?
The explanation isn’t found by statistically parsing minor differences in degrees of poverty -- it is found in the fundamental differences in the effectiveness of instructional practices, the supportive environment, and the culture of accountability found in New Jersey’s high-performing charter schools.
Charter schools have done more to provide high-quality education to disadvantaged students, and to provide equitable access, than any other educational reform effort in New Jersey.
The data, as presented by Weber and Rubin, obscures the larger picture of public-education equity and, as such, represents statistical gibberish. It ignores the centrality of effective education in addressing all the other ills that plague our urban centers. It also fails to address the significant positive impacts of charters in communities where district schools have failed multiple generations of students. And it does not offer any rationale for why public education in many of our urban areas largely failed parents during the 40 years before charters even became an option.
Even more significantly, comparisons between charter and “district” schools, whether in terms of demographics or performance, present an inherently false dichotomy. In reality, there are at least six different types of public school options available in New Jersey, each with a different enrollment process and a different level of accessibility that ultimately impacts its demographics:
Open enrollment district schools
Selective district magnet schools
Selective county vocational technical schools and career academies
Choice school districts
Renaissance (Urban Hope Act) schools
A quick comparison of enrollment practices in these different types of public schools offers a more authentic view of where public school options stand today and how they are made accessible.
The most inclusive public schools in the state are also the most responsible for segregating students by income level: open enrollment district schools. These schools are compelled to accept every student who resides in their catchment area. It doesn’t matter what the student’s abilities or needs may be, and it doesn’t matter whether the school is nearly empty, full, or grossly overcrowded.
This mandate has made it possible for wealthy families to select an excellent public school by moving into a desirable neighborhood -- and it has relegated poor families to accept assigned district schools, regardless of their quality or suitability. The open enrollment district school is generally what people think about when they talk about “district schools,” but these schools have become less the norm in urban New Jersey as districts implement intra-district choice and magnet schools.
The most exclusive public schools in New Jersey are selective district and county magnet schools. These schools may establish stringent academic requirements for students who wish to attend. Examples of these schools include Bard Early College High School (Newark), Dr. Ronald McNair High School (Jersey City), Academy of Allied Health and Science (Neptune), and Bergen County Academies (Hacksensack). These public schools rank among the best in the state, but they are accessible only to students who perform at the highest level.
What would one expect from these schools demographically? Special-education students and English Language Learners are virtually unheard of. The free and reduced-price lunch students are less represented than in the open enrollment or charter schools.
What is the effect of this unabashed “creaming” on the concentration of poorer, needier students -- not to mention lower-performing students -- in their sending districts? Weber and Rubin’s exclusive focus on charters in this regard again reveals the anti-charter bias of their analysis.
I’m not suggesting selective public schools are bad -- ideally, all students would find the right school to challenge and inspire them, and specialized programs help meet this need.
But comparisons between charters and “districts” that treat districts as if they were demographically consistent disregards the essential parental perspective: a combination of highly inclusive district schools that perform badly and highly selective district schools that perform well is far less equitable than a lineup of broadly accessible charter schools that offer better performance across the board.
For many poor, urban students who can’t place into a selective magnet school (and can’t afford private schools), charters are the only high-performing schools to which they have access. For special-education and ELL students, who are often excluded from district and county magnet programs, charters are the only high performing schools where they must be accepted sight unseen.
Charter schools are the first educational reform in the past 50 years to substantially increase the number of seats in high-performing public schools that are actually available to New Jersey’s poorest students, regardless of their academic ability. There are tens of thousands of disadvantaged students for whom charters represent a lifeline to a better future.
Nationally, there are plenty of worthy ideas about how to improve charters, but what we mostly need from them here in New Jersey is more of the same: more high performance, more equity, more diversity, and more capacity.
Compared to turning around failing districts or busing students to achieve demographic quotas, charters remain the most sensible way to provide New Jersey’s most disadvantaged students with the best opportunity for a great education.