Do Charter Schools Sacrifice Non-Charter Kids?

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Dr. Bruce Baker has a good blog post up called “NJ Charter School Data Round-Up” in which he compares demographics between NJ charter schools and traditional schools in high-poverty urban areas and considers the policy implications. He discusses problems with scalability, and that charters in cities like Newark “continue to serve student populations that differ dramatically from populations of surrounding schools” when one examines eligibility for free/reduced lunch, special education enrollment, and students still learning English.

The comments to his post are worth pondering.

One note on the data: it was pointed out to me by a charter school leader in one of our successful charters that charter schools are far more likely to accurately report eligibility for free and reduced lunch, a metric that people use to gauge a student’s economic background and one that everyone agrees lacks oversight. Need an example of traditional districts’ abuse of free/reduced lunch data? Look at Elizabeth Public Schools, here and here.

Anyway, here’s where Dr. Baker comes out on the value of high-performing charters in NJ’s poorest cities:

We should recognize, for example, that schools like Robert Treat or North Star Academy may be showing high outcomes but are doing so largely as a function of serving very different populations than others around them. Further, there may be nothing wrong with that if they are truly doing well by the kids they serve. [Emphasis his own.] That may just be their appropriate niche. We just can’t pretend that this model of success can be spread city wide or statewide. And, it may be inappropriate to encourage these schools to serve more representative populations. Perhaps they should stick with what they are good at. As a result, it may be more reasonable for charters like North Star or Robert Treat to establish similar niche schools in other New Jersey cities rather than pretending they can expand dramatically in the same cities and still maintain their current level of achievements.

That conclusion — that charter schools in poor failing districts serve an important purpose — is one that’s acquiring consensus, and currently being advocated in the NJ State Legislature. See today’s NJ Spotlight for more on this, which also reviews a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That report, released yesterday, evaluates states’ charter school laws and ranks NJ 31st out of 42nd overall. According to Spotlight, a proposed charter school law that would require a community vote before approval (a bill fiercely backed by the anti-suburban-charter group Save Our Schools) is limping towards a compromise bill that would limit that community vote to towns with high-performing traditional schools. In other words, Princeton and Cherry Hill residents get a say but Trenton and Camden residents don’t.

Back to the comments on Dr. Baker’s post. The respondents worry that the presence of high-performing charter schools, like Robert Treat and North Star (both in Newark) leads to “having those kids benefit at the expense of others.” Another commenter worries about “how the loss of highly motivated parents/students has effected [sic] the traditional public schools…It seems to me that we have set up the traditional public schools for eventual failure!” Finally, Dr. Ed Fuller comments,

My major concern–and echoed by some researcher friends that are very pro-charter–is that the systematic segmentation of urban students into new charters, magnets, early college schools, etc has resulted in a further concentration of lower-performing students in particular schools that do NOT receive any additional money, support, resources, etc and are subject to the devastating effects of high educator turnover, school closure/.reconstitution/re-opening thru federal/state turnaround efforts. In essence, the reform of school choice (charters, magnets, early college, STEM Academies) has enacted a pernicious system of Last Children Left Behind (LCLB). No one seems to really care about such kids and their parents are either not knowledgeable enough or simply don;t have the time to advocate for their schools.

The argument they’re making against charter schools in poor urban areas (which Dr. Baker is not making) is that the kids who don’t go to charters are left in increasingly bereft circumstances.

That’s no doubt true. Parents – particularly those with knowledge and time – make educational choices for their children. For wealthy parents that might mean enrollment in private school. For religious parents with some disposable income that might mean enrollment in parochial ones. For those parents lucky enough to live in a county with a great public magnet school, that might mean filling out an application to Bergen Academies. Parents in Newark most likely don’t fall into any of those categories. Their only choice is enrollment in a chronically failing traditional school or a charter school.

These respondents argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The absence of the students enrolled in Robert Treat or North Star leads to a higher concentration of lower-performing students in Newark Public Schools, or an increase in kids without proactive parents (which may be the same thing). So the health of the traditional district is threatened by choices that informed parents make for their kids and that’s too high a price.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. Fuller would send his kid to Newark’s George Washington Carver School, where 19% of 8th-graders passed the state assessment test in math and 34% passed the state assessment in language arts. In comparison, at Robert Treat Academy, the charter school highlighted by Dr. Baker, 96% of 8th-graders passed the state assessment in math and 92% passed language arts.

Then again, Dr. Fuller doesn’t live in Newark.

It’s fine to worry about the decline of Newark’s traditional public schools. What’s not so fine is to suggest that we should sacrifice the education of children with a way out in the hopes of stemming that decline. Those are kids there, not data points.

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