Today’s NJ Spotlight profiles the NJ DOE’s annual list of the state’s highest-performing “Reward” schools. According to our waiver for No Child Left Behind, every year the DOE divides public schools into four categories: “Priority,” “Focus,” “Reward,” and unidentified (i.e., passing but undistinguished). Priority schools are the bottom 5%. Focus schools are the next lowest cohort. Reward schools are the best schools in the state.
The number of Reward Schools listed this year is half of last year’s 112 schools, largely due to the fact that schools now required to meet specific achievement targets.
Just nine schools were highlighted as “high growth” for reaching the progress targets, with the remaining 48 on the list as “high performing” based on overall achievement.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the highest performers were either in higher-income communities or magnet schools that select their students through an application process. Fourteen of the total were county magnet schools run out of their vocational districts.
Magnet schools, which represent almost a third of NJ’s “Reward” schools, are run by individual counties and offer a form of school choice to kids who don’t want to attend their local district schools. Unlike charter schools, magnets can screen students for academic aptitude and disabilities, and any kid in the county can apply. Typically, county taxes pay half the cost, with students’ home districts paying the other half. Vo-techs/magnets are staffed by union employees, so there’s none of that anti-charter lobbying that afflicts the school choice movement.
A full 10% of the list of “Rewards” schools is devoted to schools run by the Monmouth County Vocational School District, including High Technology High School, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, and Biotechnology High Schools. Bergen, Union, Morris, and Essex County all have vo-tech schools on this prestigious list.
Costs per pupil at these schools are above the state average. For example, the 2011 total cost per pupil at Bergen Academies, a highly competitive magnet school, was $34, 227. By way of comparison, the total cost per pupil the same year in Hackensack High School, the municipality where Bergen Academies is located, was $18,153. That’s probably the biggest discrepancy between “vo-tech” and traditional high school, but clearly a non-trivial number of tax dollars (collected through the state, county, and municipality) go to these enormously successful public magnets that offer school choice to kids, particularly those in affluent areas.
After much political contretemps, NJ has focused its expansion of school choice to poor neighborhoods areas where students have the fewest options. Should we also consider shifting at least a little bit of our magnet school investments to counties where kids are stuck in rotten schools?
Example: there are two school run by Camden County Vo-Tech. Neither are “magnets” (like those in Bergen or Monmouth or Morris) and neither are on anyone’s list of great schools; they’re true vo-tech schools, offering certification in auto mechanics, carpentry, electric, horticulture, etc. Total cost per pupil is $19,102, slightly less than we spend at Camden High School. Students at the higher-achieving Camden vo-tech, located in Pennsauken, have average SAT scores of 410 in math and 380 in verbal. 9.8% of the kids there take one of the 5 AP courses available. The graduation rate is 60%. The cost per pupil is $19,102.
At Bergen Academies in Hackensack, which spends over $34K per pupil, average SAT scores are 720 in math and 680 in verbal. 87.3% of the kids take one or more of the 23 available AP courses. The graduation rate is 99%.
Of course, this contrast is emblematic of the state: kids in affluent districts get access to far more academic rigor and abundance, and this disparity is reflected in our county-run magnet schools.
This attention to need is the reasoning behind the DOE’s strategy to focus expansion of charter schools in poor urban areas; kids in more wealthy neighborhoods already have access to good schools. What if we applied that reasoning to magnets and focused energy and resources on our more poorly-served counties? Can we really justify spending $34K a year on wealthy kids (more than the tuition at many private schools) without a comparable option in Camden?