Searching for Consensus in N.J.’s Charter Schools Wars

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For those of you who follow N.J.’s charter school wars within the circumscribed twitter universe, the last few days have been pretty hot. The backstory here is that Mark Weber (a popular anti-reform blogger known as Jersey Jazzman who studies with Bruce Baker at Rutgers) and Julia Sass Rubin (professor at Rutgers and founder of the anti-charter organization called Save Our Schools-NJ) published a report on charter school demographics, paid for by an anti-charter foundation, also based at Rutgers.  The study aimed to prove that charter schools “cream off” cohorts of kids who are less impoverished, less disabled, and more fluent in English than those enrolled in traditional district schools.

The conclusions imbedded in the report have been disputed by charter school leaders.  Carlos Perez, head of the N.J. Charter School Association, for example, dismissed the report as “anti-charter propaganda.” But the primary igniter of this week’s heat wave was not the report itself  but Ms. Rubin’s remark, printed in the Star-Ledger, that charter schools draw a less poor and more informed group of parents because  “poor families are less able to focus on the best place to educate their children.” Here’s her quote:

“People in abject poverty don’t have the bandwidth to even evaluate charter schools,” she said. “It’s just not going to be high on their list.”

This remark unleashed a series of rebuttals from parents (see here, here, here) who objected to Rubin’s reductive description of their “bandwidth” within the realm of parenting and school choice.

Now, anyone who’s regularly interviewed by reporters can remember a time when something he or she said was mis-transcribed or misinterpreted. Unfortunately,  Ms. Rubin didn’t apologize for what could have been an offhand remark but instead  lashed out and doubled down. Through a series of tweets (see bottom of post for examples) she accused pro-charter advocates, particularly Barbara Martinez of Uncommon Schools in Newark, of ghost-writing the editorials for the parents, or at least supplying them with talking points. People in abject poverty, she implied, not only lack the bandwidth  to properly evaluate school choices but also to express themselves independently.

It’s time to move on.

Let’s all take a deep breath and remember that we share common ground. All of us–  parents, teachers, charter school and traditional school administrators, reform advocates, union leaders – are in this for the kids. We want to ensure that all kids, regardless of zip code or parental wealth, have access to great public schools.  Some of us care about whether those schools are labeled as traditional schools. Some of us don’t. But our expanse of consensus is broader than the small territory of political and semantic dispute.

Let’s try this.

We agree that:

  • Impoverished parents face more challenges than wealthy parents because their options are limited by zip code-based enrollment policies, the money to enroll their children in private or parochial schools, resources to supplement traditional district options, and, often, access to some of the state’s best magnet schools.  The restrictions on “bandwidth” are external, not internal, and poor parents are as capable as wealthier parents of  evaluating school options. (Perhaps this is what Ms. Rubin meant to say.)
  • New Jersey’s public school fabric interweaves traditional and district schools, and that pattern is here to stay.  We need to work collaboratively, not adversarially.  This is a partnership, not a zero sum game.
  • Charter school demographics should reflect district demographics. The due diligence involved in this assurance, however, is more complex than culling numbers from the state data base on the percentage of kids who are classified as eligible for special education services or a school’s attrition rates.  (Example: some children are over-classified by traditional schools and some parents of kids with disabilities prefer out-of-district private or county placements.)  Data is malleable. 

People who care about public education expand their bandwidth by combining forces. Can we find a way to work together?

Examples from Twitter:

Julia Sass Rubin @[email protected] Are you PR professional behind attack letter campaign? Sounds like you, including swipes at Princeton @jerseyjazzman

Julia Sass Rubin @BCTEAM Did same person write all 4 letters or just gave talking points to use? Do you know which PR firm they used? @RHTEAM @jerseyjazzman

@BMartinez42@JuliaSassRubin @UncommonSchools Impossible, never met most ppl u claim I wrote for. Possible: they are telling u that u offended them.

Julia Sass Rubin @[email protected] Why won’t you answer question? DID YOU WRITE THE TALKING POINTS FOR THE 4 ATTACK LETTERS TO THE EDITOR? Yes or no?

Barbara Martinez @[email protected] @UncommonSchools Wow. You really do have a hard time believing Camden/Newark parents can speak for themselves huh?

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  • Julia, November 13, 2014 @ 3:19 am Reply

    Ms. Waters,

    Your obsession with me would be flattering if it wasn't so weird.

    Since you're obviously trolling my Twitter account, you must know that Ms. Martiner never denied writing the talking points for the two remarkably similar editorials/letters to the editor.

    Since you are obsessing with me, I'm guessing you also know that I had another Twitter exchange with the charter school association, which has unfortunately been in a defensive crouch since the release of our report.

    Below is what I tweeted:

    @NJCSA “One reason why families living in abject poverty, including those that are homeless, are underrepresented in charter schools may be

    @NJCSA because they are too busy trying to survive to have the time and resources to evaluate charter vs district educational options and

    to keep track of various charter lottery deadlines.” That's what I said to reporter. @njcsa Which part do you disagree with?

    @NJCSA We have no data on who applies to charters vs who is admitted. That's another reason we need a transparent centralized lottery

    @NJCSA If that explanation is wrong and Free Lunch families are applying at same or higher rates, then charter schools are denying admission

    @NJCSA I have said the same thing on panels with @PerezAbelCarlos. He never expressed outrage before. It's stating the obvious. Those trying

    @NJCSA @PerezAbelCarlos to survive, have less bandwidth for all else. Do you disagree? If so, why so many fewer Free lunch in charters?

    @NJCSA @PerezAbelCarlos Attacking me was convenient way not to deal with segregation data. But you have to deal with it. It's irrefutable.

    @NJCSA @PerezAbelCarlos The data is reported by charter schools to the NJDOE. It's simple math. So what are you proposing be done to fix it?

    I pose the same question to you, Ms. Waters.

    The data is irrefutable. So what are you proposing be done to fix the segregation?

  • kallikak, November 13, 2014 @ 2:01 pm Reply

    Cat got your tongue, Laura?

  • concernedcitizen, November 14, 2014 @ 9:42 pm Reply

    Ms. Rubin – why are we talking about ancillary (or irrelevant) issues? Laura Waters is not the issue.

    You talk about facts. Well, the FACTS (as indicated by the Stanford/CREDO study) are, for example, that Newark charter students learn almost TWICE AS MUCH as their district counterparts in a year. Pretty remarkable fact.

    Are you suggesting that if the student bodies at the charters were identical in every respect to those of the district schools that the charter students' massive learning advantage would disappear?

    Rather than attacking the messengers or trying to tear down charters, why wouldn't you acknowledge their indisputable success at educating minority kids in Newark? Why wouldn't you try to learn why they are so successful? Why not try to spread the success rather than find ways to undermine it?

    As an educator, one might think you would be inclined to propagate educational success. But one would apparently be wrong.

  • Julia, November 15, 2014 @ 4:57 pm Reply

    Concerned Citizen,

    Neither charter not district schools have an inherent advantage in educating children. Charters are simply privately managed and publicly regulated and funded schools. Organizational form does not drive performance and broad generalization about charters and local public schools are useless for anything except political point-making.

    Some Newark charter schools have higher test scores than the district and some have lower test scores. And as Professor Bruce Baker recently highlighted, the ones with higher test scores are not the ones you might expect:

    Test scores are also a very poor measure of learning. They mostly measure family income and parental educational attainment.

    We should absolutely look at why some schools seem to outperform others, but not through the lens of charters or district schools being better than the other. That is ideology vs. research.

    The research report that Mark Weber and I released last week, which Ms. Waters addressed in her blog, is about segregation. That is why I focused on responding to her about that issue.

    We will be releasing two additional reports, with the last one focused on test score differentials between charter and district schools.

    Yes, student demographics are the most critical factor in educational outcomes.

    Yes, if charter schools educate an easier population of students, that will impact their test scores, and Newark is a good example of that.

    Finally, the CREDO study is problematic for many reasons that have been pointed out by Bruce Baker, myself and others.

    I am happy to provide you with those citations.

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