I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chris Christie Bashes Teachers, But Now No One Cares

Chris Christie, like all bullies, is a pathetic figure.

Christie has approval ratings so low -- 19 percent! -- they are even worse than Donald Trump's. The current leading Republican candidate for governor, Kim Guadagno, has completely disavowed Christie, going so far as to openly mock him -- and she's his lieutenant governor. He was fired from his job of leading Trump's transition team, reportedly because he wasn't doing any work. He then couldn't get a position within his own party at the national level, going so far as to blame his wife for being left out of the biggest power grab the Republicans have had in decades. 

So what does Chris Christie do when his own failings as a politician, and as a human being, catch up with him? What he always does -- beat up teachers:
Denzel Davis, a sophomore at Trenton High’s STEM school who is ranked first in his class, asked Gov. Chris Christie if he has a plan to improve education. 
The response the student received Thursday afternoon during the governor’s visit to the 9th Grade Academy in Trenton was spent mostly on bashing teacher unions. 
“I often say that we want a system that plays to the potential of our children, not to the comfort of our adults,” Christie said. “All too often this system is built for the comfort of adults: how much money they want to make, what kind of benefits they want, how much they want to work or don’t work.” [emphasis mine]
Again, this insulting nonsense is from a guy who was fired from Trump's transition team for not showing up to work:
However, in addition to the three Trump campaign sources who spoke to Yahoo News, two junior staffers also described specific instances of alleged mismanagement by Christie that got the transition off to a slow start. The two staffers said Christie did alarmingly little work on the transition and was largely absent from the campaign during the weeks leading up to the election, when Trump was widely expected to lose. According to one account, campaign staffers had been so accustomed to Christie’s absence that they were surprised to see him appear at campaign headquarters in Trump Tower — on Election Day.
“Where was Christie? Where was he? He certainly wasn’t planning the transition. We [didn’t] have nearly as much planning as we should have,” one of the staffers said.
On election night, the high-level source and the two staffers said many members of Trump’s team did not know where they were supposed to go the next morning. The high-level campaign source described this as one of many examples of a lack of transition planning from Christie.
“There wasn’t any coordination,” the source said. “There were just like a lot of things where people were like, ‘Oh yeah, we never really called about that or we never took care of this.’ There’s a lot of basic, basic things that now are getting discovered where it’s just like how did that never get done?” [emphasis mine]
Of course, Christie's people denied this. But how could it not be true, given Christie's work record over the past couple of years? In July of 2015, The Asbury Park Press reported Christie had been absent from the state 230 days since the beginning of 2014, when he started his run for president. The  Wall Street Journal reported Christie was gone 72 percent of the year in all of 2015. Not only was this bad for the governance of the state; it cost New Jersey taxpayers millions for Christie's security.

But Christie's poor attendance record hasn't only suffered from his campaign work; he's been a regular on sports radio* over the past year, hinting he'd like to get a permanent gig after he leaves the Statehouse (why any station in this market would hire a Cowboys fan is beyond me). And yet here he is knocking teachers yet again about "how much they want to work or don't work" -- in front of a group of students, no less.

For the hundredth time: Teachers do not get paid during the summer. Every year, teachers are forced to take an unpaid furlough in July and August. Chris Christie seems to think teachers should work during these months for no additional pay; if he thought otherwise, he'd have come up with a serious proposal to compensate teachers for their increased hours. He'd also have a serious proposal to upgrade every classroom in the state so teachers and students wouldn't be working in dangerously hot schools under conditions he would never, ever tolerate himself.

We know the teacher pay gap nationally is wide and growing. New Jersey pensions are among the stingiest in the nation, and New Jersey teachers' health benefits are not any great bargain compared to the private sector.

And yet Christie clings to his alternative facts -- because he has nothing else left in his bag of tricks:
Christie even provided the dozen Trenton students in attendance an example of why he favors a merit-based system.
“There might be a teacher in the school who’s been here for 15 years and maybe he’s not as good as he used to be, maybe he doesn’t care as much anymore, maybe he’s disinterested, maybe he’s bored,” the governor explained. “And there may be a teacher who’s been here two years, who’s knocking the ball out of the park, who everybody loves, and who is creating great results in her classroom.”
If there are cuts, Christie said the principal has “to get rid of the two-year teacher.”
“She can’t get rid of the 15-year teacher,” the governor said. “If we ran any other business that way, they’d be out of business.”
You'll note that Christie gives no actual example of this happening. Nor does he acknowledge that teacher layoffs may be occurring because, for his entire term, he has refused to fund schools at the level the state's own law says he should. Nor does he tell these students he wants to slash funding to their own school district, even though its local citizens make just as much effort, if not more, to contribute to the funding of its schools as do the wealthiest districts in the state.

Chris Christie pretends he understands business. But every business owner knows that if you want to attract the best people to join your workforce, you have to pay them competitive wages and give them good working conditions. And yet, for years, Trenton's students and teachers had to endure a disgusting, unsafe environment.

Trenton Central's infamous "Waterfall" staircase.

Now he swoops in to take credit for a new high school in Trenton, even though he ignored the problem for years. And even though the new school will almost certainly not be built if his insane "Fairness Formula" ever passes (it won't).

Thankfully, the teachers in Trenton aren't going to let him get away with this nonsense:
Trenton Education Association (TEA) President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur questioned why the governor did not bring up his “Fairness Formula” proposal to the students, which would significantly cripple urban education.
What he should have done was gone inside and said, ‘My name is Chris Christie and I’m a racist because I do not want dollars from the affluent areas to come to help you poor children,’” the union boss said. “He should have said, ‘I’m going to shortchange you. I’m going to have this photo op with you now so I can put it in the paper and I can boost my 17 percent popularity rating to maybe 25 percent.’” In June, Christie rolled out his plan to equally spend $6,599 on each student to lower property taxes in suburban areas. During the announcement, the governor repeatedly targeted the capital city’s “failing” school district as to why a formula change is needed. 
Christie intends to take his fight to the state’s Supreme Court.
Good for Johnson-Lafleur; I, for one, am tired of tiptoeing around people like Christie, who act all aggrieved if anyone dares to call them out on their crap. Christie's own actions betray his empty words about how much he cares for New Jersey's students. And his open contempt for my profession needs to be called out -- loudly:
Janice Williams, TEA’s grievance chair took issue with Christie criticizing teachers in front of the students. 
“Those same kids hold our teachers in high esteem,” she said. “How dare he denigrate the teaching profession in front of our brown and black children. How dare he put that perception out there in front of our students. And how dare the leadership of this district allow him to come in and denigrate their teaching staff. He’s already closing our doors.”
Williams said the district should have not invited the governor and told him, “We’re not going to allow you to come and pimp off of our children. They are not for sale.”
 Amen. Throughout his entire governorship, Chris Christie has used children as political props...

... while ignoring his responsibilities toward funding their education. And he has repeatedly blamed teachers for his own miserable failings. It took a while, but New Jersey has now seen through his mendacity and ignorance, and has thoroughly rejected him.

Just go away, Chris. We're done with you.

I'm not going away -- I have no where else to go!

*Link fixed. You really should listen to it: Christie gets testy during one of his many appearances on sports radio station WFAN when a caller notes he's been MIA for years:

Yes, he's on the radio until 10:00 AM -- when all of New Jersey's teachers are in their classrooms doing their jobs. And it's not like he's talking with his constituents about the issues facing the state; he's making fun of Ben McAdoo's hair and denigrating Eagles fans, many of whom live in South Jersey.

No wonder so many people in the state think he's doing a terrible job -- he doesn't even understand he's expected not to live out his childish little fantasies when serving as the governor. Thanks so much, NJ newspaper editorial boards, for giving us two terms with this guy...

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reformy In the Age of Trump

Here's one of the very, very few positive things to come out of the Trump presidency: the neoliberal education "reformers" finally have to take good, long look at the conservatives they've made common cause with.

For those who've clung tight to their moral superiority while defending the "reform" agenda, it's a cold slap in the face:
At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities. 
Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.
Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.
That's Justin C. Cohen, as reformy a centrist Democrat as you will find, telling us he will be  disappointed -- that's right, disappointed -- to no longer be able to work with the conservatives who are currently moving to install DeVos into the federal Education Department.

Because, up until now, it was all working out so well:
The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege. [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but I'm not buying this.

Because the notion that neoliberal "reform" advocates are in reality "technocrats" is completely contradicted by their record. Many of the "reformers" on both the right and the left are driven by ideology, not evidence.

Sure, there is some evidence some charter schools in some cities with special conditions (Boston and New Orleans are on that list) get marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would ignore the large and growing body of evidence that charter proliferation has incentivized bad behavior, abrogates the rights of students and families, segregates students by special education need and other factors, and has pernicious effects on public schools. Only an ideologue would blithely claim we should just "charter better" while problematic charter chains become the norm in the sector.

Sure, there is some evidence that test-based accountability led to marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would argue that mandating employment consequences for teachers with these tests is warranted by the evidence, or that our current testing regime hasn't had the effect of narrowing the curriculum, especially in schools serving many disadvantaged students.

Sure, there is a case to be made that we should do a better job training teachers. But only an ideologue would argue that expanding teacher prep programs to include the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education" or TFA, while imposing test-based accountability on university-based programs, was a serious solution.

But this is where the reformy center-left has been for a good long while now. They applauded while Arne Duncan expanded charters and threatened to punish schools whose parents opt their children out of testing, all while school funding stagnated. They cheered when John King, one of their own, took over at USED, even as they ignored the glaring problems with his own brand of educational "reform."

Duncan and King were better Secretaries of Education than DeVos will ever be -- but if we're setting the bar that low, we've got problems. Obama's SecEds were just as enamored with the "Poverty is no excuse!" arguments we now hear coming from the voucher pushers on the right. They were just as willing to sell the soft privatization of charters as DeVos is the hard privatization of vouchers. They were just as willing to gratuitously beat up on teachers unions and university-based teacher prep programs and suburban testing skeptics as the pseudo-intellectual pseudo-libertarians are now.

Once again: it is absurd to think that schools by themselves can overcome the ravages of poverty, segregation, racism, and inequality (among other woes). But no one I know of in the "reform"-skeptic camp has ever made the case that schools can't and shouldn't improve, or that teaching isn't important, or that bad teachers should be forced to get better and, if that's not possible, be removed from their jobs.

What we have said repeatedly, however -- and it's insane that we have to make these arguments as if they are at all controversial -- is that there is no way to equalize educational opportunity without:

1) Adequate and equitable funding for our schools.

2) Equalizing the lives of children outside of the K-12 system.

Funding matters. Segregation matters. Poverty matters. It's not "blaming" poverty to point this out; it's simply stating a non-alternative fact.

Which is why it's especially galling to watch Cohen and his ilk try to claim the mantle of "technocrat," because no true policy wonk would ever try to downplay the reality I'm describing -- let alone think the appropriate policy response is a few more charters, a few more tests, a few more VAMs & Danielson rubrics, a few more alt-route teacher prep programs, and a few more changes in curricular standards without the funds to enact them.

Look, I'm willing to have a good-faith argument about all this stuff with anyone. I do think there are folks out there making the case for charters and VAMs and all the rest of the "reform" agenda who make good points, even if I believe they draw the wrong conclusions.

But to characterize the "reformers," as a whole, as technocrats requires ignoring too much of the ideological babbling far too many of them have been spouting for far too long. Is anyone really going to try to convince us that Michelle Rhee and Peter Cunningham and Eva Moskowitz and Chris Cerf and Andy Smarick and Campbell Brown and Steve Perry and Rahm Emanuel and their fellow travelers are "technocrats"?


The sad truth is their rhetoric has been full of alternative facts for years. Some -- OK, many -- of their hearts may be in the right place, but their arguments have been facile and dismissive of pointed critique. In that sense, they have been no better than Betsy DeVos: they've made their cases on the same flawed premises and faulty logic.

Now someone who uses that same logic, but is willing to go several steps further, is coming into power, under the aegis of a racist, misogynist madman who agrees that public education is a "failure" -- and not that it has been failed.

You've got a choice, folks: do what Moskowitz appears to be doing and embrace all this, or disavow it and begin participating in a dialog about the future of education that eschews alternative facts and acknowledges that those of us who are skeptical of "reform" might have a point.

What's it going to be?

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Correctly Compare Charter and Public District Schools

Why do states collect education data if they won't use it properly?

I found myself asking this question once again this week as I read through a "Comment/Response Form" put together by the New Jersey Department of Education and released earlier this month. The form was in response to the state Board of Education, which is evaluating a series of changes in charter school regulations. Those changes, as I wrote in my last post, include loosening certification requirements for charter teachers. 

The rationale for this, according to the state's charter cheerleaders, is that charters "do more with less"; in other words, they get better results and spend less money than public district schools. Chris Christie has repeatedly made this case in his push for the disastrous "Fairness Formula," which would rob urban districts, serving many more disadvantaged children, of necessary state aid. Christie points to the alleged efficiency of charter schools to justify these cuts: if they can "do more with less," why can't the district schools?

In their form, the NJDOE included this argument in response to a question from a member of the state BOE (p. 8):
12. COMMENT: The commenter asked for the per pupil cost for charter school students based on a random sampling of 10 percent of charter schools and their districts of residence. The commenter also asked if the proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will affect the per pupil cost. (C) 
RESPONSE: The proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will not affect per pupil costs for students attending charter schools. 
The 2014-2015 Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending was used to determine per pupil costs in charter schools and in districts of residence. The table below provides information on per pupil spending for eight charter schools that were selected randomly. Charter schools are ordered by the size of the difference in per pupil spending between the main sending district and the charter school. Per pupil spending in 2014-2015 in the eight charter schools ranged from $12,845 (compared to $23,466 in the main sending district) to $18,541 (compared to $22,013 in the main sending district). (emphasis mine)
This response is immediately followed by this chart:

Wow, look at that -- see how lean and mean the charter schools are compared to their hosting public district schools? Chris Christie must be right; the charters "do more with less"! We should be letting them open up all over the state!


Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

NJDOE analysts, please get out your pencils and take notes, as I present...


1) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, do not include services one provides for the other, or for the community at large.

The figures in the table above come from the NJDOE's Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending. Yes, that's right, this is the state's own data. The figure used in this comparison is "Total Spending per Pupil, 2014-15." How does this state define this figure?
Total Spending Per Pupil was first developed in FY 2011 to provide a more comprehensive representation of district expenditures, since the former per pupil measures excluded some significant cost categories. This variable uses a larger enrollment number, including all students for which the district is financially responsible. The Total Spending measure adds the following items to the costs already included in the Budgetary Cost (Indicator 1):  
  1. pensions and social security payments made by the state on behalf of districts;
  2. transportation costs (including students transported to nonpublic and charter schools);
  3. judgments against the school district;
  4. all food services expenditures (including those covered by school lunch fees);
  5. capital outlay budgeted in the general fund (facilities and equipment);
  6. special revenues supported by local, state, and federal revenues (such as preschool, IDEA, and Title I);
  7. payments by the district to other private and public school districts for the provision of regular, special, and preschool education services (charter school students and their associated costs are only included in the charter school in which they are being educated).
  8. debt service for school debt; and
  9. an estimate of the district's share of the debt service that the state is paying for school construction bonds issued for school construction grants and School Development Authority projects.
The number of students sent to other entities (except charter schools) is added to the district's average daily enrollment in order to calculate the per pupil expenditure.  It should be noted that sent students and their associated costs are included in the per pupil cost of both the sending district as well as the school where the student is actually being educated.  Therefore, it is not appropriate to sum all districts' total expenditures, as this would overstate the aggregate cost.  This variable is calculated using audited (actual) data since some of the additional categories are not available in districts' budgets.  Two years of data are provided for comparison. (Emphasis mine)
This simple explanation makes clear that school districts provide many services that charter schools do not; it is, therefore, inappropriate to compare their costs. Take transportation: the total spending figure NJDOE uses for host districts includes the transportation costs for students attending charter schools. But why should a district have that counted in their comparative budget, but not the charter school whose students use that service?

The district pays certain costs to students who attend private schools; again, charter schools don't have to worry about that cost. The school has to pay legacy debt costs, meaning its budget includes students who have already graduated and left the district. Why should that be included in a comparison of current expenses? For that matter: if the community uses school buildings for a variety of reasons outside of school, why should the cost of maintaining that building only be put on the host district?

Charter schools also tend to enroll students in the lower grades, and many don't enroll pre-K students. How can we then compare the spending patterns of charter and district schools when grade level expenses aren't necessarily the same?

The thing that's really incredible about this comparison is that the NJDOE knows there is another figure -- Budgetary Per Pupil Costs -- that the department itself says is better for this purpose:
The Budgetary Per Pupil Cost(BPP Cost) section contains the Budgetary Per Pupil Cost and its subcomponents as they are reported for districts' User Friendly Budgets (required by N.J.S.A.18A:22-8.a).  While these costs do not provide an exhaustive picture of the cost for educating all students, they do allow school administrators and citizens to compare specific measures of school district spending.  Generally, the BPP measures the annual costs incurred for students educated within district schools, using local taxes and state aid. These costs are considered to be more comparable among districts, and may be useful for budget considerations. Examples of costs that are not included in the BPP are: expenditures funded by restricted grants, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), tuition payments to other districts and private schools, debt service expenditures, and principal and interest payments for the lease purchase of land and buildings.  Consistent with the exclusion of tuition expenditures, the measure excludes the enrollment for students sent out of district (Indicators 1 through 13, and 15). It should also be noted that budgetary costs for non-operating districts, Educational Services Commissions, Regional Day Schools, and Jointures are not included in this document. (emphasis mine)
BPP isn't perfect (for example, it doesn't address the grade level issue), but it's much better than Total Spending per Pupil. How do the charters and the districts compare on this measure?

Yes, the districts are still spending more, but it's much closer than the figures NJDOE gave in its memo. Still, why would the charter be sending less? Could it be...

2) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, you must take into account differences between their student populations.

I can't believe I still have to explain this to anybody, let alone the NJDOE, which should know better. Take, for example, special education:

As I've pointed out literally dozens of times: Charter schools, on average, do not serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. Everyone acknowledges it costs more to educate a child with a learning disability; even Chris Christie doesn't argue that point! And yet NJDOE made their little table without even acknowledging this glaring problem with their comparison. Of course, the special education gap varies from city to city.

The data for Freedom Academy in Camden are clearly very noisy, but the overall trend is clear: charters don't serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. In Hudson County, however, the story is more complex.

At first glance, you would assume some of the charters, like Elysian in Hoboken and University Academy in Jersey City, were picking up their fair shares of classified students. But there's a caveat...

3) Always acknowledge the limitations of crude data.

In this case, the problem is that special education classification is binary in the data; in other words, a students is either classified or isn't. But not all classifications are the same:

A "specific learning disability" is a lower-cost classification, unlike, say, autism or a visual impairment or a traumatic brain injury. For both Elysian and University Academy, the majority of their special education students are SLD; that's not true for their host districts.* So the public district schools are enrolling more of the students with costly disabilities compared to the charters. That explains a good part of the cost differential, as we'll see below.

Here's another difference that shows up in the data on charters in Hudson County:

To be fair: Jersey City Public Schools has a free lunch-eligible (FL) rate equivalent to University Academy; Soaring Heights' rate, however, is much lower. FL is a crude proxy measure for economic disadvantage, but it's the best one we've got. In Hoboken, the difference between the public district schools and Elysian is very large.

Again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll more FL students, because everyone acknowledges it costs more to equalize educational opportunity for disadvantaged children. Of course, if the charter cheerleaders don't agree, their beloved charters should stop taking more money for enrolling more FL students. Think that'll happen?

One more difference that matters:

Across the state, the education of children who do not speak English at home has been left to the public district schools; the charters have taken a pass. Once again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll LEP students, because it costs more to educate them. Ignoring this reality when comparing charter and public district school spending leads to a flawed analysis.

4) Remember that education is a human capital-intensive enterprise.

Think about those differences in special education rates while pondering this:

Support services include many functions, like child study teams, that are necessary for schools with special education students. It's obviously a significant part of a public school district's budget -- but not a charter school's. Those zeroed out column above aren't missing data; they're showing charter schools who simply don't report any spending on support services. I've always urged caution when interpreting these figures, because there may be reporting differences and data error.


At this point, given year after year of data, there is just no question about it: Charter schools spend, on average, much more on administration than public district schools. It just makes sense: as Bruce Baker points out in his latest report (which, sadly, has been completely misinterpreted by the usual suspects), small charter schools can't leverage economies of scale, and that manifests, to a large extent, in administrative costs.

And yet charter spending, overall, is still less. Again, part of that is the low amount charters spend on support services, a function of enrolling fewer classified and LEP students. But there's another factor...

5) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you have an inexperienced teaching staff.

One of the truly foolish things I hear from charter cheerleaders is that charters are taking advantage of  millennials' alleged desire for temporary careers. First of all: we know experience matters, especially in the first few years of a teacher's career. Why, then, would it be a good thing to have charter schools where the average teacher's experience is less than 2 years, like Bergen A & S and Newark Legacy?

Second, do millennials really want to start at the bottom of the pay scale every time they change jobs? Because that seems to be what's happening with many charters:

On average, charter school teachers make considerably less than their public district school counterparts. As I've noted before, this difference holds even when accounting for differences in experience.

Look, if charter cheerleaders want to brag on "doing more with less," then fine: acknowledge you're doing that, in part, by paying your teachers less. Then explain to the rest of us how that's a good thing for the profession.

6) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you offer less expansive educational programs. As a music teacher, I think all students should have the opportunity to make music. But that's hard to do if you don't have the personnel to make a program:

This is a technique I've used before: looking at the staffing files to determine the extent of programs in areas like music. The first thing to look for is whether schools actually have teachers in these specialist areas: in the case of Newark Legacy, Soaring Heights, and Freedom Academy, the staffing files suggest music just isn't a part of those charters' curricula.

The next thing to watch is how many students each specialist teacher has for their "load." At North Star -- which compares itself to the most affluent suburban districts in the state -- the music teacher has a much greater student load than music faculty in the Newark Public Schools. That means it's much less likely North Star has the bands and choruses and orchestras NPS can offer their students -- they just don't have enough teachers to make it happen.

That said, it's a mixed bag. Some of the charters do quite well on music; how do they do in other areas?

According to the staffing files, Barack Obama CS in Plainfield had a music teacher, but not a health/PE teacher. And that's understandable, if not acceptable; it's hard for a small charter school to offer everything a public district school can. And maybe that's the takeaway here...

As I have said, many, many times on this blog: I really don't have a problem with charter schools per se. I started my career in a charter. I have seen first-hand that some kids just don't thrive in a "regular" public school, and might do better if given a "choice." We can and we should try to innovate in our schools.

But let's not fool ourselves about how and why charter schools "do more with less." Advantages in student populations; advantages in staffing costs; unequal curricular programming and support services: these are the reasons for the differences in costs between charters and district public schools.

Keeping this in mind, let's step back a bit and think about how I did this analysis. This is all based on data collected by the NJDOE. The reason they collect the data, supposedly, is that they can then analyze it to present to policy makers -- like the state BOE -- so they can make good decisions.

But that is most certainly not what happened here. Instead, when a member of the board asked a reasonable question,** the NJDOE gave a facile, cursory answer that matched Christie's ideological predilections.

That is a very bad way to make policy. It's a disservice to the many students and families in this state who are looking for better education and better schools. It's an abdication of the duty a state department of education has to the citizens of its state.

There are some really good people at NJDOE, as there are at all the state departments of education. But too many ideologues are at the top, and they are failing in their jobs. 

Step up, folks. Do the work.

ADDING: One thing I didn't get to -- and I will get to this one day in a comprehensive way, I promise -- is how charters like Elysian benefit from substantial philanthropic giving.

This is Elysian's campus, in just about the most affluent section of Hoboken. Public money is in no way the only revenue that drives programming and provides facilities at this school. More to come...

* There's a lot of suppression in the special education data, ostensibly to protect the privacy rights of classified students. It's so prevalent that I really couldn't make useable graphs for speech disabilities, another lower-cost classification. SLD is more important for this discussion, however, because charter schools get more funds for enrolling non-SPL classified students -- but there isn't a distinction between SLD and other higher-costs classifications when the aid calculations are made. This is a  complicated topic I get into more here.

** Well, somewhat reasonable: why ask for just a sample of charters? Why not analyze all of them? It's not impossible -- I did it. In fact, why not ask someone like me, who's already done the research, to answer the question?

Unless you don't really want to hear the answer...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Will NJDOE Turn Charter School Teachers Into Indentured Servants?

Last week, the New Jersey state Board of Education held hearings on regulatory changes for the state's charter schools. Probably the most significant -- and most controversial -- of the Christie administration's proposed revisions were changes to the certification requirements for charter school teachers.

Basically, the Department of Education wants to create a new certification just for charter school teachers. From what I can tell from reading the proposed regulations (available at NJ Spotlight), a prospective teacher who did not go through traditional college-based training -- what's referred to as an "alternative route" -- would follow a different path toward getting certified than would an alt-route teacher working in a public school.

A quick primer on alt-route: in New Jersey, there are a series of steps a prospective teacher has to take to be eligible for hiring. Once those are completed, she receives a Certificate of Eligibility (which can also be with Advanced Standing). She can then be hired by a district, which leads to a Provisional Certificate. While teaching, she takes courses and is mentored by a qualified teacher with a standard certification (I've been a mentor several times). If all goes well, the Provisional Certificate becomes Standard after a couple of years.

The ostensible reasons for all of this are:

1) No one gets to go into a classroom without at least meeting some very basic requirements. With the CE, a teacher has to have, for example, some college credits in French if they're going to teach French. They also have to take what's known as a "24-hour course," which is a short sequence that covers the basics of teaching (it can be done over a few Saturdays at many of the state colleges).

The point is that the state is making sure that students don't wind up with a teacher who is completely clueless. Obviously, no system is perfect, but I think the CE requirements are reasonable and not particularly onerous. Sure, you have to cough up some money for the tests and the course. But if you've got a college degree -- and that's a requirement -- I'd say it's not an unreasonable amount.

2) Once you've got a gig, you have to get your full training if you want to keep it. The cost is more significant: $1,000 for your mentor, plus about $1,500 to $2,000 for your coursework (less if you have Advanced Standing). But that can vary: many alt-route teachers go on to earn their masters degree, which costs more but also means you get a boost in pay on a district's salary guide.

So how does the charter school certification process differ? As near as I can tell:

1) The certificates would be issued under a pilot program, and only by a select number of "high-performing" charters. What happens to these certifications if the pilot is discontinued? I don't know...

2) Some of the requirements for getting a charter school CE are eased; most significantly, the 24-hour course is not required. Which means, I believe, that a charter school could have a teacher take over a classroom with NO training in pedagogy whatsoever.

3) An alt-route charter teacher only has to do 50 hours of professional development, compared to 200 hours for a public district alt-route teacher. But I see nothing in the proposed regulation that imposes any restrictions on what those 50 hours of PD would actually be.

Keep in mind that we already have an example of charter schools running their own teacher training outfit: the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education," a "graduate school" that doesn't have any actual scholars in its faculty, and gives its degrees based on highly dubious measures of student "growth" (see Bruce Baker and Carol Burris for more on Relay).

4) A charter school certificate would only be valid for a charter school teaching job.

This last one is important, if only for this reason:

This is from my report on the finances and staffing of NJ charters from last year. At every stage of their careers, New Jersey's charter school teachers make less money than teachers in public district schools. Yes, there are some notable exceptions (see my report for details), but the overall trend is toward lower pay"

Now, a key tactic in keeping pay low is to keep a staff inexperienced. But constant staff turnover can exact its own costs; in addition, it's hard to expand if you have to rely on teachers who only plan to stay at your school for a few years. Worst of all for the charters: it may be that they are taking in teachers early in their careers, only to have them move later to higher-paying jobs in district schools.

I'm still looking into research on this, so I can't say how much of a problem it may be. But keeping charter school teachers in a separate certification category can only help to slow any movement of those teachers toward public district schools with their higher salaries. And that could help quash wage pressures for charters, who wouldn't have to compete with district schools for personnel.

Furthermore, as Bruce Baker points out in this post, the 50-hour requirement sets up a money-making scheme for the charters, where they basically raid the paychecks of their own staff:
Other options exist for recapturing portions of teacher salaries. But as is true for the Turkish Tuzuk, documentation of these schemes may be difficult to obtain from privately-managed charter schools that often claim these agreements are exempt from public disclosure laws. One common model is the “company store,” where employees are required to purchase goods and/or services from the affiliated entities. This model can be used for visa processing fees for foreign labor, but might also be used for obtaining relevant credentials, professional development, or even housing.[vi]
For example, founders of New York and Newark, NJ area charter schools and management companies have established their own Graduate School of Education (Relay GSE), staffed primarily by themselves—current and former employees of the charter schools and management companies. Relay GSE was criticized in public hearings over its use of under-credentialed and inexperienced faculty to deliver its programs, but was eventually granted accreditation.[vii]
The Relay Board of Trustees includes founders of KIPP, NYC; Achievement First; and affiliates of Uncommon Schools.[viii] In New Jersey, Relay’s graduate programs are offered on-site within North Star Academy,[ix] a Newark charter school affiliated with the Uncommon Schools network (established by a founder of Relay GSE). The Dean of Relay, Newark, is a co-founder of North Star Academy.[x] Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A. [emphasis mine]
And so the proposed regulations lead charter school teachers into a sort of indentured servitude: Under the proposed regulations, a charter teacher would be stuck paying for the limited professional development her boss offers, and she couldn't leave for a better paying public district.

This is a really lousy deal for charter school teachers -- which is why, when I spoke at the NJEA Convention this year, several charter teachers told me they were against the proposed regulatory changes. Who can blame them? Why should they be stuck in lower-paying jobs? Why can't they access our state's universities for their professional development?

And even more important: how does any of this help charter school students?

ADDING: The memo from the NJDOE has some really awful analysis; stand by...

Monday, January 9, 2017

Teaching In the Age of Trump

Last week, Mrs. Jazzman and I decided to indulge one last time before we start our new years diets, and found ourselves in line for the best hot dogs north of the Bronx County line. As I waited for my turn at the condiments station (get the red relish), I overheard a conversation between a nice young woman working the counter and a nice young man working the grill.

To my best recollection, it went like this:
WOMAN: ... yes, he's crazy and disgusting, but I can't just vote on that. I have to vote on policy. 
MAN: Well, what did he say about policy that made you want to vote for him? 
WOMAN: Health care. Health care is a mess. 
MAN: But we have universal health care now. He wants to take that away. 
WOMAN: No, he wants everyone covered. But Obamacare isn't working. 
MAN: What's wrong with it? 
WOMAN: It's costing people a lot of money, and you don't get to choose your own plan, and everybody has to sign up for it. 
MAN: But that's the way universal health care works. Everyone has to be in it. It doesn't work unless everyone is in it. 
WOMAN: OK, but why does it have to cost so much then? I thought Obamacare was supposed to keep costs down...
And so on. It took all I had not to butt in and start flapping my mouth about things that I tell myself I have a better than average understanding of compared to the average person... but as every teacher knows, you usually learn more by letting a conversation spool out than by interjecting your precious personal opinion the first chance you get.

Let me start by saying I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would ever vote for Donald Trump. Even if you agree with him on everything, the man is clearly unfit for high office. That bus tape is more than enough to say the man should never have been allowed near the White House -- and that was only one of his many outrages.

There is also no doubt that some -- some -- of his supporters are really horrible people.

But this woman didn't seem horrible to me. She was having a respectful conversation with someone who disagreed with her -- and she had, in my opinion, some legitimate points. President Obama said you could keep your plan; he was wrong. Premiums have gone up, although they seem to be stabilizing. And while there's little doubt Obamacare has expanded coverage for many, a case remains to be made that other systems would be better.

Again: I don't claim any expertise here. My point is that even if you find Donald Trump to be repulsive, and some -- some -- of his followers to be deplorable, there is still a serious, legitimate debate to be had about policy with at least some of people who voted for him. And that number of people may be larger than we liberals want to admit.

But can we have that discussion, given how our political debates are currently waged?

I keep thinking about the news of Russia's interference in our election process (reminding myself that America has attempted to influence elections in other countries many times itself). Of course I don't want Putin mucking around in our elections. Of course we need to get to the bottom of the email hacking.

But as an educator, I'm more concerned by the thought that the American public can be so easily swayed by propaganda -- no matter the source.

The declassified intelligence report that was recently released, for example, goes into great detail about the influence of RT America TV, a "Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States," on the last election. The report takes RT to task for its coverage of Occupy Wall Street, fracking, police brutality, and the third-party presidential debates, suggesting that coverage of such issues is "fueling discontent."

Well, OK -- so what?

Is the American electorate so incapable of critical thinking it can't be exposed to this sort of opinion without bringing the entire system down? Is fracking something people are just supposed to accept? Did Occupy Wall Street not have a legitimate point? What about Black Lives Matter? Are they "fueling discontent" illegitimately when they protest against the police killing unarmed citizens?

I don't watch RT, so I can't say if their coverage had problems or not; I just find it very odd that our national intelligence leaders think it's somehow a threat to this country for its citizens to be exposed to criticism of our nation's actions and policies. They almost seem to be saying that the American public can't be trusted to make its own decisions about what is and is not relevant to our nation's discourse; that we are so easily swayed by the media that we can't even figure out what is and what is not in our own best interests -- and that's why foreign interference is so dangerous.

Are they right? Are we so incapable of critical thinking that a few leaked emails can turn an election?

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that we ask far too much of our public schools. You can't expect K-12 education policy by itself to remedy the problems of inequality, chronic poverty, and racism. But that doesn't mean education doesn't play a part, and that we can and should work to improve our schools.

In the same way: I don't think K-12 education by itself can create citizens capable critical thought. Consumerism, screen culture, and a sad history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia -- among other things -- will not be overcome solely through better public schooling.

But we, as public school educators, have got to start acknowledging that we have other obligations to our students aside from teaching the content laid out in our standards. Yes, it's important that children acquire skills to contribute to the economy; however, they also need to become critical thinkers if our democracy is ever going to work.

I'm very worried we are failing in this task. Again, this can't entirely fall on the schools... but what are we doing in the schools to make sure students are ready to participate in meaningful discussions about the issues? What are we doing to train good citizens?

Not everyone is like those two nice young people I eavesdropped on. But there are plenty of people who are ready to become engaged in the same way they are. I have to believe this; otherwise, let's just fold up the tents and go home, because democracy is otherwise pretty much doomed. At least some of us want to make this system work. At least some of us are up to the challenge. I have to believe this.

But do my students have the tools they need to act in ways that support themselves and their fellow citizens? Will they be able to navigate through the sea of noise that arises in a modern, open society? Can I help them gain those skills?

That's the gig. God help the country if we aren't up to this task...

ADDING: Once again, The Gospel According to St. George:


Saturday, January 7, 2017

More Mapping "Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers

A few posts ago I made some maps that showed how school voucher programs around the nation invariably result in tax dollars overwhelmingly flowing to religious schools; specifically, Catholic and other Christian schools.

Remember that our incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has championed vouchers because they will, in her own words, lead to "greater Kingdom gain." In other words: voucher programs, by design, exist to support religious instruction.

Voucher supporters will claim that the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v Simmons-Harris settled the constitutionality of vouchers back in 2002. But any fair reading of the majority's decision shows they predicated their argument on the idea that families were being given a "choice" to attend either religious or non-sectarian schools; therefore, voucher programs are facially neutral and not in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

As David Souter points out in his dissent, however, the "choice" given to families isn't really a choice at all; it has the formal appearance of a "choice," but in reality, voucher programs give parents the "choice" of sending their children to a segregated, underfunded public school or a school that forces children to engage in religious practices. That's hardly neutral.

The Zelman majority does flips and twists to get around the so-called "Lemon Test," a legal precept that came out of the landmark Lemon v. Kurtzman case of 1971. The Lemon Test has three prongs:
  • The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (also known as the Purpose Prong)
  • The principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  • The statute must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religious affairs. (also known as the Entanglement Prong)
If we take DeVos at her word -- that she supports vouchers because, at least in part, they lead to "Kingdom gain" -- it's clear that any program that moves taxpayer funds to private, religious schools fails all three prongs of the Lemon Test. That's particularly true if there are other remedies the government could undertake to improve its public schools (more on this in a future post).

And yet, again, the 2002 SCOTUS convinced itself, by a slim 5-4 margin*, that Zelman was in keeping with precedent. Emphatically, the majority says the Ohio voucher program was "true private choice." Keeping this in mind...

I thought it would be interesting to zoom in a little more on some of large cities where voucher schemes have been established to see just what kind of a "choice" families who enter the programs really have. You can find links to my data sources at the earlier post.

Let's start with Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which runs one of the oldest and most expansive school voucher programs in the nation (click to enlarge).

Two religions dominate the program: Roman Catholic and Lutheran. There are scant few "choices" for non-Christians, and only a few schools that are non-sectarian.

Of course, it makes sense that there would be many Lutheran schools in the area, given its ethnic background and history. But where are the "choices" for the families who would rather not have their children receive religious instruction? And doesn't the dominance of two particular forms of Christianity suggest the program really is advantaging certain sects over others?

Here's the breakdown in Indianapolis, Indiana, the center of a voucher program promoted heavily by our incoming Vice President:

Again, Catholic schools predominate, but other sects of Christianity have a significant presence, and many others are not represented at all. Further, there isn't one nonsectarian school inside Marion County.

I speculated last time that many of the families using vouchers might choose to send their children to religious schools even without the extra taxpayer funds. In Indiana, a family of four can make up to $89,910 and still qualify for a voucher. And according to an IN-DOE report, 52% of students receiving a private school voucher had no record of ever attending an Indiana public school (p. 16).

Given the predominance of schools specifically aligned with a particular sect, I think it's safe to say at least some of the students using vouchers would not have attended an Indiana public school under any circumstances -- their families would choose religious instruction no matter what. Which is important for two reasons:

First: Students receiving vouchers are putting fiscal pressure on the system that wouldn't be there if vouchers didn't exist. In other words: their families and/or their churches would be paying for the voucher students' schooling even if they couldn't use vouchers. Even if you think vouchers are a swell idea and constitutional, you should acknowledge that the presence of these students requires more funds to be added to the system if per pupil revenues are to remain constant.

Second: While theoretically these families are "choosing" their schools, in reality they've already made their "choice" -- and the taxpayers are subsidizing their children's religious instruction. The Effect Prong of the Lemon Test, therefore, fails: these families are receiving taxpayer-supported religious instruction for their students that they and/or their churches would otherwise be paying for.

If the Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher plan passes -- and given this Congress, I have little doubt it will in some form --  the practical effect will be billions of dollars in public funds diverted away from public schools and toward private, Christian schools with the purpose of funding religious instruction in certain specific sects. I don't care what the Court ruled in Zelman -- this is, on its face, a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.

Again: DeVos has publicly admitted this. I don't for a second think that will at all hold up her nomination, or will stop this voucher scheme from going through, or will keep the new Trump-Roberts Court from continuing to find vouchers constitutional. But, at the very least, she should be made to admit what she's up to. She should have to acknowledge the practical effects of school vouchers.

And then she should have to confront a large body of research that shows the purported positive effects of vouchers are a myth. More on that to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

* It's worth noting the Zelman vote by the SCOTUS was 5-4, but the Lemon decision was 8-1.

ADDING: Here's some more from the Mother Jones article I linked to above:
Indiana's choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, "the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies."

Other Indiana Christian voucher schools use the A Beka program, whose history books are known for whitewashing slavery. An A Beka passage on slavery notes, "A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well." (For a comprehensive look at both curricula, see here.)

The Indiana Christian Academy uses curricula from both Bob Jones and A Beka while Kingsway Christian School in Avon, Indiana, spends some of its taxpayer money to take kids on field trips to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where they can learn how dinosaur bones prove the truth of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood. Teaching creationism as fact in public or charter schools is illegal because of First Amendment prohibitions on the government advocating religion, but there's nothing stopping schools funded with public vouchers from doing it.
Read the whole thing. I'll have more to say about some of the other links in the article in a bit...