Friday, April 18, 2014

QOD: The True and Progressive Role of Charter Schools

James Merriman, head of the NYC Charter School Center,  takes note of the  “velvet ropes” of New York City’s gifted and talented public schools where “thousands of New York City families,” mostly low-income, “have their noses pressed against the glass of public establishments their children are not able to enter." In fact, "in middle and high school [in NYC], fully one in three seats are in schools with a selective admissions process.”

He continues,
Most elementary schools admit students from a neighborhood enrollment zone, but these zones reflect the same dramatic inequalities of access as the housing market itself. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote, “Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,’ but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.” 
(To see the private side of public education, just try changing the lines of an affluent school zone and listen to parents describe how much they spent to buy their way into the school zone.) 
In the context of such a deeply stratified system, it’s easier to judge the true role played by public charter schools, all of which admit their students by random lottery and without regard to academic record — except when, as ever more frequently happens, they request and receive an exemption to give preferences to students at risk of academic failure, such as students who are in foster care or who are behind academically.
As a result, and despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary, most of it by the teachers unions and their paid-for front groups, charter schools serve a genuinely progressive function, providing disadvantaged families some of the city’s best combinations of accessibility and quality.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Very Bad Week for NJ's Interdistrict Public School Choice Program

It’s been a bad week for NJ’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, a highly-acclaimed program that allows students to attend schools outside district boundaries. Schools with extra seats, and the support of their administrators and school boards apply to the DOE to host out-of-district students. The State kicks in $10,000 per pupil so that home districts are spared any fiscal burdens. Democrats, Republicans, NJEA, and NJ School Boards Association applaud newfound opportunities for families and students.  Currently about 6,000 students avail themselves of these opportunities in 136 choice districts.

What could be bad? Ask the DOE and Assemblyman John Burzichelli.

First, the DOE. Last year choice schools were shocked to discover that the DOE was unilaterally capping available seats below statutory levels. This year the application for new choice districts has been, well, delayed.

Here’s the DOE regulation:
4. a. A proposed choice district shall submit an application to the commissioner no later than April 30 in the year prior to the school year in which the choice program will be implemented…
As of today, two weeks before the deadline,  the DOE has declined to provide the application.  A representative from the Interdistrict Public School Choice Association sent an email to Jessani Gordon, head of the DOE’s Interdistrict Choice Program Office, asking about the whereabouts of the application and whether the DOE would extend the deadline so that districts have at least 30 days to file.

Here’s the response:
We will add you to the email list to receive notification when the choice district application has been posted. No decisions have been made at this time to change the application deadline.
Choice Program
Part two of the very bad week: on Tuesday Assemblyman John Burzichelli announced a bill that would ban students in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program from  participating in sports programs in their new schools. He added in an interview that he’d like to see this prohibition expanded to all extra-curricular activities, including music, art, and theater.

Burzichelli claims that the bill would target schools from “recruiting” athletes through the choice program.  From the Press of Atlantic City: “School officials said the new cap on choice enrollment has already made it more difficult to get in, and since all students are chosen through a lottery, there is no special advantage for athletes.”

What’s up with that? The word on the street is that the Assemblyman is hoisting a boatload of sour grapes because  -- wait for it – his hometown of Paulsboro (Gloucester County) lost a wrestling match to Bound Brook, a choice district with 37 seats available to out-of-district students.

Here are a few reactions:
Bob Rossi, Athletics Director at Hunterdon Central, which is a choice school, said he believes Burzichelli’s legislation may not be the appropriate response to what he believes are isolated incidents of scholastic sports teams benefitting from school choice.
“Now you are going to hurt all these kids,” Rossi said. “That, to me, makes no sense.”
Valarie Smith of the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association explained that
 [H]igh school is a holistic, all-encompassing experience, and singling out athletes is discriminatory and unfair. These people are more concerned about their sports programs than they are about giving these students choice.
Assemblyman Burzichelli has an interesting past with high school athletics. Back in 2006, according to PolitickerNJ,  he accused the NJ Interscholastic Athletics Associations, which oversees NJ school sports programs, of “bloated salaries, wasteful spending practices, and travel excursions." In 2011 the Star Ledger reported that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, through the Open Public Records Act, obtained emails that showed that Burzichelli was “plotting a state takeover” of NJSIAA by the New Jersey School Boards Association. NJSIAA compiled a report based on the emails that  the State Commission of Investigation “was used by Assemblyman Burzichelli to promote his agenda to eliminate the NJSIAA.”

Bottom line: the DOE needs to release the application for new choice districts so that more kids will have academic opportunities currently walled off for them by their ZIP codes. Of course, the DOE also needs to extend the application deadline so that districts can actually apply and so that this exercise looks less like a charade.

Finally, legislators should take note that Burzichelli’s bill has nothing to do with kids and everything to do with old grudges and provincial allegiances more suited to middle school locker rooms than the the Statehouse.

New WHYY Post: NJ School Boards Weight in on NJ's Segregated Special Education System

It starts here:
Johnny Falotico, a teenager from Berkeley County in Ocean Township, has multiple disabilities that inhibit his ability to learn, swallow, and move. Berkeley Central Regional School District, Johnny's home district, placed him in a classroom in the public high school without appropriate support or services. Johnny's parents sued the district and won. Berkeley Central Regional now sends Johnny to a private special education school in Eatontown with tuition costs of about $50,000 per year...

Welcome to New Jersey, where we win first prize for our inability to strike the proper balance between special education and separate education. Certainly some children require out-of-district placements in private or public special education schools, but no other state in the country segregates students with disabilities at the rate we do. The causes are complex and include habit, infrastructure, and the proclivity of both districts and parents to use the courts as referees.
Read the rest here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Baraka and Jeffries: Performance vs. Experience?

PolitickerNJ secured an advance tape of a new television special called “Newark at a Crossroads,” which features mayoral candidates Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries.  Until the campaign Baraka served concurrently as principal of Central High School and South Ward Councilman. Jeffries is a former state Assistant Attorney General and past President of Newark Public Advisory Board. One hot-button for both is how to strategically integrate the traditional public school system with the growing network of independent charter schools.

Baraka would impose a moratorium on all "public schools initiatives," including efforts to expand school choice. Jeffries is considered far more progressive on education matters -- he's a school chocie advocate - and is openly critical of Superintendent Cami Anderson's abrupt, damn-the-stakeholders approach.

Baraka has secured far more union endorsements than Jeffries  (including Newark Teachers Union, a branch of UFT, and NJEA, which represents Newark school nurses), and is also backed by one of the prominent names in Newark politics, convicted criminal Sharpe James.  Jeffries has secured the endorsement of the Payne family (William Payne and his son, the current 10th District Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.).

Consider that first family feud – the James’ and the Paynes --just the first circle of an endless series of political convolutions in Newark that have little to do with schoolchildren and lots to do with adult ambitions far beyond the mayoral race.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the TV special:
"Well, he doesn't have any experience," Baraka, Newark's South Ward councilman, said. "I mean, even [now Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey] Cory Booker when he came to Newark, New Jersey became a councilman first."
Jeffries, a former state Assistant Attorney General, countered with a rhetorical right cross for Baraka.
"He has no record of performance. In fact, it's a failed record," Jeffries said. "As councilman for the South Ward, murders have gone up 70 percent. There is no development in the South Ward. Foreclosures are up. Unemployment is up."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Leftovers

The Philadelphia Inquirer looks at two more “Renaissance Schools” that will serve up to 700 Camden students.  The new operators, Mastery and Uncommon Schools, will open in the Fall under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act, which allows up to 5 new charters in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. Camden is the only one of the three urban districts to open any Urban Hope schools so far.

Mastery’s plans include room for students who go to Pyne Poynt Family School in Camden, where half the building is empty and 90% of 6th graders failed NJ’s basic skills tests in math and language arts. A special education audit found that no classified students at Pyne Pynt – and 36% of the K-6 population is classified – were allowed access to general education, a violation of federal and state law.  But Education Law Center chief David Sciarra says that Mastery's plan is "illegal" because it's supposed to build its own building on its own dime. (Glad we're looking out for the kids!)

I wrote about charter school funding inequities this week at WHYY Newsworks and  a reader points out that  I missed another imbalance: something called "Additional Adjustment Aid" that applies only to traditional public schools, not charter public schools. And here's this week's column at NJ Spotlight.

Also, Education Law Center filed a motion to force the State to comply with the School Funding Reform Act and increase allocations to all schools . This week, reports the Star Ledger, “acting state Attorney General John Hoffman informed the New Jersey Supreme Court that the state would comply with the school funding law’s mandate that it provide aid notices to all districts.” David Sciarra said,  "We will wait and see. This is a good first step. We have to make sure they do them correctly. That’s the next step. And then we can move on to the really important debate, which is to increase school aid in the state budget."

The State DOE received 38 applications for new charter schools this week.

Families of Lakewood Public Schools rallied to protest feared program cuts because the district’s $150 million budget has a $5 million hole. The district has 5,500 (mostly) Hispanic children enrolled but provides bussing and special education services to over 20,000 children who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools. The Asbury Park Press reports that “[t]he budget includes $42 million for salaries, $13 million for health benefits, $26 million for special education and $17 million for transportation.” Also,
The school board also has decided to ask voters to approve spending more than $12 million over the state-mandated, 2 percent budget cap. The November referendum would seek approval to continue a variety of programs, including spending $10.6 million to continue courtesy busing for more than 12,000 students. More than 10,000 of the students who receive courtesy busing attend private schools in the township. Overall, the district now is providing transportation for more than 30,000 students attending 103 different schools, including some 5,500 public school children attending six public schools.
If you're a betting man or woman, go for passage of the referendum. The Orthodox Community leaders know how to get the vote out. See here.

At NJ Spotlight, an op-ed from a group of superintendents from North Bergen:
The truth is, there's only so much schools can do even to shrink the achievement gap -- because this gap is not and never was the sole responsibility of schools. We're just the point at which a symptom of a far greater problem becomes readily apparent. Certainly, new curriculum standards and more frequent standardized testing, along with mandated teacher and administrator evaluation systems, won't solve these complex social issues. They may, in fact, deflect focus from them.
The State DOE, reports NJ Spotlight, is not changing the proportional use of SGO’s (Student Growth Objectives) for next year, despite concerns expressed by many teachers. This measure of student outcome on teacher evaluations will remain at 30%. NJEA is “disappointed.”

Here's a counter-intuitive column by two Duke professors in today's NY Times:
Our findings also suggest that the idea that parental involvement will address one of the most salient and intractable issues in education, racial and ethnic achievement gaps, is not supported by the evidence. This is because our analyses show that most parental behavior has no benefit on academic performance. While there are some forms of parental involvement that do appear to have a positive impact on children academically, we find at least as many instances in which more frequent involvement is related to lower academic performance.
And don't miss Stephen Colbert on the Common Core.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

NJEA Loses in Appellate Court on "Blended Learning" Charter Schools

The New Jersey Appellate Court ruled against NJ Education Association yesterday, denying its challenge to former Commissioner Cerf's approval of two "blended learning" schools,  i.e., brick and mortar schools that use online coursework as part of the school day. Here's coverage from NJ Spotlight (with a link to the actual decision) and the Star Ledger, and here's NJEA's press release saying that it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

NJEA never had much of a case. After all, most NJ traditional schools already use some form of blended learning: online modules, flipped classrooms, subscriptions to various kinds of online instruction.  The Star Ledger:  "Blended learning is a technologically based teaching approach that is gaining popularity in New Jersey. Traditional public schools in Elizabeth, Perth Amboy and Newark are among those using online instruction as a regular part of the school day.”

NJEA's argument is less about the pitfalls of online instruction or the intent of the Charter School Act and more about fear that all public schools -- charter and traditional -- are evolving in a direction that may change the teaching profession and, potentially, cost jobs. That's fair, but would hardly pass muster in a courtroom in the context of a charter school approval.

Here's the Court on whether NJEA has standing to challenge the approval of blended-learning charters:
NJEA is a collective bargaining organization of teachers and other educators. It claims its members, as well as their students, will be deprived of public funding for traditional public schools if online teaching methodology is funded by public tax dollars. NJEA alleges its members have an adverse private interest because approval of such charter schools will affect their employment. In another context, we have held that “an organization whose members are aggrieved  and have interests that are sufficiently adverse has standing to challenge agency action on behalf of its members.

And here's the Court on NJEA's argument that the exclusion of "blended learning" in the Charter School Act is grounds for disapproving charters that use that form of teaching:
We find no merit in NJEA’s argument that the absence of an express reference to online teaching in the Act and its legislative history suggests the Legislature would not permit that form of teaching. The Act does not make reference to any specific teaching method. If online teaching methods are prohibited because they are not expressly mentioned, then it follows that all novel teaching methods not prescribed by the Act are prohibited. Adopting the NJEA’s position would defeat the Legislature’s stated purpose.

New Newsworks Column: NJ Charter School Funding; Less Than You Think

From WHYY Newsworks:
The world is full of mysteries and one of them is the way that New Jersey funds charter schools. It should be straight math, right? Not so much. Charter schools, sadly, exist within a maelstrom of political posturing from all sides. Chief among those hazards are misconceptions about funding.  So let's demystify.

The history of school funding in N.J. is informed by a search for equity: all children, regardless of economic circumstance, are entitled to equally effective educational services. But, once upon a time (okay, until 1976) our school districts relied almost solely from revenue derived from local property tax levies, which meant that wealthier communities spent far more per student than poor communities. This reliance on local community wealth created unethical inequities within our public education system.  A series of State Supreme Court cases, known as the Abbott rulings, tried to correct the vast funding inequities among socio-economically diverse districts by ordering that the state compensate tax-poor communities. Hence, N.J.'s state income tax, the great equalizer.
Read the rest here.