Charter School Stories

Here’s the scenario: 120 parents waited in line, some for twenty-four hours, to secure a spot for their children in a higher-achieving school in a failing school district. Sound like yet another story of a charter school lottery? No. That’s the tale of the traditional Newark public elementary school, Ann Street Elementary, according to the Star-Ledger, which only has slots for 85 kindergarteners. Said one parent, “every year it’s a nightmare to put your kid here.”

On another page of the Star-Ledger Bob Braun continues his assault on school choice. He profiles an aspiring charter school in Highland Park, Tikun Olam, which claims to be a non-Jewish school with Hebrew language immersion. Yet he conflates that particular charter school story arc – that of a specialized school in a generally high-performing neighborhood – with the far more pressing chronicle of the need for options in a place like Newark.

Somehow in Braunworld we skate from the relatively privileged community of Highland Park with a District Factor Grouping of GH to one of the poorest towns in the state, Newark, with a DFG of A. Is the community dissension over charter schools in the former really equivalent to the latter? No matter. Braun writes,
Mostly, it’s about money. Newark spends $33 million a year on charter schools that, according to traditional-school proponents, attract some of the city’s best students, leaving behind those who are more expensive to educate and less likely to do well on statewide tests.

In Highland Park, Saiff says, $220,000 already spent on sending students to charter schools in East Brunswick and New Brunswick has resulted in program cutbacks in her town, and state approval of Tikun Olam could cost an additional $100,000 this year.

But money isn’t the only issue. In Newark, economic class becomes an issue as charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of the city’s poorest students than do regular schools, as measured by eligibility for the federal free-lunch program.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Braun brings out the tired argument that charters siphon off wealthier students who score better on tests. (Unpacking that truism is another blog.) At Ann Street School, the one with the parents waiting overnight for a slot, the kids perform admirably on standardized tests. On the ASK4 in language arts, for example, only 23.9% failed in 2010 compared with a district failure rate of 64.2%. In math, 4th grade only 4% of Ann Street kids fail the test; the district average is 45.3%. Among those 117 4th graders 104 are economically disadvantaged and all are either white or Hispanic. Cost per pupil, by the way, is $17,515.

Now let’s look at an elementary charter school in Newark, Discovery Charter School. There are 23 kids in the 4th grade. 52% of them fail the standardized test in language arts and 48% of them fail the math portion. Doesn't seem like Discovery is creaming off the top-performing students from traditional public schools in Newark. Twenty-one of those 4th graders, by the way, are black and 19 of them are economically-disadvantaged. (Cost per pupil is $14,403.)

So does Ann Street discriminate against black kids? Of course not: it’s a public school, just like Discovery, and they take whoever either lines up at the door first or wins the lottery. Does Discovery discriminate against Hispanic and white kids? You tell me. Both schools have proportionately equal numbers of kids who are economically disadvantaged (though the DOE doesn’t distinguish between those eligible for reduced lunch and those eligible for free lunch.)

The story of charter schools in Newark is not the same story as that of charter schools, religious or otherwise, in Highland Park. The kids in the former are desperate for choice, as their parents' fortitude demonstrates. The kids in Highland Park would be fine either way. Let’s keep our stories straight.

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