Searching For Consistency in the Charter School Wars

Both NJ Spotlight and PolitickerNJ are reporting on Gov. Christie’s speech at the Iowa Education Summit hosted by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. According to Spotlight,
[Christie] promoted the idea of charter schools, but added they may not be the answer in all school districts, a clear response to the suburban backlash that has been felt in New Jersey.
"They are not needed in every district in New Jersey and wouldn’t add much to the education offered there," he said.
The "suburban backlash" alluded to is spearheaded by the group Save Our Schools-NJ, which is lobbying for a set of charter school bills that would subject any new charter to a community vote, require every child in surrounding districts to be entered into a lottery, regardless of interest, and severely curtail the growth of new charters. SOS-NJ makes a number of fair points: some charter schools tend to accept fewer kids with disabilities and fewer kids who are English Language Learners. They “cream off” high-achieving students and are a money suck for local districts who pay tuition and must educate anyone who walks in the door.

Now let’s look at a non-traditional public school in Hackensack that hasn’t gotten SOS-NJ’s attention. Here’s some clues: it’s one of the best high schools in the State, named by Newsweek as one of the best in the country. It’s got test scores to die for. At this school it’s not a matter of whether anyone fails the High School Proficiency Assessment; it’s a matter of whether or not anyone doesn’t score “advanced proficient." The curriculum offers 21 A.P. courses and 75.7% of juniors and seniors participate. In addition, it offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Average SAT scores are 712 in math and 660 in verbal. To put that in context, NJ’s average for districts with similar socio-economics is 524 in math and 506 in verbal.

The percentage of kids eligible for special education services in our mystery school is 1.2%. New Jersey’s average is 14.69%. The percentage of English Language Learners is 0.4% while at Hackensack High for example, 7.3% of kids are ELL. The school day here is 8 hours long, an hour and a half longer than NJ’s average school day. There are no African-American or Hispanic kids; according to NCLB data, the whole school is White and Asian. (Hackensack High's population is largely African-American and Hispanic.) None are economically-disadvantaged. (At Hackensack High about 45% are.)

Answer: it’s Bergen Academies in Hackensack, a part of the Bergen County vo-tech system, although 95.4% of kids there go on to 4-year colleges and only 34 out of 1000+ kids take any vo-tech courses. It’s publicly funded, of course, at a total cost per pupil of $26,788 per year. (The average cost per pupil across the state is $17,332.) There’s no lottery. Instead there’s a rigorous admissions process that includes transcripts, standardized test scores, and references from three teachers. There’s also an entrance exam. If you get through the first screening you are invited in for an interview. Visual Arts applicants submit portfolios and Performing Arts applicants schedule an audition. The website for the school warns students that “[e]ach year, there are many more applicants than there are places for students in our schools.”

It’s a wonderful place, full of intellectual exploration and smart, motivated kids and, by definition, exclusive. And it’s a public school, funded by county and state tax dollars. There’s a 5-member School Board appointed by the County Executive and confirmed by the County Freeholders, and a Superintendent (formerly Robert Aloia, well-known for his annual salary of 250,845, his deferred compensation package of $300K, and numerous instances of excessive spending) though the Assistant Super has now taken over).

No lottery. A big financial burden surrounding traditional districts. (Hackensack City Public Schools budget lists $7,652,944 in annual tuition payments, though not all of that is Bergen Academies.) Stringent admissions criteria that “cream off” top students.

Here’s a game. Replace “charter schools” in this section from SOS-NJ’s website with “County magnet schools.”
NJ charter school students do not represent the demographics of their sending districts. Charter schools educate very few English as a second language students, students who qualify for free lunch, or students with special needs. Each of these groups is more expensive to educate than the general population. Since charter schools reduce the resources that a district has to educate its students, districts with charter schools are left with fewer resources to meet the needs of a population of students that is more expensive to educate
Same difference, right?

I’m not advocating that Bergen Academies close its doors. Indeed, it would be great if every county had such a fine academic institution. (There’s great variability across counties: some are truly vo-tech schools, with emphasis on trades like landscaping, cosmetology, auto mechanics. Some, in wealthier counties are more along the lines of Bergen’s fine school.) But I am wondering how SOS-NJ squares its opposition to charter schools – which have far higher percentages of special ed kids and ELL, far more diversity, far more open admissions policies – with its silence on a set of schools in NJ that seem to reflect everything the group opposes.

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