NJ Charter Corrections

Julia Sass Rubin, a founding member of Save Our Schools-NJ, has an editorial in NJ Spotlight urging the passage of Bill 3582, which would subject all prospective charter schools to a community vote. The Senate Education Committee will discuss the bill today. Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair, says she doesn’t support the bill. Senator Steve Sweeney says he won’t bring it to the floor. That hasn’t stopped all the politicking and with good reason: the bill is less about providing educational opportunities to poor kids then it is about wealthy suburbanites protecting their turf.

Okay. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. I’ve covered the bill in depth (see here and here) and Ms. Rubin is an eloquent writer with legitimate concerns about the impact of school choice on cash-starved suburban districts. Read her piece. But here’s a couple of corrections.

First, Ms. Rubin writes,

Ironically, it is New Jersey's current charter school law that is dramatically out of alignment with the rest of the country. New Jersey is unique in allowing its state government to force local communities to pay for unlimited numbers of new charter schools, with no concern for the wishes of those communities. Across the United States, 90 percent of all charter school authorizers are local.

Actually, if 3582 is passed as written, New Jersey would become the only state in the country that mandates a referendum for charter school approval. Many states refer charter applications to local school boards for approval, with appeals available to the State DOE. Here’s a chart that details individual state authorizing laws. Also, there are plenty of other states without caps on charters. Here’s a chart for that.

Second, Ms. Rubin explains the burdensome costs of charters to local districts by quoting the of-repeated figure that charters receive “90 percent of a district's per-pupil spending.” In fact, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,

In a recent national study of charter school funding (Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists, 2010), New Jersey charter schools were receiving on average $12,908 per pupil, while traditional public schools would have received $19,782 for those students. As a result, the state's charter schools were receiving $6,874 per pupil - or 34.7% - less than what the traditional public schools would have received for those students. This figure includes all sources of funding, and analysis reveals significant inequities for both operational and capital funding.

Ms. Rubin continues,

The sending district also has to pay to transport students to the charter school, regardless of how much that might cost. Highland Park, for example, is spending $36,000 this year to transport 18 students to a charter school in adjacent New Brunswick.

That’s true. School transportation is expensive. Worth noting, however, is that districts also pay transportation for students enrolled in county magnet or vo-tech schools, our 70 Interdistrict Public School Choice schools, private special education schools, and even regular private schools. (For the latter, parents are entitled to either bus transportation or aid-in-lieu-of-transportation.)

Next, Ms. Rubin writes,

Furthermore, most charter schools educate fewer limited English proficient, special needs, and very poor children than their surrounding traditional public schools, and some have very high rates of student attrition, with the most challenging students the likeliest to return to the traditional public schools. This leaves the traditional public schools with a concentration of the most expensive-to-educate students, but with fewer dollars with which to do so.

This is a common concern among those who profess opposition to charter schools (although not quite the bailiwick of Save Our Schools-NJ, which draws its constituency primarily from wealthy suburban districts.) But let’s unpack this a little. Free and reduced lunch numbers are derived from school district reports and are notoriously inaccurate. Witness the hullabaloo in Elizabeth, where Board President Marie Munn’s son was listed on district records as eligible for free lunch, despite the fact that Ms. Munn is a human resources administrator for a New Jersey nonprofit organization and her husband is the owner of a sports team. Even an Elizabeth Public Schools principal, who earns $103K a year, listed his daughter as eligible for free lunch

According to the Star-Ledger,

State and federal officials acknowledge there is little monitoring statewide of those who receive assistance under the federal lunch program. School districts are required to verify only 3 percent of applications to the program. The rest are taken at face value unless someone raises questions, Richmond, of the state Agriculture Department, said.
NJ charter schools, under intense scrutiny and political pressure, are far more likely to vet their free/reduced lunch numbers, unlike traditional schools that float under the radar.

Finally, Ms. Rubin makes a full-throated appeal to the principles of democracy. If we’re truly democratic in all of our dealings, wouldn’t a public vote for charter proposals be appropriate? But we delegate lots of items to our elected representatives – actually, because they’re supposed to represent us. The public doesn’t vote on the State budget. The public doesn’t vote on the use of tax dollars for the School Development Authority. The public doesn’t vote on curriculum. The public doesn’t vote on the approval for magnet schools or private special education schools or whether a neighboring district opens up seats to out-of-district students through the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.

This is not about democracy. It’s about power and fear, never good engines for designing new laws.