Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Response to a Camden School Choice Critic

I just read Steven Danley’s post on Camden Public Schools called “The Camden Enrollment System Has a Thumb on the Scale.” This piece, cross-posted at Blue Jersey, criticizes Camden’s new universal enrollment system which offers parents the option of filling out a single form to apply to schools outside their neighborhood, including traditional schools, hybrid district/charter “renaissance” schools, and participating charter schools. Danley’s thesis is that charters and renaissance schools have an unfair competitive advantage – a “thumb on the scale” -- because they’re more popular and better at marketing. The weight of the thumb, he says, threatens the existence of the traditional public school “infrastructure.”

Danley’s primary concern, then, is the perpetuity of the system, not the educational well-being of students or the preferences of Camden parents. Fair enough. He’s a Rutgers professor and this is an academic exercise, I suppose. But his logic is askew, his historical context is lacking, and his facts are wrong.

Let’s start with the logic. What if we were talking about hospitals? Let’s say a city, poor or rich, has two hospitals but one of them has better patient outcomes that they’re not afraid to advertise  (after accounting, of course, for various factors like preexisting conditions and stuff.). So people in this city tend to go to the better hospital and this threatens the poorer-performing hospital. Would Danley argue that the hospital that more people die at should be propped up because the other hospital had a “thumb on the scale”?

Ah, says Steve (a very nice guy, by the way, who I met at a meeting in Camden),  in this example you’re talking about two traditional hospitals. In my example I’m talking about traditional schools that exist solely within the district bureaucracy, as opposed to renaissance schools, which have one foot in the bureaucracy and one in the non-traditional sector. Apples and oranges.

Sorry, Steve. False dichotomy. Certainly, there are differences between traditional schools and renaissance schools. The latter, for example, have to build their own facilities (which you complain about because they’re nicer), can adjust calendars to suit student needs, and don’t have to hire unionized teachers and administrators. But remember that these hybrids must be approved by the local school board and accept all kids within the catchment areas. These are all public schools and, judging by the enrollment patterns that you’re so concerned with, parents don’t really care whether you call them traditional or hybrid or charter.

 As Dmitri Mehlhorn recently noted in a piece posted on your Rutgers colleague Mark Weber’s blog, “government agencies work best when they put citizen choice ahead of bureaucratic monopoly.”

But you’re not concerned with parent preference. In fact, your only reference to families in Camden is how easily they’ve been hoodwinked by the slick promotional material like “fliers advertising open houses” that renaissance schools produce. Good thing they have a Rutgers professor like you watching out for them! (What’s up with Rutgers anyway? You, Weber, Bruce Baker, Julia Sass Rubin: it’s your own little anti-Camden cabal. You guys must be a hoot at faculty cocktail parties.)

So, about those families in Camden whom you would render choice-less. Let’s remember that old-fashioned charter schools existed in Camden well before the arrival of Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and what you call the “higher level district staff [that] largely comes from the reform community.” In fact, these charters were so popular in pre-Rouhandifard days that thousands of parents had enrolled their kids there.

And no wonder. When N.J. ranked its schools into three categories – Priority (the bottom 5%), Focus (less bad but still struggling) and “Reward” schools, 23 of Camden’s 26 schools were on the Priority list. Let’s see…do I want my kid to go to a school where more than 10% of kids score proficient on basic skills testing or another public school…hmmm.

Speaking of fact-based decision-making, Camden Public Schools just created a social media presence and promotional material for all traditional schools so that parents would be equally well-informed about all options within the city. You mention that you went to talk to some principals and were surprised that they expressed “excitement” with the new marketing, not the “frustration” you anticipated. I appreciate your honesty.

There’s also a comment on your piece that are worthy of note. Your Rutgers colleague Julia Sass Rubin (who founded Save Our Schools-NJ and co-writes anti-charter dreck with Weber, who is Baker’s doctoral student) describes Camden’s enrollment system in this way: “There are no explanations for how those labels were determined and whether the criteria used were appropriate, fair or accurate.”

Actually, these explanations are front and center on the FAQ page and are there so that parents can make informed decisions about what’s best for their children.

And Camden parents, progressive and proactive, are prioritizing educational opportunity over bureaucracy.  Last February, for example, over 50 parents marched to a Camden School Board meeting to present Superintendent Rouhanifard with a petition signed by over 850 parents demanding more seats at Mastery’s renaissance schools.

Last April (I’m choosing one of many examples) Camden mother Natasha Galindez wrote to the South Jersey Times:
 I have three children in public schools in Camden.  While the schools are all within 10 blocks of our home, they are worlds apart in every other way.  My youngest comes home skipping every day, loving her teachers, excited about school and happy. She is at Mastery's North Camden School -- one of the new renaissance schools.   
Before Mastery, my daughter went to Molina, was held back in first grade and not engaged in school.  Now she is getting all A's and B's! However, my middle son is in 6th grade feeling stuck at Molina.  He feels isolated in the Annex.   
Recently, we heard the news that Molina will become a renaissance school and that Mastery will partner with Molina families to transform it.  
A whole new door of opportunity just opened up for my family. The thought that my kids will be in a Mastery school and could one day graduate from Mastery and go on to college is something I never thought could happen.
Thank you Superintendent Rouhanifard!
Steve, this is not about the stability of the monopoly or a “thumb on the scale” or “competition.” This is about parents, relegated to one zip code, having access to choices that middle-class and upper-class New Jerseyans make all the time. This is about the educational well-being schoolchildren, who merit nary a mention in your essay. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, not on the sustainability of the bureaucracy.

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