The Star-Ledger Drinks the Anti-Charter School Koolaid

There’s a must-read study out from Advocates For Children From New Jersey called “Newark Kids Count 2010: A City Profile of Child Well-Being.” The report covers education, affordable housing, economic security, and child health and welfare, beginning with a discussion of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million education reform grant that the authors describe as “an incredible opportunity to give all city children the chance to succeed in school.”

More on the study in a minute. But first, let’s all take a moment to ponder how today's Star-Ledger, in its feature “Report Shows Fourth-Grade Students in N.J. Public, Charter Schools Have Same Passing Rates” manages the following misleading reduction:
The data appears to contradict the prevailing assumption about the consistent high quality of charter schools and their reputation as a panacea. It also belies the rhetoric from politicians and educators that Newark schools are uniformly bad.
Huh? Is this journalism or commentary? Did the reporter and his or her editors actually read the study? However this “news story” came about, it’s disconcerting that NJ’s major paper presents an important report through the prism of anti-reform rhetoric, disregarding much of the data and discussion.

Let’s look at the study itself. It begins with a comparison of traditional public schools and charter schools in Newark and shows that “student achievement varies from school to school regardless of whether the school is a charter or district school.” Demographics in both types of public schools are similar. 84% of students in charters are eligible for free/reduced lunch, a measure of poverty; 82% are eligible in non-charters/traditional public schools. Charters have a lower percentage of students with disabilities – 5.6% compared to non-charter’s 12.3%. Student mobility is 10% at charters and 20% at non-charters: the report notes that “research shows that students perform better when they have school stability and do not frequently change schools.” Charters have higher class size and higher student-teacher ratios, and Newark charter students “spend more time at school each day and attend more days out of the year.”

Total school enrollment in Newark is 39,440 kids. In 2010, 34,086 were in traditional public schools and 5,384 were in charters. There are 6,589 kids in Newark on charter waiting lists. Estimated cost per pupil in non-charters is $18,378. Estimated cost per pupil in charters is $13,571.

Now let’s examine the Star-Ledger’s report more closely. The article correctly describes that there’s little difference at 4th grade between students in Newark who attend charters and non-charters, and overall the kids perform substantially worse than kids across New Jersey. From the study:
Newark students, in both charter and public schools, continue to perform lower, on average, on standardized tests than their peers across the state. While the average percent of 4th grade students passing standardized language arts tests in Newark charter schools and in Newark district schools was roughly the same, at 41 and 40 percent respectively, both were lower than the state average of 63 percent. The situation is similar with regard to 4th grade math. Both the Newark charter school and district average was 54 percent, compared to 73 percent statewide.
But the key is what happens in 8th grade when the picture shifts dramatically. With 78 percent of students passing 8th grade language arts tests and 69 percent passing 8th grade math tests, Newark charter schools outperformed the Newark district average of 56 percent passing language arts and 42 percent passing math tests.

How does the Star-Ledger deal with this divergence from its polemic? It explains, “Education experts said the data show charter schools do not automatically deliver success” and quotes Alan Sadovnik, co-director of the Newark Schools Research Collaborative:
Charter school advocates over-exaggerate the successes of good charter schools, but underplay the significant number of failing charter schools.

What exactly is the Newark Schools Research Collaborative? It’s a new research program directed by Rutgers-Newark and the Newark Public School District. Co-directors are Sadovnik and Paul Trachtenberg. Dr. Sadovnik recently wrote an well-reasoned editorial in The Record considering the benefits of longer schools days and concluded that “the state should return to one of the principles of the Abbott decisions,” including differentiating instruction for poorer students. Dr. Trachtenberg is the founder of the Education Law Center – long-time charter foes -- and head lawyer for the Abbott v. Burke cases. Nothing like independent authorities to juice up journalistic integrity.

In fairness, the Star-Ledger also includes a quote from E3’s Derrell Bradford, who explains, "Charter schools aren’t a magic bullet, and we know that, But the important difference is ... we can close down a poorly performing charter school. We can’t do that easily with district schools. And none of these studies talks about that."

Kudos to Advocates for Children for a comprehensive study, and let's all hope that the Star-Ledger focuses more on accuracy and less on political spin.

A few other important findings from the Advocates for Children study:

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