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Sunday, July 17, 2011

My school district's stealth charter school

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate in New Jersey about whether charter schools produce better student results than similar public schools. Gov. Christie wants to see lots more charters, especially in poor, urban districts, because, he says, kids will get a better education in these smaller, less regulation-bound environments. But opponents question this assertion.
Critics claim that the student population of charters is not equivalent to nearby public schools, and therefore comparisons of student scores between them must be adjusted for factors like poverty, parental involvement, etc. Reports like the one produced by the Christie administration showing better results in charters aren’t valid, critics say, because the comparison isn’t fair; charter schools start out with a more advantaged population. 
But how would this happen? As charter school advocates loudly proclaim, charters are populated by lottery. Everyone has an equal opportunity to enter and win it, and therefore, they say, the student population it produces is similar to the populations found in nearby public schools.
 Opponents argue that a self-selection process occurs because, in order to get into a charter school, parents must take an extra action - they must enter their kids in the lottery. This presents an obstacle to parents who lack knowledge of the system, don’t speak English, or are simply uninvolved in their kids’ education. Number crunchers who have examined the data say that the differences are significant between charter and public school populations even in areas where the majority of the population is poor; the charter school students are, on the whole, less poor. (In addition to self-selection, there are other factors that may contribute, including attrition and lack of special education services in charters.)
I’m not a numbers cruncher, nor have I researched the situation statewide. But I wanted to share my own experience because, though it’s anecdotal, I think it sheds light on the reality of the situation.
I live in Morris Township, where kids attend the unified Morris School District along with Morristown residents. A little demographic information: My husband and I are white, American born, with post-graduate degrees. It’s a very long walk from our income level to the poverty line. My husband is a professional, and I left a career in online publishing to become a stay-at-home mom. By any measure, we are miles away from the demographic you would imagine might find it difficult to enter their kids in a charter school lottery. The only stumbling block we faced was that we’d moved to Morris Township just a year before our first kids (twins) were born. We didn’t know a lot of people here. We sent our kids to preschool in a nearby town, so most of their classmates were heading for kindergarten in a different school district.
When my oldest kids approached school age (around 2001), I began doing my homework. I read everything on the district’s website. I talked to the few parents I knew in the neighborhood about our local schools. Having learned that there’s a magnet school in our district with multi-age classrooms, I toured it a full year before my kids were to register for kindergarten. When the time came, I entered them in the lottery for the magnet school. (They didn’t get in, which, as it turned out, was just as well. But that’s another story.) I attended a district parents’ orientation meeting at some point. I brought the twins to be tested for kindergarten readiness and to register on the appointed day.
In other words, I did absolutely everything I could to get every scrap of information about the schools, the available options, the procedure. I honestly don’t know what else I could have done.
So imagine my surprise a couple of years later when, in a discussion with another parent, I learned there was another school my kids might have attended. She knew that it was somehow focused on teaching about the environment. She wasn’t sure  what the deal was; it was a very small school that kids got into by lottery. “Like Normandy Park?” I asked. (That’s the magnet school.) “Yeah, kind of like that, only no one knows about it.” I don’t know how much more time passed before I learned that there was a charter school in our school district - Unity Charter School. Since then, I have met many other parents in the district who have never heard of it. 
As of this writing, the Unity website is down, so I can’t tell you whether there is information about their lottery on their website. But then again, if you didn’t even know Unity existed, you wouldn’t seek out their website. Meanwhile, the Morris School District website contains no mention of Unity that I can find. (Please feel free to correct me if you find one.) On the District Information Page, here’s what you’ll learn about MSD schools:

"Within the District there is one preschool, three primary schools (K-2), three intermediate schools (3-5), one multiage magnet school (K-5), one middle school (6-8), and one high school. In addition to our pre-K-12 program, the Morris School District operates an innovative Community School that offers an extensive adult school curriculum for lifelong learners."
There’s a listing of every district school. None of those schools is Unity. Unity is invisible.
If you go on the NJ Dept. of Education website and click your way down to the charter schools section, then search for charter schools in Morris County, you will find Unity.  But if you’re a parent of a kid approaching kindergarten, why would you think to do that? Wouldn’t you assume that all options open to you are listed on your school district’s website? A quick Google search finds that, in the past couple of years, Unity has held open houses for prospective parents that were publicized in a couple of local papers. I have no idea if they’ve always had the open houses, but I’m certain that, with three kids in the public schools, I never heard about them through district channels or any other way.
I don’t know if the situation here is similar to other NJ districts currently hosting charter schools. But clearly, under existing regulations, this is how it can be. Our school district is socioeconomically diverse, with a significant number of Spanish-speaking families. I’m guessing that, if I failed completely to learn about our charter school, most of them did, too. (Anyone who has the time and know-how to seek out a comparison between the student demographics at Unity and the rest of the Morris School District, I’d sure be interested in reading what you find.)
So, is there a self-selection process created by the charter school admission system? If the situation in the Morris School District reflects the general situation even a tiny bit - you bet there is.


Deirdre said...

I am confused? Does this charter have selective attendance? Are you for or against charters? Your message was unclear.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

Unity and all charters are open to everyone, but you have to request to enter a lottery. And in order to do that, you first have to know the school exists.

Am I against charters? I'm against using bad information to claim that charters get better results. I'm against denying the truth: that the process for getting into a charter makes it less likely that the poorest kids from the most troubled families will ever go there, making simple comparisons invalid. And I'm against using taxpayer money to fund a school no one will even tell me about.

Susan said...

Who could blame the school district for not providing information about a charter school? They are not required to, and they lose money if students go to the charter. The district has to write a check to the charter for 90% of the average per-pupil cost in the district. The district loses money every time a child goes to the charter because, obviously, 90% of the average per-student cost is not the cost of educating any one particular child.

You used the word "host," as in your district is hosting the charter. The district is not hosting, as in showing hospitality. It's more like the relationship between a leech and it's host.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

Susan, you've put your finger on a very broken aspect of the system: Create a publicly funded school, and create an incentive not to tell people about it. It's not really so much a question of assigning blame as fixing what's broken. I think giving local voters the opportunity to vote up or down on charters would be a big step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Having unfortunately worked at a charter for four years before getting a job in a regular public school, I can attest to the lottery system scheme being just that: a scheme. The charter I worked at was in a smaller town than the one you live and therefore it was hard NOT to know about them. A school district is not going to advertise a charter on their website, and nor should they be forced to as they siphon lots of money away from the regular school population for a select few. Not to mention that there hasn't been a town where a charter was erected and the town's taxes didn't hike up because of it; somewhere the gap between the loss of incoming money that charters divert has to be made up, otherwise the regular public schools can't meet their benchmarks.

I can tell you that my charter was sued by the town - more than once - and one of the contention points was the student enrollment, specifically the make-up of the students in the school.

The town I worked in was clearly divided by race and economics, with the white middle-class and upper middle-class on one side of the tracks and the black and otherwise Spanish-speaking people who in some spots lived nearer the poverty line on the other side of the tracks.

The first two years of enrollment at the school yielded lots of white kids whose parents didn't want to send their kids to the regular public school because there were issues there regarding race, fighting, etc.

While we were getting sued and preparing for the third year of enrollment, our principal actively courted that OTHER side of town, namely the Spanish-speaking side. The principal was adamant that if we could speak Spanish and lived in town, we encourage Spanish-speaking kids to enroll in the lottery. We even enlisted the help of the local Spanish-speaking churches to "advertise" what our school will offer them (only 2 people working at the school spoke Spanish, so I never understood why we had THAT much more to offer them). And by "enlisted" I mean, we cultivated relationships with every organization in town that had a Spanish population that we could tap into. We invited them to events. We courted their money, time, and ability to change up the socioeconomic make-up of the school (And at the same time, we courted money from the elite portion of time, those who lived in wealth beyond our understanding by putting on "horse and pony" shows for them with our kids as the perpetual entertainers. Education? No, we were more in the business of changing minds and making money than educating).

And yes, it worked. Because by the fourth year, we'd expanded with a very different kind of school make-up and that made it harder for the district to get rid of us. We were allowed to do it and that's what we did. Should they have been able to get rid of us? Yes. The reason we were there in the first place was because the district was not meeting benchmarks, because the racial strife in town acted as a mechanism for the destruction of the public schools there. But with new leadership and time, that changed and our mission was no longer necessary, and yet we were allowed to stay (and continue courting both halves of the town and siphoning money away from the district...and if you could have seen what we spent (read: wasted) money on, you would have been appalled as a taxpayer. Our kids would move on to high school and flunk because they were in this cookie-cutter environment that wasn't realistic.

Perhaps you didn't know the charter in your town existed simply because you weren't what they were seeking, you weren't the right "color" to attend the school. Although if you'd waxed poetic about your credentials (and your husband's) you'd have been the right type to court for your money.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

Wow, that's quite a depressing story. I guess the fundamental question is, are charters necessary, or are they just expensive distractions from the real mission: creating better public schools? Your story seems to answer that question.

Anonymous said...

The "reformers" don't want better public schools, they want NO public schools.