When Politics Undermines Scholarship: A New “Analysis” from Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber

A new report is out called “New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View – 2018 Update, Part I” by Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber. This study, draped with a Rutgers University banner, purports to be a scholarly analysis proving that charter schools are an untenable fiscal burden on traditional districts and enroll proportionally fewer special education students, English Language Learners, and low-income students than their sending district public schools. The report concludes with recommendations which, if implemented, would bring charter school growth to an abrupt halt.

Are you having a deja vu moment? I am. Sounds just like a report that Rubin and Weber wrote in 2014.  That’s because it’s a duplicate updated with an increased proclivity for skewing statistics. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First let’s look at the provenance of the report — an important factor when judging the credibility of the analysis — and then dig into the accuracy of the data.

Rubin is a professor at Rutgers’ Bloustein School and the founder of Save Our Schools-NJ, the Princeton-based anti-charter/accountability group that draws its members primarily from wealthy N.J. suburbs. She led the recent unsuccessful fight by Princeton Public Schools (with an assist from Weber) that sought to disallow the popular local charter to expand by 76 students. Weber, a Rutgers doctoral student under the tutelage of  Bruce Baker, runs the anti-charter/accountability blog called Jersey Jazzman and was the 2017 annual convention keynoter at N.J.’s anti-charter/accountability union, NJEA.  NJEA is an advertiser on his blog.

Get the picture? Let’s make it clearer.

The report itself was not funded by Rutgers (phew!) but by the Daniel Tanner Foundation. The Tanner Foundation is an endowment at Rutgers that describes itself as dedicated to “advancing American public education, specifically with regard to the democratizing function and design of the curriculum of nonselective elementary schools and nonselective secondary schools of the comprehensive type.” This description used to conclude with this tagline — “(Charter schools, voucher schools and specialized academic schools are not eligible for grants.)” —  but the Foundation recently deleted that clarification.

That’s a distinction without a difference. From the Foundation website:

Research grants have been awarded to Save Our Schools (SOS), a grassroots action organization of parents devoted to the support of New Jersey public schools. SOS was founded by Professor Julia Sass Rubin of the Bloustein School of Public Policy, Rutgers University. The research by SOS, funded by The Daniel Tanner Foundation, has included demographic studies of charter school populations compared with the mainstream public school system. SOS was established to address the problem of drawing funds away from the public school system for reallocation to charter schools under private sponsorship, thereby raising the danger of splitting up the public school system. 

Rubin, coincidentally, is a trustee of the Tanner Foundation, one of the deciders when choosing which projects to fund, but maybe she recused herself. That would be smart: three years ago the New Jersey Charter School Association filed a formal complaint (later dismissed) that alleged “as founder and current Chair of Save our Schools New Jersey (SOSNJ), Dr. Sass Rubin has knowingly and consistently used her position, title and university resources to wage a personally driven lobbying and public relations campaign against New Jersey’s public charter schools, as well as New Jersey’s laws that regulate same, in support of SOSNJ’s advocacy goals.”

Hence, one could be excused for reading this “independent analysis” with a skeptical eye. No need. Even the most gullible reader would emerge a Doubting Thomas.  Let’s dig into the money argument first, with the caveat that N.J. uses a dumb model, seemingly designed to incite animosity, by having districts pay charter tuition directly from their coffers.

Money:

There are two cities in N.J. where charter school growth is indeed challenging district budgets: Newark and Camden, where the demand by parents for alternative public schools  is extremely high and as many as a third of students attend charters. But you know what? They’re managing. Shift happens. Yet Rubin/Weber go further: “In 2017-18, 273 school districts received notice that at least one resident student was attending a charter school versus 198 districts that received notice in 2006-07.” One student? Seriously? Then again, Rubin went into hyperdrive over Princeton Charter School’s small expansion, no doubt a terrible burden for Princeton Public Schools, which allots $25,910 for each of its students.

Sorry, cheap shot. Rubin/Weber know that charter school tuition, in almost every case, is less than the cost per pupil in traditional schools (could be less in every case but I’m trying to model fact-checking) even though N.J.’s creaky charter school law prohibits facilities aid. Yes, districts have to fund up to 90 percent of tuition costs. That’s tough on the bottom line. But our funding formula mandates that “the money follows the child,” not “the money follows the district.” This system applies not only to charter schools but also to county magnet schools and out-of-district special education placements. I don’t hear Rubin/Weber complaining about that fiscal burden, especially the latter, which far outstrips the fiscal burden of charters.

Rubin/Weber take this argument further. They write, “Irvington does not have any charter schools within its borders. However, there are a sizable number of students who live in Irvington and are enrolled in charter schools located in nearby Newark. Irvington must provide Newark charter schools with the prescribed amount of funding for each of those students.”

Irvington is three miles outside of Newark. I don’t know how many parents there choose to try to enroll their children in the Newark “beat the odds” charter school sector but if they can’t afford the cost of moving to another district — N.J.’s most common form of school choice  — then their kids go to Irvington High School. According to the DOE’s most recent data, no more than 25 percent of students met or exceeded standards for reading and math and not a single student passed an Advanced Placement test. Twenty-three percent of students are chronically absent, 28 percent of teachers leave after one year, one out of four students didn’t graduate within five years, and only 38 percent enrolled in college after graduation.

In other words, Rubin/Weber advocate barring low-income parents from legally enrolling their children in a better public school.

Disproportionality:

Let’s move onto the disproportionality argument, which comprises special education, English Language Learners, and low-income students. When speaking of charter schools’ enrollment of a “comparable share of special education students,” Rubin/Weber say that these special needs students who attend charters are “likely to have less expensive disabilities” than those who stay in the traditional district. Since districts are required to send the same amount of additional funding regardless of the disability (except for those classified as “specific learning disability”), Rubin/Weber argue that the traditional districts are getting the short end of the stick.

So charter schools are playing the system, receiving extra money for special education students who aren’t that special, leaving the expensive  cases in-district. Sounds bad.

But here’s the thing: Rubin/Weber fail to note that the DOE suppresses any data when the group of students in any category is less than 10, presumably for privacy reasons.  (“Data are suppressed if cell size is 10 or less,” the DOE explains.) Charter schools tend to be small, sometimes just 200-300 kids. That means they’re much less likely to have 10 or more kids with a high-cost disability, even if their enrollment is proportionate. If they have 9 kids with autism the DOE records this as “0.” My guess is that Rubin/Weber marked those categories with zeroes (as they appear in raw data) and dragged down the charter school averages with, well, lots of zeroes. (For more on N.J. charter programs for kids with severe disabilities, see here and here.)

How about students who aren’t native speakers? Rubin/Weber write, “While the statewide charter school LEP [Limited English Proficiency] rate has increased slightly over the last decade, the rate for district public schools has increased more, widening the gap between them.”

But here’s the thing: Weber knows better! He knows that Newark’s charter schools, the biggest sector in the state, cluster in non-Hispanic neighborhoods. From  a report he co-authored with his professor Bruce Baker that came out three months ago:

North Star [one of the large Newark charter networks] serves effectively no children with limited English language proficiency, in part because North Star caters to a predominantly black student population from Newark’s black neighborhoods, which remain geographically segregated from the city’s Hispanic and other ethnic neighborhoods and are home to non-English speaking families.

In other words, the neighborhoods where N.J. charters cluster tend to be in Black, non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Of course they have fewer Hispanic students and, thus, fewer English Language Learners, because their enrollment reflects the neighborhoods they serve. Example: The two big charter networks in Newark are Uncommon and KIPP. KIPP’s TEAM Academy is 93.4 percent Black and Uncommon’s North Star Academy is 86.3 percent Black. Voila: very few English Language Learners.

The section on disproportionality with low-income students is filled with qualifiers: “this problem in reporting, we forgo an aggregate comparison of free lunch rates between charter schools and district public schools across the state” and there are “challenges for researchers in accurately evaluating poverty levels in district schools.” It’s what some would call a “nothing burger.”

This isn’t an “analysis,” but ideological claptrap masquerading as scholarship.

We know this for certain at both the beginning and end of the report where Rubin/Weber make “recommendations” (pages 3 and 27). 

New Jersey should align the power to authorize new charter schools and expand existing charter schools with the financial impact of those decisions. One of the ways that this can be accomplished is by allowing districts to determine if charter schools may enroll their resident students. Currently, the power to authorize new or expanding charter schools rests solely with the Commissioner of Education while the responsibility of paying for those charter schools falls entirely on local school districts, which have no say in approving the charter schools.

Here you have the confluence of streams where SOS-NJ, NJEA, and other anti-choice groups converge to form the mighty river of local control that courses through our state, drowning efficiency and equity in its wake. (I’ll stop now.) If Weber/Rubin had their druthers, a prospective charter would plead with a local school board to authorize an application that might create seats for 200 children. Their parents of these children, of course, would represent a tiny minority of local community members and the board would reject the application every time. Another name for this charade is“tyranny of the majority.” (See here for how well this works in Lakewood.)

If N.J. passed new legislation that handed over charter school growth to the tyrant (current law names the Education Commissioner as sole authorizer) charter school growth would come to an abrupt halt.  And that’s exactly Rubin/Weber’s agenda, despite the fact that they know — they must — that privileging the institution above educational need requires that low-income children of color (because this is the demographics in our inner cites) pay the price. 

Three and a half years ago a Newark mother named Crystal Williams wrote in the Star-Ledger, “Who is Julia Sass Rubin and what does she have against my kids?” Ms. WIlliams was responding to a comment Rubin made to a reporter: “people in abject poverty,” said Rubin, “don’t have the bandwidth to even evaluate charter schools. . . .It’s just not going to be high on their list.”

Here’s Ms. Williams’ response:

I have three children at [the Newark charter] North Star. My son, now in fourth grade, is a special needs child. He sure isn’t easy to manage in class. But the teachers saw what I saw: more than a little boy with uncontrollable anger. He is so good in math and enjoys reading to me at night.

I used to be afraid that he was one of the many black boys in my neighborhood headed for prison. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I have a different vision for him, one where he is graduating from M.I.T. and working as an engineer…Why on earth would Prof. Rubin want to block my child’s path to college? It is his civil right. Why would she want to turn back the clock for him?

Hold off on the eye-rolls, Rubin/Weber. I know your report isn’t about Ms. Williams and her boys. It’s about about preserving an inequitable system that perpetually deprives high-needs children of effective instruction and circumvents low-income parents’ ability to exercise public school choice. 

But before you write Part II, you might want to get out of that Ivory Tower.

What do you think?

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