The Education Law Center’s current agenda, as evidenced by some recent publications, betrays some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, ELC damns the State Legislature for cutting aid to poor kids. On the other hand, the ELC casts aspersions on charter schools, usually held out as an opportunity for poor kids. What’s going on?
First, Executive Director David Sciarra, in a press release dated July 22nd, reprimands the State Legislature for cutting $303 million from the School Funding Reform Act in the last budget. Says Sciarra,
The Legislature’s decision to jettison SFRA means that students in underperforming schools in high needs districts – the vast majority of whom are low-income and Black and Latino – will have fewer resources than the formula prescribes as necessary to meet state academic standards. The aid cuts deprive these students of the funding their schools need to improve performance, provide needed supplemental programs, and meet new State high school course and graduation mandates.
Sciarra provides a chart that lists 44 poor districts (40% or greater rate of poverty) that account for $94.7 million of the cut. These school districts have a District Factor Group rating (DFG: socio-economic label of A-J, with A the poorest and J the richest) of either A,B,CD, or DE.
(According to the DOE’s lastest data, there are 254 districts in New Jersey – close to half – that share DFG’s somewhere between A and DE.)
Sciarra’s conclusion is that poor and (mostly) minority students are suffering more from the State’s inability to fund SFRA than wealthier students. No doubt he’s correct, since higher DFG districts rely far less on state aid. In some J districts, the state’s share is less than 5% of a district’s budget.
Okay, we’re with the ELC. Fair enough.
However, on July 9th the ELC posted an editorial from Gordon MacInnes, former Assistant Commissioner of Education in charge of Abbott districts, who berates U.S. Ed Sec Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration for requiring charter school expansion as a criterion for Race to The Top money.
If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant
MacInnes claims that N.J.’s charter schools have advantages over traditional public schools that make comparisons flawed. For example, charters are “largely immune” from “the wave of Latinization” that affects poor urban schools’ demographics, and charter schools have advantages over traditional public schools of “a stable student population.” The best, he says, have “practically no student turnover.” Another advantage that skews comparisons: charter school students in N.J., he says, “have parents that sought a better education for their children.” In addition, charters schools have no teacher unions and a lower percentage of kids with special needs. So there’s no real evidence, according to MacInnes, that charter schools do any better with poor urban kids and, therefore, there is no reason for expansion.
Here’s a couple of quibbles: he conveniently ignores the possibility that the stable student population of charter schools is a reflection of their success and not an inherent advantage. He draws no conclusions from the fact that the teachers usually are not unionized. He suggests, with no evidence, that charters discriminate against Latino kids. He penalizes charter school success because he thinks that those kids have more proactive parents. There’s no mention of the 11,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools. And no mention either of the intense opposition towards charter schools from NJEA.
Here’s the cognitive dissonance: Sciarra points to the Legislature’s failure to fairly fund needy public schools because it deprives poor kids of educational opportunities (and undermines SFRA). MacInnes decries the Federal call for more charter schools because they offer educational opportunities to only some poor kids. Wouldn’t a unifying logic for the Education Law Center encompass both viewpoints — that we should fairly fund traditional and charter public schools and try to even out supply and demand?
MacInness’ defense of the deplorable record of poor urban schools in N.J. is unsettling. ELC and NJEA have forged an alliance over the last 40 years and perhaps that explains some of his illogic. But it’s puzzling that an organization vested in the academic success of our neediest kids would espouse dueling viewpoints.