Monday, February 15, 2016

NJ: Red Bank and the New White Flight

The Red Bank, NJ, school system is actually a tiny little thing. Three boroughs (Red Bank, Little Silver and Shrewsbury) run their own K-8 schools which then feed into a regional high school.

There's one other school in Red Bank-- Red Bank Charter School. Red Bank Charter School is back in the news because its operators have asked to double the schools size, from 195 seats to 400, in a move that represents a direct assault on the public schools of the city. RBCS has served not just as a drain on the public system, but a powerful engine for resegregation. Red Bank Charter School is not just an example of how charters gut public school resources, but how charters can be the new white flight.

Red Bank Charter is no Success Academy-- when they announced the expansion, they left their own parents and supporters flatfooted. In January, charter leaders held a meeting for parents who wanted some sort of response for when their neighbors cornered them in the grocery store. One characterized the proposal as a PR disaster. At that meeting, they learned that part of the reason for the initiative was Chris Christie's full-on support for charters in his State of the State speech.

Flanked by Trenton lobbyists and a pair of ex-superintendents-turned-consultants, charter Principal Meredith Pennotti said one key reason the school is seeking to expand is “the political climate” — specifically, Governor Chris Christie’s unabashed support of school choice.

Best to expand the operation while the business climate supports it and before Christie leaves office. But there are more arguments-- none of them good.

RBCS likes to make the argument that they actually spend less per pupil than the public school system, even as research shows that they have been better-funded than the district to the tune of about $1,700 per student. They don't like to point out that the lower per-pupil spending is because they serve fewer students with special needs. NJ, like many states, has different state support rates for students with special needs, because they cost more to educate. In Red Bank Borough, the SSN population is 19.2%. At RBCS, the SSN population is 7.3%. RBCS spends less per pupil because they specialize in teaching the low-cost students. If you want a more complete, scholarly look at how this funding system works and how it affects local public schools, this paper by Julia Sass Rubin is worth a look.

When it comes to income, Red Bank Borough's free or reduced lunch population runs around 88%. RBCS runs around 40%.

Segregation is also reflected in racial makeup of the schools (here's where we could mention that New Jersey has a hugely segregated school system). Red Bank Borough is about 7% white. Red Bank Charter is about 52% white. The borough school is 80% Hispanic; the charter, 34%.

But RBCS admission is by lottery, which suggests that these demographics are not just the demographics of the students who attend RBCS, but the demographics of the students who apply. The charter is talking about going to a weighted lottery to favor poor students, but if this is their applicant pool, what difference would it really make?

Red Bank Charter School does not look very much like Red Bank, the borough, or the Red Bank Borough K-8 school.* What Red Bank Charter School does look like is the two neighboring boroughs. Those schools (Little Silver and Shrewsbury) have school populations that are 90% white and virtually without any free or reduced students at all. And they're very close by, so that if parents, say, wanted to get their children away from Those People, a move up the road would do it. What is a community to do to stop that kind of white flight?

Well, in a meeting between local journalists and three charter officials trying hard to sell the expansion, the answer emerged:

Although the charter school is supposed to offer an alternative so that they will as they said in this decision… so as to mitigate the effect of white flight. Now how do you do that? You start a small public school which will offer an opportunity for those who otherwise would leave town or choose the parochial or other private school. It’s as simple as that. What else would you do? Offer an alternative.

Yup. Charter schools as the new white flight. Don't buy a whole new house to keep your kids from going to school with Those People-- just sign up for your local charter.

RBCS uses many of the usual charter shell games-- they like to compare their PARCC scores to the Red Bank scores, despite the fact that their school population is hugely different from Red Bank's. If you care about PARCC scores (and I don't, but it is a reformy metric of choice) and if you can handle charts and regressions, this piece by Jersey Jazzman shows that RBCS's scores are nothing special, and that in some areas they are being outdone by the public system.  In fact, a parent did some number crunching and found that the Red Bank public school actually outperformed the charter without adjustment-- for just one example, the average 8th grade scores for ELA and Math were higher at the public school, for one example. We can play with these numbers all day, but at a minimum, we have to conclude that RBCS does not significantly outperform the public school.[Update: You can look here for Jersey Jazzman's latest look at the latest data. Nothing has changed.]

Many in the Red Bank community have spoken out against the expansion. It's a small district in a small community, and the doubling the charter size will gut the financial support for the public school. Duplicating services is not financially efficient or cost-effective, but it's worse than that.

Charters have introduced a new entitlement-- the right to attend a private school at taxpayer expense. Maybe you could make a case for this if the private school were demonstrably better-- but Red Bank Charter is not. Maybe you could make a case if it weren't going to cost the taxpayers more-- but you can't run two systems for the cost of one. Maybe you could justify it if the new system was going to help all students-- but this will damage the public system for the students left in it. And maybe you could justify it if the charter system was offering something special-- but apparently Red Bank Charter is here just to provide a new version of white flight. Absent other evidence, I assume that the teachers and students of Red Bank Charter School are decent folks who work hard. But is that enough reason to let the charter double its size and take a huge bite out of the public school budget?

Imagine if parents had to go door to door and say, "Hey, I need to take some tax dollars from you so that my kid doesn't have to go to school with your kid." Or maybe a community gathering where someone announces, "Let's take up a collection so we can pay some better-off white folks to stay in town."

The irony at the end of this K-8 kerflufflage is that all of these schools feed into the Red Bank Regional High School, a school so successful and well-regarded that it regularly draws students over and above those coming out of the feeder schools. In other words, when all is said and done, everybody's kids ends up in high school with Those Peoples' Kids anyway.

State Education Commissioner Hespe is expected to rule on RBCS's expansion plan soon. If you're in New Jersey, you might want to contact him with your thoughts. I'm over in Pennsylvania, but I can't even see a reason to keep Red Bank Charter School open, let alone expand it. But I have a feeling that the taxpayers of Red Bank could use a few more voices on their side.

*Courtesy of Red Bank SD, here's a demographic breakdown of the charter and public schools in nifty chart form

Apologies to those who got here early. Attempting to edit by phone led premature publication as well as a host of other issues appearing and disappearing (including, i guess, this oddly centered text).  This should now be it. I swear I'll never attempt editing by phone again.

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