Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why I Oppose Charter Schools

Last year, Governor Christie cut aid to school budgets by 820 million dollars, yet he promised that he would not touch the money allotted to charter schools. He also promised that there would be more charter schools in New Jersey in 2011. This is illogical on many counts. Diverting money from already strained school budgets in order to open more charter schools, especially in towns with successful schools, will not solve any of New Jersey’s economic problems. It will also weaken the schools we have.

I teach English at East Brunswick High School, and I live in Highland Park. Both school systems are very successful. Both have a high graduation rate, high SAT scores, and a high percentage of students that attend four-year colleges. Neither is a "failing school." These kinds of schools are never mentioned in Governor Christie’s rhetoric. Both schools now succeed despite the fact that budgets were cut because of Governor Christie’s “tool-kit.” My honors English classes at East Brunswick High School are packed with students this year. Children are not getting the attention they deserve. Highland Park has been reduced to a skeleton crew of supervisors. Any extra money in either town's school budget would go to excellent use, but in East Brunswick, Hatikvah, a Hebrew Language Charter school, is further draining the budget. Highland Park's tiny school budget is in similar danger. Tikun Olam, another Hebrew language charter school, has been "fast tracked" for state approval. Trenton has instructed Highland Park to reserve money in its school budget to fund the charter school.

Why are charter schools being opened in successful districts? The citizens of Highland Park and East Brunswick pay high property taxes to live towns with good school systems. Now this money is being siphoned into an experiment in free market education. These districts do not need charter schools. This does not benefit the majority of the students. The “fast-tracking” of these schools is a political maneuver against public school teachers and unions. Governor Christie has effectively pointed the finger at the educational system for the State's economic woes, and he is supposedly using charter schools as a tool to balance the budget. This makes no sense. The cause of the recession is not competitive teacher salaries, and the solution is not more State funded schools. New Jersey already gives people a wide variety of choices in schools. That is why plenty of people with children want to live in East Brunswick and Highland Park.

Governor Christie never mentions this when he attacks New Jersey schools and their budgets. He also never mentions that New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rate in the nation. New Jersey sends an extremely high percentage of students to four-year colleges. Could certain schools use reform? Certainly. But to condemn the entire system-- when it is one of the most successful school systems in the nation-- is egregious. Christie's solution to the public school "crisis" is the free market. He believes choice and competition will solve the problem. Charter schools will offer this choice. And charter schools will do it on the cheap. Charter schools, though funded by the public, do not have to meet as many standards as public schools. Also, like private schools, charter schools have the ability to reject students with special needs, and counsel out students that are not performing well. Yet they still do not perform better than public schools. It seems the Governor bases his pro-charter school philosophy on one-sided, anecdotal documentaries like The Cartel, which he heartily endorses. The Cartel cherry picks a few stories of corruption in public schools and then makes a generalization, but making schools more like a business is perilous. A free market, while fine for non-essential items, is volatile and takes time to react to market needs. A free market in mortgage products resulted in our current recession. A free market in electricity resulted in rolling blackouts in California and the Enron scandal. Some things should not be subjected to the caprices of a free market, and our children's education is one of them.

All I ask is that the Governor put down his remote and do more reading. I suggest that he reads Diane Ravitch's recent analysis of charter schools, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch, a former Secretary of Education, is as bi-partisan as they come. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton appointed her, and she has been critical of both conservative and liberal views on education. Her book provides comprehensive data that charter schools generally do not produce better test scores-- more often than not, they produce worse scores-- and she details the logistical nightmare of making students and parents consumers of education, instead of citizens vested in their town’s school. Years ago, Ravitch believed charter schools would improve the educational system. Then she analyzed the data and looked at the consequences. She changed her philosophy. Is our Governor capable of such reflection?

The public school is one of the last places where the local community can participate in democracy: vote on the budget, influence the curriculum, collaborate with the school board. Places with the best educational systems-- from Massachusetts to Finland to Japan-- have a strong respect for public schools. They have community involvement in the curriculum; well paid, well educated, unionized teachers; and ample funding.

We do not need more schools in New Jersey. We need to become involved in the schools we have. We need impassioned participation in our educational system from parents, students, teachers, administrators and politicians. Teaching needs to be an attractive job for our best and brightest. We need to ask tough questions about what we want our children to know. And our public school budgets should not suffer because of our governor’s political agenda. Please do what you can to ensure that your town's public school is properly funded. All of our children deserve it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Charter Schools and Vouchers: The Math Doesn't Add Up

Governor Christie has made it his business to increase the number of charter schools in New Jersey in 2011. He is also currently endorsing legislation to create a school voucher program, which uses State tax revenue to send students to private or parochial school instead of their town's public school. While turning parents and students into consumers, instead of citizens vested in their town's school system, is educationally and philosophically unsound, there is a far simpler and more compelling argument against these programs: the math doesn't add up. Governor Christie endorses charter schools and vouchers under the guise that they will help curb education costs and give parents better choices for their children, but these programs will actually weaken our schools and increase the cost of education to taxpayers.

Governor Christie has foisted this legislation on New Jersey, though it makes no economic sense. Here is an example from Highland Park, my home town. Highland Park is not a failing school, in fact, it is a successful school. It was ranked as the number one school in Middlesex County in 2008 by New Jersey Monthly. The average cost for educating a student in Highland Park is 13,000 dollars. It is a small district with a small budget. Twelve of our students choose to go to the Greater New Brunswick Charter School, despite the fact that it is a failing school. This costs Highland Park 110,000 dollars. Four students go to Hatikvah, the Hebrew Language school in East Brunswick. This costs Highland Park 62,000 dollars. If the Tikum Olam charter school opens in Highland Park, then we will pay 100,000 dollars for seven students to attend high school there. Edison, a much larger district, is worried about this math, and if Edison doesn't have the money to pay for charter schools, then how can a tiny district like Highland Park find money for this unnecessary expense? People are under the misapprehension that if we send a student out of our district, then we will save money. We will somehow regain the $13,000 average cost of educating a student, but this is not true. The cost of maintaining the infrastructure remains the same. We still have to run the heat. The text books are already purchased. We still have the same number of sports and arts programs. Buildings require the same amount of maintenance. The loss of sixteen students, scattered from grades K-12, does not allow us to cut a teacher. All costs will remain the same, but we will still be billed for these students to go to charter schools.

Why are parents from a successful school district sending their children to a failing charter school in New Brunswick? Why is this option even available?  Not only are these parents behaving selfishly, diverting much needed money from their town's school budget and forcing taxpayers to pay for their children to go to another school, but this also defies common sense. We need to determine why these parents are sending their children to New Brunswick and entice them to come back to Highland Park. I can see the motivation to send a child to Hatikvah, the Hebrew Language School in East Brunswick, despite the fact that it hurts our community, because Hatikvah offers a program that Highland Park does not. Parents will act selfishly when it benefits their children. That is why we need to anticipate these needs in our town schools and persuade parents not to pursue this costly route. In Highland Park, we may need to hire a Hebrew teacher, as it will cost far less than sending students to a charter school.

In the end, this legislation needs to be reformed. Governor Christie has promised to balance the budget, cut public sector spending, and lower property taxes, yet he is willing to let an unproven taxpayer subsidized experiment in free market education increase the tax burden of citizens in towns with successful schools. This makes no sense. The Governor cut State aid to education by $820 million last year, and now he is draining school budgets even more with his charter school programs. If the voucher legislation he is endorsing passes, this will divert an additional $360 million in tax revenues to private schools, and this will happen without your school board's approval, without a debate, and without a democratic vote on the school budget. Governor Christie wants to take away local control over schools. Highland Park and Edison, though not failing school districts, are targeted for vouchers simply because we send students to a failing charter school, The Greater New Brunswick Charter School. This also makes no sense. We are forced to use money from our school budget to send children to a failing school, and -- if the legislation passes-- we will be punished for this and targeted for vouchers.

Our Governor is willing to let his citizens incur a greater tax burden, as long as he is able to take money from public schools. He is condemning our State's educational system for his own political agenda, and for his desire to fragment and privatize education. But the fragmentation and privatization are not a natural consequence of market demand, they are subsidized by property taxes and the State tax coffers. The issue is being forced.  When these experiments fail-- and they will inevitably fail-- then who will "bail out" education? Diane Ravitch, the bi-partisan educational pundit who served under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton has already assembled comprehensive data illustrating that charter schools and vouchers do not work. So why are we funding this experiment? The taxpayers will eventually bail out these programs, just as the taxpayers bailed out the banks and financial institutions that experimented with complex mortgage derivatives and sub-prime loans. We will foot the bill for the Governor's assault on unions and public schools, and it will be costly.

If your child attends a failing public school, it is an alluring option to be able to pull your child out and send him to a charter school or a private school, despite the fact that neither charter schools nor private schools necessarily offer a better education. That is why reform is needed in failing school districts. All districts need to have programs-- whether they are AP courses or IB curriculum or honors programs or choice programs-- so that the students who want to excel have an opportunity to do so. But to weaken schools that are already successful is unconscionable. To further strain an already tight budget by sending students to a failing charter school is illogical and costly. To open another charter school in Highland Park, which will further divert money from our school, is irrational.

Please get involved with this issue. Implore parents not to send their children out of district. Implore parents to take an interest in their town's public school. Send letters to your assemblymen, school board, governor, mayor, senators, newspapers on this issue. Sign petitions. Charter schools and vouchers do not guarantee a better education. These schools operate with less oversight, they accept fewer students with disabilities and language issues, and they can counsel out lower achieving students. Yet they still don't produce better test scores. A State subsidized "free market" in education is too volatile and costly to risk on our children. The local school is one of the last places where the people in a community can actively and easily participate in democratic debate and influence their town's system and curriculum. Governor Christie wants to take this away from us. We do not need to further fragment our school system. The price is too great.