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.


  1. i think the bottom line is unity. there is nothing in the public forum to unify people anymore. we need something to bring everyone together in a mental, intellectual, and ultimately a physical sense of being. when the public school fails, where else can we get a sense of community?

  2. exactly. that's the real reason, but i'm hoping some of this economic insanity persuades people who aren't moved by the philosophical reasons for having a strong public school system.

  3. First, thanks for serving our kids.

    Second, I think you've presented a clear, informed argument for your position.

    I'm not sure that charter schools are the answer to our school budget issues. But I do see the logic in some of Christie's financial arguments.

    The most glaring problem I see is the large number of school districts in the state. I did some quick research and found that NJ has well over 600 districts and when looking at the number of districts by population you see NJ heaped in with states that are much less densely populated. You make great points about the cost of "doing business" in terms of keeping the lights on and maintaining facilities. However that neglects the burden on the taxpayers by paying for school administrations for each of the 630+ school districts including generous retirement/benefit plans for retirees.

    Why is it that there are so many school districts? Does a school district such as Metuchen complete with its own administration, serve and educate the community better than the school district that surrounds it entirely (Edison School District)? What is the value-add for a superintendent - the district has one high school and I believe 4 total schools. The point is, I have very little faith in the administrative structure of NJ Public Schools. And in your case, wouldn't it make sense to fold your school district into a larger school district? Is there some benefit that your school district administration gives you and your kids?

  4. I send my kids to public schools in Monmouth County. By and large, I'm quite satisfied with the experience. I'm especially impressed with the jr high "project plus". Further, my son who will be a freshman next year has many options within the public high schools to choose an academic emphasis - biotech, marine science, the arts etc...

    However if I was in a cruddy school district, I'd certainly welcome the options proposed by Gov Christie regardless of the increased costs to the taxpayer.

    The most unfortunate part of this is that the teachers and students are collateral damage in the battle between the government (by extension the people of the state) and the teachers union. When budget cuts came last year, teachers were let go (and later rehired) on a LIFO basis - regardless of merit, which is a classic union philosophy. I'm not aware of any cuts at the district level. Per the governor, the budget shortfall could have been handled without layoffs at the cost of increase the cost of teachers health benefits. The teachers union dug their heels in and the result was an impasse that resulted in layoffs. This is my perception of the budget battle, if it's incorrect than the teachers union has failed in educating the state taxpayers on the issues. Otherwise, the union has failed the teachers and the students of the state.

    I'll admit to falling far right on the political spectrum, so I acknowledge a bit of bias towards the new governor. The personal impact to my family has beenlarger class size for my youngest son in 3d grade. And my jr high sons have exorbitant fees to participate in school athletics (we've opted out). My property taxes are double what I paid in Western PA and were also significantly higher than what we paid in Fairfax County VA. Both school systems were as good or better than what we have here in NJ. And for better or worse, when I see my gigantic tax bill, I think of the school system.

    I feel like I have a good perspective on the economics at play here. I took a job here in NJ 6 years ago. I was layed off in 2008 - was underemployed for most of 2009 and now take in about 25% less per year than when I started. I think there are a great deal of people here facing similar circumstances. Governor Christie's actions reflect these circumstances and is also trying to address years of out of control spending. So the harsh reality is that everyone in the state needs to figure out how to do more with less. When I hear the complaints at the PTO and the commercials on behalf of the union, I think to myself, that is what we're all dealing with.

    That's just my perspective on things - I don't have an answer for the charter school issue. I wish that teachers would be much better paid for their efforts and that our state would have the best school systems in the world.

  5. I thank Dave for laying out so clearly the argument against Charter Schools in Highland Park, showing that the numbers don't add up for us. I've forwarded this excellent article to friends and intend to sign the petition and send letters to our legislative representatives.

    As a registered Democrat and a former Highland Park School Board member, I heartily endorse Dave's position. But I also find some of Lloyd95's arguments persuasive. From a long-range economic perspective, education costs in NJ will continue to be high as long as we have so many small school districts, each with its own separate administrative structure.

    But that's a separate issue from the Charter School one. It is a problem - though one we in NJ may want to adapt to rather than sacrifice our schools to solve. In any case, it should be debated honestly. It should not be attacked by means of an undemocratic "starve the beast" approach geared to undermine successful schools like those in Highland Park. As Dave's explanation that the "numbers don't add up" demonstrates - and even Lloyd95's response reveals - that's just what we are facing as the Governor uses the Charter School ploy to undermine our ability to fund our district's schools.