Jersey Jazzman: NJ Charter School Segregation Scoreboard: 1-1

March 7, 2014

Let's start by acknowledging the insanity of New Jersey charter school approval process. For all intents and purposes, one unelected official -- the Commissioner of Education -- gets to decide which charters survive and which fall. It doesn't matter what the elected school board members of the local community, which has to pay for the charters, may think about the applications: all that has counted for the last three years is whether Former Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf thought your charter was worthy of a seal embossed by his signet ring.

Bruce Baker has long documented the patterns of segregation and student attrition at many of the state's "successful" charters; yours truly has contributed a bit to the discussion as well. No matter: here in the Garden State, we have established a regular ritual where charter applicants, both new charters and expansions, wait with baited breath while Lord High Executioner Cerf hands down his decrees.

The latest round was just this past week, featuring two decisions that really couldn't be any different, demonstrating the arbitrary nature of the entire process. First, let's head out to East Brunswick and get the latest chartery news:

Hatikvah International Academy plans to appeal the state’s denial of its expansion, the controversial charter school’s board President Laurie Newell said.

A letter on Wednesday from Department of Education Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff renewed the elementary school’s charter for five years but denied a middle-school expansion into eighth grade over the next three years. Popoff cited “a decline in the school’s academic performance in the 2012-13 school year.” 

The Hebrew language immersion program already had accepted sixth graders and had advertised an expansion to eighth grade, which it planned to accommodate with a furiously protested move into a warehouse in an industrial zone off Cranbury Road. Last summer, Superior Court overruled the township council’s block of the move.

That "decline in the school's academic performance" is a very interesting claim that I'll try to explore later. For now, let's acknowledge the obvious: a Hebrew immersion program is not exactly the best way to foster an integrated school. Darcie Cimarusti, who's been following this story closely since the beginning, tells us more:

Can A Hebrew Charter Truly Be Secular?

In the press there are constant denials that there is any religious intent behind Hatikvah, and that the charter is completely secular. 

The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center helped establish the Hatikvah Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, New Jersey, whose principal, Marcia Grayson, says that she tries to maintain a nonsectarian identity for the school. “We are hypervigilant about church and state,” Grayson says. “We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.”

While Hatikvah may indeed "go out of their way" to avoid the "perception" that Hatikvah is a "Jewish school", there is often a large gulf between perception and reality.

The Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which provides the start up funding for Hebrew charters like Hatikvah, similarly distances itself from the Ben Gamla chain of Hebrew Charters which has no problem whatsoever identifying their schools as Jewish.

“A lot of Jewish education goes on in the schools, absolutely,” said Deutsch, a former Florida congressman who serves as Ben Gamla’s legal counsel. 

“It’s a very Jewish school, just not a Jewish religious school,” he said. “The definition of Judaism is not just a religion, it’s peoplehood — the same way the Irish or Chinese are a people." 

Ben Gamla and HCSC represent two radically different approaches to the rapidly growing Hebrew charter movement.(emphasis mine)

But, I don't buy that there's much difference at all between the HCSC charters and the Ben Gamla charters. And I'll tell you why. 

It's possible I suppose to argue that the education provided at the charter during school hours is indeed secular. But since all Hebrew charters also have religious afterschool programs, protestations like Grayson's that Hatikvah is "hypervigilant about church and state" need to be closely evaluated and not just taken at face value.

Read the whole thing, and then remember this: NJDOE thinks it makes perfect sense for the state to pay to immerse children in Hebrew in grades K through 5 (and not expect there to be any cultural, ethnic, or religious segregation as a result), and then return these same children back to their sending districts where there is little if any instruction in the same language. This is, I suppose, the department's idea of a rational curriculum.

And then there's the little issue of how Hatikvah's plans would have impacted the sending districts:

The DOE letter stated that public correspondence and comment contributed to the decision to deny the Hatikvah expansion. Opponents included school superintendents from the township, Highland Park, Edison, North Brunswick, New Brunswick and South River, as well as the three representatives from the 18th legislative district.

[...]

The school district had estimated that Hativah’s expansion would increase its next allotment of public school funds about $1 million to nearly $3.3 million, more than 46 percent of the 2 percent state cap on municipal budgets.

As a result, the district would not have been able to meet its incremental costs, never mind 11 additional needs identified as the 2014-15 budget is developed, said Bernardo Giuliana, the district’s business administrator for 20 years. According to a board of education resolution, they include eight security guards, one for each elementary school; replacements for 10-year-old, out-of-print textbooks, four additional elementary school teachers to address increased enrollment, several addition teachers for students with special needs, an additional school psychologist, and technology that meets the requirements of the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers. [emphasis mine]

Your NJDOE, ladies and gentlemen: imposing unfunded mandates on schools, then taking the money away by approving charters.At least it won't get worse in East Brunswick and these other districts; the same can't be said for Hoboken:   

The state Department of Education this week approved the addition of two middle school grades at a bilingual Hoboken charter school, despite urgings from the superintendent to reject the expansion.

HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School can add seventh and eighth grade classes, an expansion that is expected to bring nearly 100 more students to the school, said Barbara Martinez, president of the school board and one of the school's founders. The school currently has 254 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade classes, and already received approval to add sixth grade classes. The state Department of Education has also renewed the school's charter for the next five years, according to the department's renewal letter.

“It’s a great thing for HoLa, and it’s a great thing for Hoboken,” she said.

“Overnight, families have more options then they did a week ago, and that’s an important step for keeping families in Hoboken.”

Superintendent Mark Toback opposed the expansion, and urged the state in November to conduct a study of charter school effectiveness in the city before greenlighting additional grades. In a letter to the state, Toback said that expansion could exacerbate an already tenuous budgetary situation: The district foots the bill for 90 percent of each student's enrollment costs at the city's three charter schools. [emphasis mine]

Let's be clear about HoLa: it does not serve the same student population as Hoboken's public schools:

 
By this measure, HoLa is the most economically segregated school in New Jersey. And, as I wrote in this brief, that segregation has little to show for it:

There are plenty of public schools in Hudson County that get results just as good, if not better, than HoLa but serve many more students who are economically disadvantaged. And, as I wrote the other day, the notion that HoLa's demographics reflect the entire Hoboken population of public and private school students is simply not borne out by the facts, no matter what credulous newspaper editors may want to believe.

Two charters, both causing economic distress to their sending districts, both contributing to the ongoing segregation of New Jersey's schools. Yet one is approved while another is not. If you can explain how any of this makes sense, Chris Christie has a job for you at the Port Authority.


Another way to screw Hoboken? Sounds great!

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Jersey Jazzman

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. Weber is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy.