Policy expert Matthew DiCarlo has been posting some terrific analyses of education policy research and news over at the Shanker Institute’s new blog. Two of my favorites this month were his overview of the “Year in Research on Market-Based Reform” and this week’s commentary on the Christie administration’s recent claims that the New Jersey’s charters are doing a better job than their district schools, which the governor used to justify a significant expansion of the number of charter schools in the state.
As Matt notes, the media coverage of the latter story has completely missed the point that the Christie administration’s latest report made no effort to consider whether the state’s charter schools were enrolling the same kinds of students (in terms of students with special needs and students eligible for free lunch) as their local district schools.
In contrast, education researcher Bruce Baker has pointed out that as of 2008-09, the state’s own data showed that:
- New Jersey charter schools generally serve smaller shares of children qualifying for free lunch than schools in their host district and schools in their immediate surroundings.
- New Jersey charter schools serve very few children with disabilities.
- New Jersey charter school performance, like charter school performance elsewhere, is a mixed bag. Some of the highest performers are simply not comparable to traditional public schools in their districts because they serve such different student populations (far fewer low income children and few or no special education students). So, even if we found that these schools produced greater gains for their students than similar students would have achieved in the traditional public schools, we could not sort out whether that effect came from school quality differences or from peer group differences (which doesn’t matter from the parent perspective, but does from the policy perspective).
Even strong charter advocates such as the policy-makers at the New York City Department of Education take some student demographics into account in assigning performance grades to local charter schools — the Christie administration’s deliberate decision not to do so reflects poorly on how seriously they take their claims that they only want to do what’s best for the state’s neediest students.
UPDATE (Jan. 24, 2011): Bruce Baker just updated the statistics about NJ charter school demographics on his blog.