It is well known that many New Jersey schools are failing. They suffer high dropout rates and have many students who cannot read or do math at grade level.
Criticizing our schools this way is far too easy, however; it is like taking candy from the young children of New Jersey.
Yet this is essentially what Gov. Chris Christie did recently when he announced 23 new charter schools for the state.
To support his decision, he cited a New Jersey Department of Higher Education study comparing charter schools to all schools in the same district.
The study, "Living Up to Expectations," showed that out of 40 charter schools, about 24 did better than average and about 16 did worse than average.
This is not a large difference, especially given several red flags in the report — charter schools with scores of 100 percent or close to 100 percent. It also is not a fair comparison.
Charter schools are privately managed schools that receive public money to operate. Most are located in low-income neighborhoods, with students selected by lottery, so only motivated students will enroll. Many have corporate sponsors, which lets them devote more resources to education and provide smaller classes.
Charters also can limit special-education students and students without English as a first language. Several have even figured out how to select only very good students.
When charter schools take some of the best students, and exclude problem students, the quality of students in regular public schools (which, by law, must take everyone) falls. This favors charter schools in any simple comparison, such as the one done by the state.
Studies controlling for this bias have come to a very different conclusion. They have found that charter schools do not do any better than public schools and probably do worse.
The RAND Corp. found that charter students in Philadelphia did not do any better than a comparable group of traditional students. A 2008 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that charter schools had a positive effect on mathematics scores in 17 percent of cases, no impact in 46 percent of cases and a negative impact in 37 percent of cases.
There is a ready explanation for this result. Charter schools tend to pay teachers much less than public schools, so they don't attract or keep the best teachers. Many tend to teach mainly test-taking skills.
Another problem is that some charter schools are known to cheat (hence my red flags) on the tests that will be used to evaluate them.
Even worse, charters seem to attract scoundrels seeking to make a quick buck at the public expense. The Mandalla School of Science and Math in Milwaukee had to be shut when its founder went to jail for padding enrollments and stealing $330,000 in public money, while teachers went unpaid. In California, in 2004, the largest charter school chain went bankrupt due to mismanagement, stranding 6,000 students, while its owner made $100 million.
Most underperforming New Jersey schools have a large fraction of students who live in poverty. They come to school hungry, lack adequate nutrition, live in unhealthy environments and suffer from health problems such as asthma and ear infections. Learning is hard enough under even the best of circumstances; under these circumstances, a great deal of learning is not likely to occur.
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The one pronounced difference between the U.S. and other developed countries is that we have a much larger fraction of schoolchildren who are poor. The close relationship between child poverty and international scores on math and reading is striking, and parallels what we know about child poverty rates and school performance in the state of New Jersey.
Rather than wasting money developing charter schools, Christie would accomplish much more by focusing on how to aid low-income households in New Jersey.
Steven Pressman is an economics and finance professor at Monmouth University.