Charter Schools and Vouchers: a Diversion Tactic?

Originally posted on Open Salon on January 23, 2011:

            Today’s edition of the Star Ledger contains several articles about charter schools and vouchers in New Jersey. Given the poor conditions in some inner-city schools, reformers are hoping to make more choices available to students and their families.  This past week, Governor Christie’s administration approved charter applications for 23 schools. Not surprisingly, public school advocates and the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, have voiced opposition to any measure that would divert funding from public schools.

            Additionally, many people see a sinister motive behind charter schools and vouchers: that of dismantling the public education system in New Jersey.  The high cost of public education in New Jersey warrants additional scrutiny in how taxpayers’ dollars are spent. The Star Ledger cites per-pupil costs at over $17,000 statewide and over $22,000 in some of our state’s most troubled districts.  Charter schools, according to the statistics cited, serve students in Trenton, Jersey City, and Newark for roughly half the per-pupil cost.

            The goal of improving the education of our students should transcend all political considerations. Teachers and their unions have a duty to support and promote any and all measures that stand a reasonable chance of success. That said, we must still pose the question of whether vouchers and charter schools stand such a chance. Posing that question is simple, but getting answers appears quite the opposite.

            The Star Ledger reported last week that students in substantially over half of New Jersey’s charter schools—most in economically disadvantaged school districts—performed better on state assessments than their peers in traditional public schools.  The scores still fell below the average scores for the state, however. All the same, this information alone would shine a favorable light on charter schools.

            Star Ledger columnist Bob Braun, however, points out that charter schools across the state serve significantly fewer special-needs students. They also serve fewer students who qualify for free lunches.  Given the strong correlation between students’ household incomes and their test scores, this complicates the debate. Braun quotes Bruce Baker, my professor in the Rutgers University school administration program, as saying, “If children are compared honestly, there is no significant statistical difference between the performance of students in charter schools and those in traditional public schools.”

            Vouchers draw the ire of proponents of traditional public schools because schools would lose funding with each student that transfers to another school.  But according to a bill in the state legislature, schools would not lose all of the funds for a particular student.  In essence, a local public school would still receive some money for students who do not even attend.  It is important to clarify that lots of considerations determine per-pupil funding, including costs—like those related to facilities and utilities—that do not disappear when students transfer out.  This, presumably, is the rationale for the proposed voucher formula.

            But just as important as the inquiry into alternative school settings is the endeavor to reform traditional public schools. If a variety of options are to exist for students, all should be viable, and that includes the schools that have been serving New Jersey’s students for so long—and in the majority of cases—so well, when their performance is compared to schools in other states.

            And this brings us to a rather uncomfortable fact. Even if public schools in New Jersey can be said to be functioning adequately—and that is certainly up for debate—everyone can at least agree that they are not functioning optimally. So, irrespective of the squabble of any particular month, our ultimate purpose remains unchanged: improving what takes place in all schools—public, private, or charter.

            We begin to suspect, then, that some interests stand to gain by using the debate over school vouchers and charter schools as a distraction.  Sadly, the tactic may just work.

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