On the Relative Efficiency of New Jersey Public School Districts

PDF of Brief: Baker.Weber.NJEfficiency_8_2_16

Bruce D. Baker

Mark Weber

Contrary to current political rhetoric, New Jersey’s least efficient producers of student achievement gains are not the state’s large former Abbott districts – largely poor urban districts that benefited most in terms of state aid increases resulting from decades of litigation over school funding equity and adequacy. While some Abbott districts such as Asbury Park and Hoboken rate poorly on estimates of relative efficiency, other relatively inefficient local public school districts include some of the state’s most affluent suburban districts and small, segregated shore towns. And yet these districts will be, in effect, rewarded under Governor Chris Christie’s “Fairness Formula,”[1] even as equally inefficient but property-poor districts will lose state aid.

Findings herein are consistent with previous findings in cost-efficiency literature and analyses specific to New Jersey:

  • There exists some margin of additional inefficiency associated with Abbott status relative to non-Abbott districts in the same district factor group, but the margin of additional inefficiency in the poorest DFG is relatively small.
  • The state’s most affluent suburban districts – those with the greatest local fiscal capacity and currently lower overall tax effort – tend to have equal degrees of inefficiency as compared to less-affluent Abbott and non-Abbott districts.
  • Districts in factor group I (the second highest category of socio-economic status) have the largest ratio of students enrolled in inefficient relative to efficient districts.

Coupling these findings with those of similar studies in New Jersey and elsewhere, it makes little sense from an “efficiency” standpoint alone to re-allocate resources from high-need, low-income, urban districts to affluent suburban districts for the primary purpose of tax relief. This policy proposal is based on the false assumption that the poor urban districts are substantively less efficient than affluent suburban districts to begin with, and ignores that providing such increases in aid to affluent suburban districts tends to stimulate even greater inefficiency.

Put bluntly, the Governor’s proposal not only fails on a) tax equity and b) student funding equity, as previously explained by Weber and Srikanth, but the “Fairness Formula” proposal also fails on the more conservative economic argument of “efficient” allocation of taxpayer dollars.

[1] http://www.nj.gov/governor/taxrelief/pages/formula.shtml

How Fair is the “Fairness Formula” for New Jersey School Children & Taxpayers?

Mark Weber, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

Ajay Srikanth, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

PDF Policy Brief: Weber.Srikanth.FairnessFormula.June_30

Executive Summary

This brief provides a first look at the “Fairness Formula,” Chris Christie’s school tax reform plan. In this analysis, we show:

  • The “Fairness Formula” will greatly reward the most-affluent districts, which are already paying the lowest school tax rates as measured by percentage of income.
  • The “Fairness Formula” will force the least-affluent districts to slash their school budgets, severely increase local property taxes, or both.
  • The premise of the “Fairness Formula” – that the schools enrolling New Jersey’s at-risk students have “failed” during the period of substantial school reform – is contradicted by a large body of evidence.

The “Fairness Formula,” then, would transform New Jersey’s school funding system from a national model of equity[1] into one of the least equitable in the country, both in terms of education and taxation. This proposal is so radical and so contradicted by both the evidence and economic theory that even the harshest critics of school funding reform cannot support it.

[1] See: http://www.schoolfundingfairness.org

“Beating the Odds”: A Comparison of the Demographics and Performance of Charter Schools to District Schools in Jersey City

Ajay Srikanth, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

Bruce Henecker, EdD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

February 5, 2016

Note: All opinions here are those of the authors and do not reflect those of their employers, the NJEA, Rutgers GSE, or their professors and advisors there.

PDF Policy Brief: Srikanth_Henecker.JC.Feb5_2016

Executive Summary

On May 13, 2015, the Jersey City Council passed a resolution urging the Governor and State Legislator to provide equitable funding for the charter schools in Jersey City. The council argues that the charters in Jersey City are some of the highest performing schools in the city and also serve demographically-similar students. Both of these assertions are inaccurate. On average, charter schools serve significantly lower percentages of students eligible for Free Lunch, lower percentages of Special Education students, and substantially lower percentages of English Language Learners. With respect to student achievement, charter schools do not outperform district schools in Language Arts or Math once you control for demographics.

In response to the council’s resolution, we propose the following:

  1. Recommend to the Jersey City Council that they pass a resolution requiring that charter schools operating in Jersey City hold weighted lotteries that increase the rate of students receiving free lunch, students who receive special education services, and students classified as Limited English Proficient (based on a recommendation stated in Weber and Rubin, 2015).
  1. Recommend that the New Jersey Department of Education develop an enhanced charter funding formula that takes into account the increased cost of educating students across the range of Special Education classifications so

that charters receive a reimbursement rate commensurate with type of special education students they serve.

  1. Recommend that the New Jersey Department of Education develop an enhanced charter funding formula that reduces the base-funding amounts charter schools receive if they do not accept English Language Learners at a rate consistent with that of the host district.
  1. Recommend that policymakers account for demographic differences when comparing school performance within and across sectors- district vs. charter.

Research Note: On Average, Are Children in Newark Doing Better?

Bruce D. Baker & Mark Weber, Rutgers GSE

PDF of Policy Brief:Baker.Weber.NewarkBetterOff.NJEPF.11_15_15

In this research note, we estimate a series of models using publicly available school level data to address the following question:

Q: Did students in Newark (combined district and charter) make gains on statewide averages (non-Newark) on state assessments, controlling for demographics?

Specifically, we evaluate changes in mean scale scores on state assessments (NJASK) for language arts and math grades 6 to 8.

Newark Reforms Since 2009

Schools in the city of Newark have undergone a series of disruptive reforms since 2009, including substantial increases in the numbers of children served in charter schools, adoption of a unified enrollment system, ratification of a performance based teacher contract, and school closures, reconstitutions and reorganization.[i] Some of these reforms were instituted following the much publicized gift of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, chronicled in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize.[ii]

A commonly asked question in the aftermath of these disruptions is whether students in Newark on the whole are better off than they were before these reforms? That is, were the disruptions and resulting political turmoil worth it? Some have chosen to speculate, based largely on anecdotal evidence, that children in Newark must be better off today than before these disruptive reforms.

Chris Cerf, former NJ Commissioner of Education and current State Superintendent of Schools for the Newark Public Schools, asserts that the past few years have brought significant positive changes for Newark’s schools:

Whether the measure is graduation rates, improved instructional quality, last year’s improvement in the lowest-performing schools targeted for special intervention, a nation-leading new collective-bargaining agreement, the addition of many new high-quality public schools, increased parental choice, or a material increase in the proportion of effective teachers, the arrow is pointed decidedly up in Newark.

“To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.”[iii]

Tom Moran, Editorial Page Editor of the Star-Ledger and a consistent supporter of the Newark reforms, writes: “The growth of charters has not damaged the kids in the traditional system. In fact, they’ve made modest improvements.”[iv] In a post on his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg, whose $100 million gift was the catalyst for the NPS reforms, writes: “No effort like this is ever going to be without challenges, mistakes and honest differences among people with good intentions. We welcome a full analysis and debate of lessons learned. But it is important that we not overlook the positive results.”[v]The chief-of-staff for Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and current U.S. senator who was instrumental in secure Zuckerberg’s donation, states: “Newark students are quite simply better off now than they were five years ago.[vi]

In these conversations, “better off” is often reduced to whether or not, on average, across district and charter schools, student test scores for children in Newark have improved. That is, are students achieving more than they otherwise would have, had there been no such disruptions? It remains far too soon to measure longer term outcomes, including graduation rates, college attendance or economic outcomes.

While we are unable to compare against what might have been in the absence of reforms, we can at least evaluate whether children in Newark have made progress when compared to statewide averages, controlling for student population characteristics.

Conclusions

In a recent interview, Russakoff stated that she did not believe Newark’s students are better off today than they were five years ago: “…it feels like a wash.”[i] The analysis herein, while admittedly narrow in scope and short in time frame perspective, finds that Russakoff is correct. Average state assessment scores in grades 6, 7 and 8 are pretty much right where they were – relative to non-Newark students – in 2009.

Follow-up analyses are certainly warranted, but limited by changes in state outcome measures.

[i] http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/author_dale_russakoff_discusses_new_book_on_newark.html

[i] Weber, M. (2015) Empirical Critique of One Newark: First year update. New Jersey Education Policy Forum. https://njedpolicy.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/empirical-critique-of-one-newark-first-year-update/

[ii] Russakoff, Dale (2015) The Prize: Who’s in charge of America’s schools? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[iii] http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/12/01/op-ed-dispelling-five-falsehoods-about-newark-s-school-system/

[iv]http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/newark_moran.html

[v] https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10102461248065941?fref=nf

[vi] http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2015/11/newark_power_brokers_back_zuckerbergs_school_donat.html

 

The (Mis-)Use of Data in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize

Mark Weber, PhD candidate, Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education

Full Review: Weber_RussakoffFINAL-1

Executive Summary

Dale Russakoff’s The Prize is one of the most discussed books on education policy in recent memory. Russakoff tells the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation toward education “reform” in Newark, NJ, and the subsequent changes in the city’s schools.

Russakoff cites several data points in the course of the book in an effort to generalize the individual stories she recounts. Unfortunately, many of these points rely on proprietary data, rendering them unverifiable. Several are presented without proper context, creating a false picture of the reality of schooling in Newark. Others are contradicted by publicly available and uniformly reported sources.

Russakoff, for example, states that a single charter school has more social workers per pupil than a single NPS school. State data, however, shows Newark’s public district schools have more educational support personnel of many types per student than Newark’s charter schools. Russakoff also compares Newark’s per pupil spending to that of entire states, without accounting for differences in student populations or regional wage differences.

A central theme of The Prize is that Newark’s public district schools suffer from budgetary bloat; state data, however, shows that district schools spend less than charters on administration. Plant spending at district schools is not excessive compared to charters.

Russakoff does acknowledge differences in student population characteristics between district and charter schools. She does not adequately explore, however, how these differences, and differences in resources, affect student outcomes. She also repeats the contention of many of her book’s protagonists that teacher quality is unduly poor in district schools without examining how teacher characteristics have changed in Newark during the last several years of “reform.”

Policy makers should approach The Prize with caution: while an interesting and compelling narrative about the politics of school “reform,” the book’s misapplication of data to uphold its theses makes it an inadequate analysis of education policy in Newark and elsewhere.

 

Camden’s “Transformation” Schools: Racial & Experience Disparity in Staff Consequences

Mark Weber

Doctoral Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education

Policy Brief: Weber_CamdenTransformationsFINAL

Executive Summary

This brief examines the 2015 “transformation” plan of the Camden City Public Schools, which will transfer five district schools to charter management organizations. When using New Jersey’s growth measures, adjusted for student demographics, I find that these are not the “most struggling schools” in Camden, as the district asserts.

Staff at these schools must reapply for their positions, but are not guaranteed employment. I find that this consequence affects Camden’s black teachers more than its white teachers, even when controlling for school-wide growth measures and student body characteristics. Using a logistic regression model, black staff are 1.6 times more likely to face an employment consequence than white staff. Similarly, staff with 5 to 24 years of experience are between 2.3 and 3.4 times more likely to face this consequence than staff with less than 5 years of experience.

Previous research suggests the loss of experienced teachers and teachers whose race aligns with students could negatively impact student achievement. At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest the charter management organizations taking over transformed schools will fare any better at improving test-based student outcomes.

CCPS should immediately release its methodology for identifying the transformation schools as the “most struggling” in the district, and justify the potential loss of experienced and black staff under its plan.

 

One Newark: Choosing “Great” Schools, or Merely Segregated Ones?

Full Length Brief: Weber_One NewarkSegregation-1

Mark Weber, PhD candidate, Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education

Executive Summary

This brief provides a preliminary analysis of the potentially segregative effects of One Newark, the school choice plan implemented by the Newark Public Schools (NPS) in 2014. School choices appear to be influenced by ratings assigned by NPS; however, these ratings are correlated to student population characteristics, such as race and economic status. Newark families, therefore, may be the choosing schools – inadvertently or otherwise – that are more segregated.

“Popular” schools under One Newark – the ones chosen most often by families – enroll fewer students eligible for the federal free-lunch program, a proxy measure of economic disadvantage. Popular charter schools also enroll relatively large proportions of black students compared to all of the city’s publicly-funded schools, even as popular district schools enroll relatively small proportions.

While popular schools show better performance on statewide assessments, their “growth” scores, which are intended to take into account differences in student populations, are more mixed. Because test scores are correlated to student population characteristics, families that choose higher-performing schools under One Newark may be selecting schools that are more segregated.

There are notable differences between popular district and popular charter schools: the popular charters have higher suspension rates and more inexperienced teachers than the popular district schools. Whether families are aware of these discrepancies is unknown.

Although the limited data released by NPS is inadequate for a full analysis, I find these results to be sufficient evidence to warrant the release of the full set of One Newark application data.