Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Many Districts Does It Take To Fill A Charter School?

Amir Khan's Regis Academy was approved in September of 2011.  He has had five months to reach out to parents and recruit students from the four sending districts for which he was approved, namely Cherry Hill, Lawnside, Somerdale and Voorhees.  At his last public information session (where Khan threatened concerned citizens in attendance with calling the police before the meeting even started), he announced that the NJDOE had given him approval to open enrollment to other districts.  I blogged about it an wondered why they had allowed him to open enrollment.

No need to wonder anymore.  I filed an OPRA request for the initial enrollment data submitted by Regis Academy.  Guess what I found out?

In the five months since gaining approval, Regis has enrolled a whopping 37 kids.  That's right, 37.  And here is the best part.  While the form doesn't say where each individual child is from, the districts they represent are listed.  And they aren't limited to the four sending districts.  They are also from Williamstown, Deptford, Lindenwold, Berlin, Erial and Camden.  In five months, Regis has only managed to enroll 37 kids from 10 districts.  Guess those ValPak ads aren't so helpful afterall.

Here is the Preliminary Enrollment form submitted by Lead Person Christian Barnes. Check it out for yourself:

Regis Prelim Enrollment

I also requested any documents related to Regis' request to expand their region of residence.  Here's what that request turned up:
Regis Request to Change Region of Residence

There is so much here I don't know where to begin.  I think I need a list.  

1.  On January 26th an email was sent to Deputy Commissioner Smarick from Amir Khan.  Note that while the letter was written by Amir Khan, the email was sent from someone working at Khan's church, the Solid Rock Worship Center.  Why wasn't the email sent by Khan, the President of the Board of Trustees or Christian Barnes, the Lead Person?  This certainly raises questions regarding the separation between Regis Academy and Solid Rock.

2.  Amir Khan asked to expand his region of residence to include four (Lindenwold, Clementon, Pennsauken and Camden), possibly five (Berlin) additional districts.  Somehow between that request on January 26th and Regis' initial enrollment submission on February 15th he pulled students from three more districts (Williamstown, Deptford, and Erial.)

3.  Why aren't the racial demographics included?   The charter school regulations state that "the (Acting) Commissioner shall assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of the students may have on its district of residence. The assessment shall be based on the enrollment from the initial recruitment period…"  How is this assessment to be conducted if this information isn't provided?

3. 23 of the 37 students, or 77%, are in Kindergarten or First Grade.  This says to me that very few parents have actually been willing to pull their children out of the public schools in the original four districts.  

4.  The projected enrollment for Regis' first year is 250 students, 50 in each grade from K-4.  Regis only met 15% enrollment in the first 5 months, and had to expand from 4 to 10 districts in order to do so.

Charter proponents are constantly taking about the waiting lists for charter schools as evidence that there is incredible demand for choice.  Isn't the reverse therefore also true?  If five months of recruitment produces only 37 students from 10 districts, isn't it time for Acting Commissioner Cerf to admit he made a huge mistake in approving Regis Academy in the first place?  Haven't the parents of these districts clearly "voted with their feet" by NOT enrolling in this charter?  

The NJDOE allowing Regis to expand it's region of residence when next to no demand has been demonstrated in the original four districts makes a mockery of the application process.  Why bother having districts respond to applications or appeal approvals if once approved charters can pull from anywhere and everywhere?  Cherry Hill has expended resources fighting a projected enrollment of 169 students.  Now Amir Khan has scaled that back to 50.  I betcha Cherry Hill has not received a revised bill...

Shouldn't the Acting Commissioner let the districts of Cherry Hill, Lawnside, Somerdale and Voorhees out from under Regis' $2.7M price tag?  

The almost 2,000 people that signed a petition asking the Governor and Acting Commissioner Cerf to deny Regis their final charter on July 15th certainly think so.  I might add that it has taken less than 2 weeks to get almost 2,000 signatures compared to 37 students in five months.  Hmmm.  

If you agree that Regis should not receive their final charter, please sign and share.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Regis Academy Hires Closed Charter VP, NJDOE Opens Enrollment Beyond Four Districts

Last night the Regis Academy held an information session that was attended by approximately 32 prospective parents.  Some Cherry Hill residents that have been vocal opponents of the charter school also attended the meeting.  One that is known to Amir Khan was pulled aside before the meeting and told that if she caused any trouble the cops would be called.  Another was asked if she was from the press.

Amir Khan is the president of the Regis Academy Board of Trustees.  Is this how he intends to run his Board of Trustee Meetings?  With threats of police action for anyone that is not a supporter or has questions about how the Regis Academy is spending public tax dollars?

Leading the meeting was Christian Barnes who was introduced as the Lead Person for Regis Academy.  Mr. Barnes was the Vice Principal of the Trenton Community Charter School.  He was fired only months before the charter was closed for good for poor performance.

Trenton Community Charter was founded in 1997. In March the DOE placed the school on 90-day probation, saying it had repeatedly failed to meet federal testing standards and needed to implement a turnaround plan.
According to state data, only 38 percent of the school’s elementary students passed the state language test in 2008, and the figure fell to 15 percent the following year.
Nearly half passed the math exam in 2008, but in 2009 the figure fell to 35 percent.
In the application The Regis Academy budget includes a paid position School Leader/Curriculum Director during the start up phase, and then a Vice Principle for Curriculum and Instruction once the charter is up and running.  Sounds like Mr. Barnes got himself a new Vice Principal position despite the closure of his last charter.

Vice Principal?

In addition, attendees at last night's meeting reported that Amir Khan informed the audience that "just yesterday" the NJ Department of Education told him that Regis Academy does not have to restrict their enrollment to the four sending districts they were approved for; Voorhees, Somerdale, Lawnside and Cherry Hill.  They can now accept kids from anywhere in the state. 

Here's what the charter school regulations have to say about what might have happened "just yesterday" to bring about this change.

(k) Prior to the granting of the charter, the Commissioner shall assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of the students may have on its district of residence. The assessment shall be based on the enrollment from the initial recruitment period pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:11-4.4(a) and (b). The charter school shall submit data for the assessment: 

1. In a format prescribed by the Commissioner; and

2. No later than 4:15 P.M. on February 15(emphasis mine)

In the Regis Application February 15 is listed as the date their "initial enrollment count" is due to the NJDOE.
Timeline for Enrollment
Let's recap, shall we?

Regis had to submit their "enrollment from the initial recruitment period" or "initial enrollment count" to the NJDOE on February 15.  On February 16 they held a public information session and told the audience "just yesterday" the NJDOE opened their enrollment to kids from anywhere in the state.  

Anybody else thinking that the initial enrollment count wasn't looking too good?

Here's the question I have for Carlos Perez and the NJDOE.  What happened to parents "voting with their feet?"  If Amir Khan is having trouble filling 250 seats, 50 each in K-4, with students from the four towns he applied for, why has the NJDOE already opened admissions to other districts? 

In the end, parents vote with their feet. A charter school that fills up with students is one that was wanted by the community. If parents didn’t want more options, then a charter school wouldn’t survive. 

There is more than enough evidence that the Regis Academy is not wanted or needed by the community, and that it has not been proven to be "high-quality and innovative."  Yet somehow it "survives."

While the founders of Regis may be "determined" to see their charter open, NJDOE spokesman Justin Barra said something that the opponents of the Regis Academy need to be paying close attention to.  

“We will review their progress toward opening, as we do every approved charter school, in the summer before officially approving opening in September 2012,” Barra said.

The approval of Regis' charter DOES NOT mean that it will open in September.  In fact check out the Charter School Fact Sheet.  Five other charter applications were approved but never granted their final charter.  Regis must submit their final paperwork on June 30 to receive their final charter on July 15.  

If there is anything I have learned from my experiences battling Tikun Olam, it is that the opponents of the Regis Academy are going to need to remain vigilant, because the NJDOE's Office of Charter Schools gives unproven charter operators every advantage over communities and districts.  

Regis appears to be a partnership of an unproven charter school operator and a failed charter school operator, and they STILL seem to have the advantage over the district schools and parents.   


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Residences (And Offices)

OK, so no confirmation hearing for Chris Cerf on Thursday.  Like Jersey Jazzman, I am a little disappointed.  I was getting geared up to testify about the glaring lack of transparency in the NJDOE under Acting Commissioner Cerf, but I guess it will have to wait.  I'm sure it will just give me more ammunition if he ever does get a hearing because I'm not going away, and Cerf isn't going to start playing by the rules.

Jersey Jazzman already recapped how Cerf got tripped up, and how Sweeney ultimately pulled the plug:

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), West Deptford, shut down the Thursday hearing for Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf based largely on discomfort about Cerf’s declared residency status, a source said. 

In the same article that revealed Cerf had "two homes," Christie was playing hard ball:   

“We have no concern whatsoever about his residency being an issue during consideration of this extremely qualified individual for commissioner of the Department of Education,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. “We are finally moving forward in spite of the baseless, obstructionist conduct by Sen. Rice in particular — and I’m being very kind in my selection of adjectives in describing Rice’s handling of this nominee.”

Rice’s use of senatorial courtesy is an abuse of the system, the administration believes.

“It’s because they use it for political leverage to try to get something else,” Christie said of the reasons why Rice and Codey have used the practice on the governor’s Essex County nominees.

And the governor is willing to play hardball.
”I know that they’re used to the old game of rolling governors on stuff all the time,” Christie said of the Essex senators. “They’re messing with the wrong guy on this one.” (emphasis mine)

So, what do Christie and Cerf have to say now that the cat's out of the bag?

Christie’s office declined to comment.
Cerf deferred questions about his nominations and residency to his spokesman at the Department of Education, Justin Barra, who did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Where'd all that bravado and bluster go, guys?

While the hubbub over Cerf's residence may be a mundane example of the kind of deception and bullying Cerf and Christie are capable of to get what they want, it also exemplifies all that is wrong with the way they conduct themselves.  Here's what Senator Rice wants before Cerf goes before the Judiciary Committee:

Rice, D-Essex, blocked Cerf’s nomination as education commissioner for 13 months, demanding he testify before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, which Rice co-chairs.

Rice's request sounds totally straightforward and reasonable, so why won't Cerf do it?  I'm sure he doesn't want to answer the tough questions Rice is likely to have for him, which would probably be very similar to Jersey Jazzman's.  Here's what Rice had to say about the cancelled hearing.

Rice said the comments about Cerf’s residence were further proof of an “integrity problem” with the acting commissioner.

“I never thought he moved in the first place,” Rice said.

And here's what Cerf had to say about his two homes:

"The facts are that I own a home in Montclair and that I reside there many nights a week. I have also rented a home … in the southern part of the state and I spent several nights a week there. I use it to shorten my commute," Cerf said.

But in Peter Meyer's love-fest profile, in which Cerf was depicted as a grizzled outdoorsman and education reformer that can weather any challenge set before him, an interesting tidbit was revealed. 

The drive from Trenton to Newark was the third part of an interview that began in downtown Newark several days earlier, in a large, bare office that looks out over Jersey’s troubled largest city. Cerf uses it as a transit station, a temporary office while on his way to or from meetings in the state’s more populated eastern counties, his home in a northern suburb, or across the Hudson in New York City. I had caught up with him for part two of our interview in his official Trenton office, 50 miles to the south and west, where the state’s education department is headquartered and where he has lively paintings drawn by schoolchildren on the walls.

This is a great twofer.  Simultaneously confirming both that Cerf's home is, was and most likely always will be, in a northern suburb, namely Montclair, and also that in addition to his "official" Trenton office he also has an office in Newark.  I am not exactly a Trenton insider, and even I have heard that there is a Newark satellite office that Cerf uses when he doesn't need to be in Trenton.  So why is the state paying for a satellite office in Newark if Cerf has "shortened his commute" to Trenton by renting a home in Montgomery Township?  Perhaps that wasn't the real reason for the "move?"

Days after Michael Winerip submitted questions to NJDOE spokesman Justin Barra for his column revealing the mess we all know as Tikun Olam, we were finally granted a meeting to discuss what we knew.  We were told that Cerf couldn't meet with us, because after all, he is "The Decider."  Instead we met with Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick, Chief of Staff David Hespe and Interim Charter School Office Director Amy Ruck, and Barra joined us via conference call from the Newark office.  

How much you wanna bet Cerf was in that Newark office listening in on the conference call?


Maybe Christie should have stayed quiet on this one...

Christie, who acknowledged during the news conference that Cerf’s family is maintaining its Montclair residence, said Cerf’s changing of his driver’s license and voter registration should be proof enough for lawmakers.

Except that...

As of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, no one named Christopher Cerf was registered to vote in Somerset County, according to Diane Miller, a confidential aide in the Somerset County Clerk’s Office. The county’s election board updates its database every day.

It's anyone's guess whether Cerf is resting his head in Montgomery or Montclair tonight, but wherever he is I bet he's not sleeping too well...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No Transparency At NJDOE Or For-Profit White Hat. What Are They Hiding?

Ten charter schools in Ohio that contract with White Hat Management, aren't too happy.   The saga is being covered extensively by StateImpact Ohio.

White Hat has been sued by the governing boards of some of the schools it manages. According to the lawsuit, White Hat collects at least 95 percent of the schools’ tax funding. It also owns everything from computers to student files. The governing authorities of the schools involved in the lawsuit would like to gain access to the materials and equipment and to decide if they want White Hat to continue to operate their schools.
For the 2010-11 school year, no Ohio White Hat school earned higher than the equivalent of a “C” on its state report card. Most were rated “D” or “F.”
And it looks like the lawsuit is heating up.  Today the Columbus Dispatch reported that:
Common Pleas Judge John F. Bender gave White Hat until March 6 to provide tax returns, building leases, transactions with its subsidiaries and other information to 10 charter schools that had contracted with the firm for management services.
“Public money must be accounted for,” Bender wrote in a 19-page order.
The judge asked attorneys for both sides to meet with him March 7 to discuss whether White Hat has complied.
For nearly two years, the company has fought against disclosing the information, arguing that it was proprietary. (emphasis mine)
Make sure to read the comment section of the Dispatch article.  The people of Ohio clearly see that they are being taken for a ride by this for-profit management company, and that their legislators are allowing it to happen.  I have written about Governor Christie's desire to allow for-profits to manage charters in New Jersey.  If he has his way, New Jersey will not be far behind Ohio.
Notice how White Hat is claiming they don't have to open their books because the information is "proprietary?"  
This reminds me of the NJDOE's refusal to release charter application reviewer comments.  I have been denied this information several times (I am expecting the third denial early this week!)   The reason for the denial is that the information is "deliberative." 
Let's break this down a bit.  
In all of our research we have learned a lot about the application review process, both at the state level for charters and at the federal level for grants.  (And by we I mean all of the fine folks I have been working with to battle Tikun Olam.)  In comparing these processes one thing is very clear. For all the problems with the federal process, it is COMPLETELY transparent.  When you file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a grant application, whether it was approved or denied, you also receive the reviewers scores and comments.  This is because the applications are scored, and the highest scorers get the money.  It's just that simple.  
But the public is not allowed to see reviewer comments on charter applications.  Applicants can see them, and the proposed Quest Academy even posted them on their website, but concerned citizens or districts that want to see them to better understand how the NJDOE is making their decisions are denied.  
So why can we see the reviewer comments on a federal grant application but we can't see the reviewer comments on a state charter application?  Simple.  
In New Jersey the decisions are not made based on the reviews.  The decisions are left to the Commissioner of Education.  
This is why the reviewer comments are considered deliberative.  They are not the final deciding factor.  New Jersey's charter school law gives Acting Commissioner Cerf the power.  
Jersey Jazzman did a great write up on this topic.  The only detail he missed was that the reviewer comments on the Regis Academy application were not released in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.  Cherry Hill did OPRA them, but they were denied.  The reviewer comments were part of documents released for their appeal of the approval of Regis Academy.  
And clearly it is a good thing they appealed, since the reviews clearly show that the application was not scored well by the three reviewers.  This is from Cherry Hill Superintendent Dr. Reusche's Assembly Education Committee testimony:
In attempting to determine why this charter was approved, we filed an OPRA request for the application review sheets; the DOE denied our OPRA request, but later released the review sheets to our solicitor as part of the official record on appeal. Here’s what we found: Three reviewers reviewed the application, giving scores of “Meets the Standard,” “Approaches the Standard,” or “Does Not Meet the Standard” in 14 categories. Three reviewers, 14 categories, for a total of 42 indicators. Regis’s application was deemed to meet the standard in just 20 of the 42 possible indicators. That’s a score of 47.6%. Shouldn’t a charter school application be subject to at least the 80% standard that school districts must achieve in the NJQSAC review? 
If we could see ALL of the reviews of ALL of the applications that were considered in that round, how many denied applications would we find that scored much higher than Regis?  It's hard to imagine that all 56 of the applications that were denied in that round scored lower than 47.6%.  So why did Regis get approved?
The Education Law Center and ACLU-NJ sued the NJDOE for the names of the individuals reviewing charter school applications and ultimately the information was released to Senator Gill via an OPRA request.  In the last round of approvals the NJDOE released the list of reviewers without any fanfare in their official press release.  But apparently the ratings of those reviewers mean very little. 
Cerf is "The Decider".  
What we really need is for someone with some power to OPRA the reviewer comments for ALL of those applications, and to do it in a very public way.  Individuals like me and school districts like Cherry Hill are easy to deny information.  
Any takers?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gov. Christie And His Reformy Friends Are Of Two Minds On Education Spending

Governor Christie has the NJEA back in his sights, but he seems to be gearing for another budget battle with the Education Law Center too.

Christie added the Education Law Center to his targets Thursday, saying the decades of litigation by the Newark-based law clinic has driven up spending on education while hurting results.
“That statement was so appalling and such a window into their philosophy about public education,” Christie said. “The biggest window was as a defense, he’s using it as a defense that he’s a founding member of the Education Law Center. I would hang my head in shame to say I was a founding member of the Education Law Center. That place has done more to ruin education in New Jersey than any single organization I’ve ever seen. (emphasis mine)

I'm practically speechless.  The ELC is the bad guy?  Without them Governor Christie would have gotten away with underfunding some of the poorest urban districts.  The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of ELC and restored $500,000,000 in education funding.  

The Newark-based Education Law Center, which brought the lawsuit against the state, argued that the cuts violated the state's constitutional requirement to provide a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools." In response, the Christie administration said the state doesn't have enough money to spend more on schools and argued that the court should not inject itself into the budget-making process. Conservatives including Christie have fiercely criticized the court's actions over the years, saying justices have mistakenly treated more funding as a cure-all for poor districts' education woes.
"We must acknowledge that money does not equal quality results," Christie said at a Statehouse press conference about an hour and a half after the decision was released.
He once again criticized the court by saying it's wrong for justices to say how the state should spend taxpayer dollars. But he made it clear he wouldn't fight the court order as he suggested during a radio talk show in April.

And then once the funding was restored, the Committee for Our Children's Future, which is headed by three Christie campaign contributors, and includes two of Christie's classmates, Lynn Grone and Bob Teeven, among its officers, ran an ad giving Christie credit for $850,000,000 in new education aid!

Let's review, shall we?  If the ELC is being blamed for increasing education spending then they're "hurting results" and "ruining education," but if Governor Christie is being given credit for increasing education spending then he is "moving New Jersey forward."

You got that?  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

LEAPing to Conclusions; Are Charters Our Only Hope, Or Only Hype?

I have been stewing about a bunch of stuff since last week's Assembly Education Committee hearing.  The local control bill was clearly the most controversial legislation being considered, and as I posted before the hearing, Carlos Perez put out a call to the charter school community to come out in force.  LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden heeded his call and came to the hearing to testify against the legislation.  Two seniors, two graduates, (one is now an employee) and one of the founders testified.  

First off, the students looked FANTASTIC!  They were in crisp, clean uniforms and not a hair was out of place.  They looked like they stepped right out of LEAP's glossy full-color brochure (you know, the kind traditional public schools aren't allowed to print but charters can.) 

As soon as they were done delivering their testimony, they were whisked out of the hearing room.  I was shocked that the students weren't encouraged to stay for the rest of the testimony, or to see the Education Committee vote on the issue.  Apparently they weren't pulled out of school to learn more about the legislation they were testifying against or the legislative process in general.  They were there solely to deliver Carlos' their message: Vote for this bill, and you will not only kill my charter school, you will kill ALL charter schools.  There was also a fair amount of testimony from these students about how horrible the rest of the Camden schools are, much to the dismay of Camden public school parents like MoNeke Ragsdale who testified beside me on behalf of Save Ours Schools NJ.  

Apparently, the kids weren't there just to deliver their message to the Assembly Education Committee members, but also to the press.  Check out this LEAP Academy Flicker photostream that shows the students posing for photos and being interviewed.  

Here's how their Trenton trip was described on the LEAP Facebook page:

Thanks to the LEAP students, alumni and staff who went to Trenton yesterday to speak out against a new bill that could limit the charter school movement.

So, this all got me thinking.  What's going on at LEAP, and how does it exemplify why we should all just step aside and let the "charter school movement" sweep across New Jersey whether or not districts want or need them? 

LEAP's biggest claim to fame is that 100% of their students graduate and go on to college.  This was highlighted several times at the hearing.  

So what I want to know is how do they do it, is it done anywhere else in Camden, and can it work for ALL kids?  

The Brimm Medical Arts High School, a "magnet school with a comprehensive high school curriculum" comes close to matching the same statistics.  They seem to have 1 or 2 kids that chose the military or a job over college though.

So how else are Brimm and LEAP similar?  Let's take a look at their IEP, LEP and Free/Reduced Lunch numbers.  Let's look at a couple of Camden's traditional public high schools too for comparison.

Notice the difference between LEAP and Brimm and the traditional public schools?  While free/reduced lunch numbers are pretty similar (interestingly Brimm has the most Free Lunch kids) there are LOTS more LEP kids and kids with IEPs in the traditional public schools.
Here's what I think is happening.  In a magnet high school like Brimm there is an admissions process for students, including an entrance exam, that obviously pulls out only the smartest, most motivated students.  Charters like LEAP with a lottery system, attract only the most motivated parents, who must fill out packets of information and sign Parent Partnership Agreements.  The children of these parents are therefore more motivated, successful students.  

Now let's look at a measure of "success" other than post graduation plans. (by the way, this measure is self reported by the school)  Let's look at the HSPA and see if this gives us any additional information.  

So it looks like if what you're after is skimming off the most successful students AND producing higher test scores, you'd be better off opening lots of magnets, not lots of charters.  I hear you, this is only one case study.  Gee, if only Acting Commissioner Cerf would release that charter report we could look at some more data...   

This still leaves us with the problem of how best to educate the rest of our kids.  Charters like LEAP have not demonstrated that they can serve ALL students, yet they are held up as examples of what is possible if only we would loosen up our laws and allow the unchecked growth of charters.  Until they do, why should we allow the proliferation that Carlos Perez, Acting Commissioner Cerf and Governor Christie seem so desperate for?

On the way to the hearing I heard a report on NPR about efforts to raise the dropout age to 18.  Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, interviewed a 19 year old mother that had dropped out at 16 but is back in school.  Here is a segment from that report:

MARTIN: Well, let's dig into some of this. Rashida, why don't you tell us, if you wouldn't mind, why you dropped out of school? Was it a sudden decision? Was it kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing or was it something that had been building for a while?
HARRIS: Well, school wasn't really that much important to me. I used to live at with my aunt and my brothers and sisters, we had to take care of ourselves. So, we would go to school probably two or three times a week just to be in school and walk the halls and stuff or we would go up to the school if it was a problem for us getting in fights and stuff like that. But school wasn't really that much important to me. The streets was at the time.
MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask, where's your mom in all this?
HARRIS: My mother's been dead since '96.
MARTIN: So, you lost her really early, I'm sorry.
MARTIN: I'm sorry about that. And so, your aunt was taking care of you or you were living with her. She was the adult, but she didn't insist that you go?
HARRIS: Well, at the time back then I was with my aunt in the court systems and both my godmother. When I was with my aunt, she didn't really care if we went to school or not as long as we're out of her house by at least 8:30, she don't care where we was at.

This is one of my main problems with charters.  When you show me data from a charter like LEAP, and the demographics look like the rest of Camden, and the kids have the same kinds of issues as Rashida, then we can talk about the benefits of charters versus traditional public schools.  You can't compare a school with 0% LEP students to a school with 17%, and you can't compare a school where only 7% of students require an IEP to a school were 34% do. 

LEAP has some amazing support services that should be available to ALL students, but will never be funded in all traditional public schools, certainly not by Governor Christie, who is probably gearing up to slash school budgets again for 2013.  In addition to an extended learning day and a longer school year, they have an Early Learning Research Academy that begins at birth, a Parent Center, Health Center, Family Support Center and a Center for College Access.  If you follow the links you will see that many of these programs are run in conjunction with Rutgers Camden. 

But when speaking to the media LEAP doesn't attribute their "success" to the fact that they are educating a different population than the traditional schools, or even to the incredible programs available to their students.  They claim their secret sauce is a combination of their Performance Based Compensation Program, i.e. merit pay (click the link, it's their actual teacher evaluation forms!) and giving very few teachers tenure.

Rutgers professor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and LEAP founder Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago boasts that last year 10 teachers came up for tenure and only one of them got it, because the other 9 "were not good."  Is it just me, or does that sound more like LEAP doesn't want to give teachers tenure?  They were good enough to teach LEAP students for 3 years, but then when it came time to give them tenure they needed to be "exited out?"  

So let's look at how much teachers get paid at LEAP compared with the rest of Camden.  

Ouch.  That's more than $15,000 less per teacher.  

Jersey Jazzman was onto something when he questioned how much teachers get paid at charters.  Doesn't look like merit pay is working out for too many LEAP teachers, does it? Let's look at one last chart to see how much experience LEAP teachers have.

One third of the experience of the teachers in the rest of the district, and less than half of the experience of the rest of their colleagues in the State of New Jersey…

This makes me think of the speech Diane Ravitch gave at the NJEA conference.  No, I am not a teacher, but I have become enough of a freak about these issues that I trucked it to Atlantic City just to hear her, and boy was it worth it.  Look, here we are at her book signing!

She looks great, but I look ridiculous, I can't believe I'm posting this photo...

In that speech she said that the reform movement has two main goals.  One is the "deprofessionalization" of teachers.  I think Dr. Ravitch would agree that an inexperienced, low paid staff fits her definition. 

According to Dr. Ravitch the other goal is privatization.  

Soon LEAP will have a new $12.5M facility.  Wouldn't you just LOVE to know where that $12.5M is coming from?  If Brimm wanted to build a new facility the money would have to come from taxpayers, which would make it a lot harder to get the funding.  And get this, LEAP already has two new facilities!  

LEAP Academy students are educated in two contemporary-modeled learning centers: a Lower/Elementary school (grades K–6), and an Upper/High school (7–12).  A complete renovation was financed to create the Lower school in 1999, while the Upper school was built from the ground up in 2005. (emphasis mine) 

So let's review.  The only current school development project in Camden is for kids who, according to the school's hype, are already succeeding, and already have not one but "two contemporary-modeled learning centers."  But to get some much needed new schools built for the rest of the kids in Camden legislators had to pass the Urban Hope Act while the School Development Authority continues to do nothing.  Great.     

Again, let's listen to Dr. Ravitch:

I worry about the future of public education. I worry that entrepreneurs now see great opportunities to make money in the public sector and that they will exert their influence to privatize education and turn it over to the free market. I am a great admirer of the free market, but I also believe that our society needs a balance between the free market and the public sector. If public schools are privatized, it induces a consumer mentality among parents and it destroys any sense of community responsibility. It also erodes any sense of civic obligation. 

LEAP sure does look like a product for parents and students to consume.  They have glossy brochures and videos to sell their program to parents, and they have talking points that resonate with the press and reformers with deep pockets.  

But I'm not buying it, and neither should you, because what they don't have is proof that what they're doing will work for ALL of Camden's students.  Until they do, I have to respectfully disagree with Carlos Perez and the students, graduates and staff from LEAP Academy that testified last week.  We do need local control.