Does New Jersey really need more small, segregated schools?

Political pundits and the media frequently point out two major concerns regarding the organization of public school districts in New Jersey.

  • First, that New Jersey, being the most population dense state in the nation, simply has far too many small schools and school districts (largely an artifact of municipal reorganization and alignment that occurred in the late 1890s and first decade of the 1900s).
  • Second, that New Jersey is among the most racially and socioeconomically segregated states in the nation, or more specifically, that many urban communities in New Jersey suffer extreme racial isolation (high concentration of a single race/ethnicity).

I blogged about this topic way back when I first started this blog!

Here’s a snapshot:

So then, one should ask how expansion of charter schools intersects with these two major policy concerns. It would be one thing if New Jersey Charter Schools simply had a track record of a) serving similar student populations and b) consistently outperforming traditional public schools in the same location. That is, one might argue that we can deal with a marginal increase in segregation and additional segmentation of our school system if it’s producing better results (therefore not compromising efficiency). But that’s not the case. New Jersey charter schools, on average, are average.  In particular, there are few if any high performing, high poverty charters. The figure below is from a recent post.

In fact, the NJ charters frequently cited as high flyers also tend to a) serve far lower shares of children qualifying for free lunch, b) serve far fewer LEP/ELL children, and c) some in particular have disproportionately high attrition rates in the middle grades.

I’ve shown on many occasions on this blog, that NJ Charters serve far fewer children with greater educational needs.

But do NJ Charter schools contribute to racial and ethnic segregation in New Jersey? Given the break-even performance of NJ charters, it would make little sense to advance a policy agenda that has the tendency to increase segregation and racial isolation in a state already segregated and racially isolated.

Here are the figures, based on the 2009-10 NCES Common Core of Data, Public School Universe Survey, based on the zip code of school location (LZIP).

I’ve included only elementary and middle schools in the following graphs.

First, here are the charter and non-charter averages for % Free Lunch by zip code:

While statewide averages are relatively comparable, as I’ve discussed numerous times, there are big differences in specific locations. Note the number of zip codes where charters serve far fewer children qualifying for free lunch (light blue bars way below dark blue bars). In a few cases, charters serve higher rates.

Second, here are the charter and non-charter % black populations by zip code:

In many cases, charters serve far higher concentrations of black students than surrounding schools.  This figure provides an intriguing contrast with the previous, suggesting that in fact, in many neighborhoods, Charters are serving the less poor among black populations specifically and are serving black populations almost exclusively in some otherwise mixed race neighborhoods.

Third, here is the distribution of Hispanic enrollments by zip code:

Charter schools seem to be largely underserving Hispanic populations. This may be consistent with their underserving of LEP/ELL children to the extent that there is overlap between LEP/ELL concentrations and Hispanic enrollments within Zip Codes. A few zip codes have higher concentrations of Hispanic children in charter schools but most have far fewer.

Finally, here is the concentration of Asian students by zip code:

A handful of NJ charter schools have highly disproportionate shares of Asian students.

These figures raise important questions about the contribution of charter schools in the broader education policy and public policy context in a state already grappling with significant segregation and racial isolation (and consolidation, or lack thereof). These concerns may be particularly relevant as increased numbers of culture (ethnicity) specific charter schools are proposed, dispersed throughout the state.

Raw Stata output of tabulations: Charter Segregation Raw Output

3 thoughts on “Does New Jersey really need more small, segregated schools?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been in many charter schools all over NJ in the past few years. I was an interim principal of one in Jersey City, when I first retired . Now I work part time as a staff developer and Laboratory Extension Specialist in many schools. I have observed it first hand. The numbers don’t lie
    It is my opinion we are doing more harm than good in the name of “improving schools.”

    What is the reason the Middle States Association of Schools has not had one NJ Charter school attempt a self-study for accreditation? If it were required for their accreditation perhaps we would see differing numbers. Look at the private and parochial schools most all strive for multiple year accreditation. Could going through the Middle States process help those struggling charter schools improve?

  2. My son’s in kindergarten at a charter school in Jersey City. Far from being segregated, it’s actually more ethnically diverse than Jersey City as a whole – one of the most diverse cities in America. I love that it’s a small school, where the principal knows every student by name, and the entire school gathers in the gym every morning before homeroom starts.

    I feel like there’s a lot of knee-jerk dislike of charter schools based on not a lot of information. I can’t speak for the whole state, but Jersey City’s charters are union shops, enroll by lottery, and despite getting under 60% the funding per student a mainstream public school does, still perform as well. (The law requires them to get 90%, but Governor Christie isn’t that big on obeying the law when it comes to funding our schools)

    I feel like your’re looking at this data and seeing only what you want to see, ie. whatever can paint the charters in a bad light. Let’s start from the bottom: “A handful of NJ charter schools have highly disproportionate shares of Asian students.” You don’t mention that an even greater number of charters have Asians under-represented.

    “Charters are serving the less poor among black populations specifically.” This seems to be speculation, but if it’s true, is that the worst thing? That the “less poor” have a chance at sending their kids to a decent school? Or should poor and less poor alike be herded into the massive schools you seem to favor, where they’ll get less individual attention and be given less of a chance to succeed?

    I don’t have a lot of charts and graphs handy, but I do know what I’ve seen firsthand, that my city has some fine charter schools, which provide a great environment for students with barely the resources to hire a full slate of teachers and still keep the lights on. If you want to attack somebody, attack New Jersey for not fully funding the schools, not the charters for trying to provide another option to parents.

    1. The data are what they are. A key issue here, in this post, is that how one perceives the data depends significantly on whether viewed from a parent perspective or from a public policy perspective. Newark and Jersey City/Hoboken charters as a group – but especially the most commonly cited charters – serve far fewer low income students (free lunch), very few LEP/ELL students and special ed students compared to surrounding schools. So, to the extent that they are successful… and many are not… those successes can be largely attributed to the populations they serve. Please see the various other links to my other posts on NJ charter data. This is not to say that some/many aren’t quite good schools. But, it does mean that they aren’t necessarily a scalable alternative for fixing the public system, which is what many are arguing.


      I will post on funding in the near future, but your funding claim of 60% is incorrect and based on poorly constructed/reported NJDOE data.

      The racial sorting piece is certainly less clear than the poverty, ELL and special ed sorting. It raises some interesting questions, but provides no clear answers/patterns.

      My overall position on charters is that I support cautious and appropriate expansion and transparent and equitable funding but with full recognition for what charters are, and do. In many cases, they operate as privately managed magnet schools – serving specific, selective populations, and doing well by them. That’s fine… and in some cases that’s even great. But pundits shouldn’t be trying to claim that they are serving a representative population and still doing better. If they’re not, they’re not. And that’s not always a problem. In some cases it’s an opportunity – but not the type of opportunity that’s being framed by pundits. Note – by pundits – not by charter operators themselves. This is where pundits, including NJ Charter Schools Association or E3 do a real disservice to those who are out there trying to run an honest, good school for kids who need it and parents who want it.

      Charters that succeed in this way are not “incubators” for innovative curriculum that can be expanded district wide (as I say in my more recent post, there just aren’t enough non-low income, fluent English speaking, non-disabled students to scale this up). Rather, they are a special opportunity – and good one – for the few, just like magnet schools. I am opposed to simply throwing the doors wide open to various non-government agencies to authorize the formation of many additional charters given the present lack of regulation (lack of financial reporting and failure to step in and deal with problematic charters). Arguably, we should be looking first to the leaders of well established charters with track records in NJ (or comparable communities) for charter expansion. Even the current approach in NJ has produced a real mixed bag.

      I have a personal bias in favor of Ethical Community Charter – hoping that this works well in the diverse Jersey City setting – having worked for 5 years in the private school after which EC is modeled. I really hope they can pull this off. Note that Ethical Culture schools in NYC spend, per pupil, about double what Newark or Jersey City schools spend (tuition alone is in the mid-$30s, and tuition does not cover full cost). So it will be a stretch.

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