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8-31-12 Hybrid Charters, Ranking NJ's Public Schools not zero sum game

NJ Spotlight - School's in Session at Hybrid Charters, Despite Ongoing Legal Challenges…Appeals court dismisses NJEA bid to block schools, but union says it will pursue its case… “Legislative leaders in both parties have said that the state’s charter school law needs revisiting on several fronts, and have pledged to take up the issue in the coming session. More specifically, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools has scheduled a hearing for September 12 to take testimony on online schooling.”

NJ Spotlight -New Jersey Monthly's high school survey isn't the whole story.. Laura Waters says readers should be careful about reading too much into surveys like these.

 

 

NJ Spotlight - School's in Session at Hybrid Charters, Despite Ongoing Legal Challenges…Appeals court dismisses NJEA bid to block schools, but union says it will pursue its case… “Legislative leaders in both parties have said that the state’s charter school law needs revisiting on several fronts, and have pledged to take up the issue in the coming session. More specifically, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools has scheduled a hearing for September 12 to take testimony on online schooling.”

By John Mooney, August 31, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

New Jersey’s experiment with "hybrid" online charter schools has started, even while the legal challenge from the state teachers' union is also moving ahead.

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The first of two hybrid charters, which mix both traditional teaching and online tools, opened in Newark this week -- with the 80 sixth graders at Merit Preparatory Charter School receiving their Apple laptops.

The second hybrid, the Newark Preparatory Charter School, will open this coming Thursday. It's based on the same model: students attend school every day but receive much of their instruction online.

But that doesn’t mean the legal battle over hybrids is over. The New Jersey Education Association had sought to block the schools from opening outright, filing a challenge last week in state appeals court and asking for a stay to stop them.

The NJEA’s long-running argument is that the New Jersey Department of Education has no authority under the state’s charter school law to establish online schools, nor have they shown evidence of providing a quality education.

With the schools themselves filing legal briefs in the case, the appeals court on Friday ruled against the union’s request for a stay, saying its claims that there would be irreparable harm if the schools opened was “purely speculative.”

But the decision did not speak to the merits of the union’s overall argument, and in a conference call with lawyers yesterday, the union decided that it will pursue the challenge -- albeit at a much slower pace.

“We would have preferred the stay, but that has nothing to do with the merits of the case, which we still believe in,” said Vincent Giordano, the union’s executive director.

Giordano said the union would seek to have the case heard on an expedited calendar, which will still take four to six months at best. “But that’s not one or two years,” he said.

Last week, the leaders of Merit Prep wrote student's families to inform them of the legal challenge.

“We believe there is no merit to the action and are vigorously defending the school’s right to serve your family and your student,” said Ben Rayer, the school’s founder, in the letter. “We will be open every day this year and the years to come.”

On Sunday, the day before school opened, he sent another letter to update families on the appellate court’s decision. “We pointed out to the court that the Union action was frivolous, and the judge agreed,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf also praised the court’s decision to deny the stay.

“We’re not surprised by the court’s decision and are pleased that we can now turn our attention to what matters most -- ensuring all of our students have a great start to the school year,” said Barbara Morgan, Cerf’s press secretary.

Lawyers for the union said the decision did not address the merits of the case, ones that they believed still stood. The core of the argument is that the state's 16-year-old charter school law makes no mention of online education, and even contains some language that appears to prohibit it.

One key reference is a section that requires schools serve students from single or contiguous communities, something not guaranteed with online schools.

The union, among others, also raised the same concerns about the state’s approval of two other online schools. These would be entirely virtual, with students taking their classes from home. The department postponed final charters for the two schools this summer, making any legal challenge moot for now.

But the union also contends that online education is untested and unproven.

“We are not convinced of the educational efficacy and value of these schools,” Giordano said yesterday. “It is still not clear how this will play out, how much contact students will have with teachers, a whole number of issues.”

Meanwhile, Rayer yesterday said the start of Merit Prep on Monday had been smooth and successful, and he was glad the immediate legal challenge was over.

“It’s the first week of school and everything is going great,” he said. “We’d rather focus at this point on running the school and not getting tied up [in legal challenges].

But even as the schools move ahead in both the classrooms and the courts, the matter of online schooling in New Jersey is expected to get some additional political attention.

Legislative leaders in both parties have said that the state’s charter school law needs revisiting on several fronts, and have pledged to take up the issue in the coming session. More specifically, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools has scheduled a hearing for September 12 to take testimony on online schooling.

 

NJ Spotlight -New Jersey Monthly's high school survey isn't the whole story.. Laura Waters says readers should be careful about reading too much into surveys like these.

August 30, 2012

By Laura Waters, of NJLeftBehindLaura Waters says readers should be careful about reading too much into surveys like these.

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Last week New Jersey Monthly published its biennial ranking of the state's 328 public high schools, a closely-followed contest among N.J. districts. The top-ranked school in N.J. is New Providence High School in Union County, which boasts combined SAT scores of 1737 and a 97.7% graduation rate. The lowest-ranked traditional high school is Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy in Elizabeth, which admits to combined SAT scores of 1136 and a 53% graduation rate.

Rankings were compiled by an independent research firm in Ringwood called Leflein Associates, which used a combination of factors in its calculations, including average class size; SAT, A.P. and state assessment scores (HSPA); graduation rates; and socio-economic ranking (DFG).

Districts and families pay close attention to these rankings, celebrating elevation and ruing demotions. Amidst this reflection, here's two items that jump out at me.

First, an important factor in determining rankings is class size. Many districts in the state face dramatically lower state aid, declining property values, a hard 2% cap on budget increases, and daunting costs in special education. (Senator Teresa Ruiz, the architect of the new tenure reform bill, says that studying N.J.'s whopping special ed bill is her new priority.) One way to cut costs is to increase class size.

Sometimes this is done poorly, to the detriment of student achievement. Sometimes it's done well, with adequate professional development and careful oversight. Class size is not a zero sum game. Raising the number of students per classroom doesn't automatically lead to poorer outcomes, particularly with excellent educators at the helm. For example, in 2008 and 2010, NJ's number one high school was Millburn High. However, in the 2012 rankings it dropped to 8th, solely because class size grew to 21.3 students per class. In fact's Millburn's student achievement, when comparing SAT and HSPA scores, was higher than our new #1 school, Providence High School, which reported 17.7 students per class.

Does this mean that Millburn High School is lower-performing than Providence? No, it could simply mean that budget constraints have pushed it to operate more efficiently.

There may also be a few flaws in New Jersey Monthly's calculations, perhaps because data came from the NJ Department of Education (DOE). For example, Jefferson Township High School dropped from a 2010 rank of 158 to a 2012 rank of 211. The only factor in this drop appears to be an inaccuracy in reporting class size, which is listed, impossibly, at 49.1 students.

Secondly, for the first time New Jersey Monthly ranked N.J.'s robust system of magnet schools, a great form of school choice in which parents have the rare right to cross district boundaries and enroll children at a county-run "vocational school." Don't think cosmetology or auto mechanics. In fact, many of these schools, particularly in the north part of the state, are exclusive academically-oriented academies, with rigorous admissions standards and funding that traditional districts see only in their dreams.

The top vocational school is High Technology High in Monmouth County, with combined SAT scores of 2116 and a 100% graduation rate, besting N.J.'s #1 traditional high school, New Providence. Here's New Jersey Monthly's write-up:

"The test results for High Technology High's students are mind-blowing. The average combined SAT score of 2,116 is the best of any public high school in the state, and its HSPA results are equally monumental.

To attend High Technology High, each student must pass a rigorous admission test. It's worth the effort; 10 members of the latest graduating class of about 70 students are bound for Princeton University this fall."

Here's what's mind-blowing: the total cost per pupil at High Technology High is $39,024, according to NJ DOE. The total cost allotted per pupil the same year at a typical Monmouth County high school, Middletown High School North, was $15,193. Tuition is paid by the home district, which also provides transportation.

N.J. residents tend to support this form of school choice, even though it defies home rule (magnet/vocational students can bypass district boundaries, as long as they live in the county), "creams" top students from traditional schools (one of the most inflammatory charges against charter schools), and takes money from local district coffers.

Perhaps it's just semantics. Have school choice opponents successfully marred the word "charter," which simply means schools that receive public money and are free from some of state regulations (like only employing unionized teachers) in exchange for accountability? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Maybe we should rename charter schools and call them magnet schools.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey's public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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