Replicating Robert Treat Academy


With little doubt, Robert Treat Academy in Newark is one of those charter schools that is doing well by common outcome measures and likely by even more important measures than state tests. What we know about are the tests. And even if one controls for a variety of factors about student populations, Treat’s test scores are pretty darn good.

Here’s a figure from a model I re-ran the other day (based on older work), using a variety of school, student population and community factors to control for expected differences in student outcomes. Schools above the line are those that outperformed expectations and those below the line fell below expectations. Charters are in red, and again, there are roughly equal numbers of traditional publics above and below the red line and charters above and below the red horizontal line. Treat is one of those above the line.

Treat Beat

So the argument goes, Treat is producing these test scores with much less money, and therefore we should be able to do the same, with similarly less money across poor urban settings by emulating the Treat model.

I addressed in a previous post how charter schools receive less through the state aid formula than traditional public districts. Again, this should shift somewhat over time, but charters will remain relatively disadvantaged. Using Robert Treat’s IRS 990 for 2007 expenditures (instead of their NJDOE reporting of their expenditure of public charter funding only), Treat shows expenditures per pupil in 2007 around $12,600. I’m still not sure I’ve captured the full expenditure here, because Treat’s IRS 990s show unusually low levels of private contribution for a successful charter school.

That aside, is the Treat miracle replicable across Newark? Or, is Treat different in substantive ways that can’t be spread throughout the system. Here are a few numbers that raise concern.

First, as I noted on a previous post, Robert Treat’s student body is only 3.8% special education in a district with an average of 18.1%.  This is from the special education classification data from NJDOE. In the enrollment files, Treat reports 0%. At 100% additional average expenditure per special education pupil, matching district demographics would raise Treat’s expected spending to $14,868 (1.18 x 12,600 in 2007).

Second, while Robert Treat does show about 62.4% students qualifying for free (130% poverty level) and reduced (185% poverty level) lunch, the free lunch share is about 42.9%. That is, Treat’s free or reduced share is boosted by the share of children who are more well off among the less well off. Note that the model I used above used Free & Reduced shares, not Free alone or the ratio between them.

By contrast, Newark Public Schools in total has 82% free or reduced and 71% free lunch alone.

Treat also reports less than 1% limited English proficient students while Newark City schools report 8.7%.

It’s one thing for me to try to control for these differences in estimating who does and does not “beat” odds, but yet another to take a model that has been successful under certain circumstances and apply it widely under very different circumstances, at the same cost.

It’s all well and good to cite other studies from other cities  and states that show that charter schools on average aren’t “cream-skimming,” (where most of those comparisons are based either on student’s initial performance or on free + reduced shares) but the reality in this case is that Treat Academy is producing its current level of outcomes at its current price tag with a substantively different student population – most notably the absence of children with disabilities. Again, they’re doing well, and even in models I’ve run controlling for some of these things, they still stand out and should be applauded for their efforts and results.

But, given the demography of the entire student population of Newark in particular, replicating this model may prove difficult. Adding more schools that serve fewer of the poorest children and few or no children with disabilities may be significantly problematic for those schools which then serve the larger shares of both.

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5 Comments

  1. Your point about the low rate of kids with disabilities in charters certainly tracks with the data I’ve seen, Bruce. There’s no doubt some amount of self-selection going on which makes comparisons with non-charters murky. The lack of kids with IEP’s would certainly reduce costs. I wonder, though, if traditional public schools offered some of the perks of charters — longer school years, longer days, more support services — would we be able to lower the percentage of classified students? N.J.’s rate of classification is outrageous, just about the highest in the country. 18% of kids are disabled? Not likely.

    NJLeftBehind

    1. Indeed NJ is high relative to national average classification rates, but it’s hard to pin down the extent to which this is a function of district behaviors versus parental demands. In fact, in the Special Education Expenditures Project analysis of classification in relation to funding tiers under the old formula, it was found that students were frequently misclassified into lower funded tiers, countering the notion that the elevated rates were a function of financial incentive. It would indeed be nice to see more comprehensive services provided to marginal, mild to moderate LD & BD kids making classification less necessary.

      But that’s not likely what is going on with the lower charter rates in NJ. And SFRA’s flat funding is unlikely to drive change. PA has been census funding since the early 1990s and has experienced similar total growth in mild to moderate classification – even in the most cash strapped districts (and they get no financial benefit from this). However, in PA, charters get substantial benefit from serving mild disability students, because they get the average special ed expenditure (including more severe) for each mild disability student they serve and Charters aren’t capped on their special ed funding like the census funding for traditional publics in PA. In PA, the charters have been under scrutiny for significant abuses associated with special education windfalls: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/front_page/20091031_Pa__charter_school_overhaul_legislation_proposed.html

      In this article, I discuss the demography of disability and its relation to school funding. https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/files/2009/09/baker-ramsey-cbased-jefsubmit-may28_09.pdf

  2. I looked at the Philly Inquirer article you cited — thanks. A key difference in charter school governance between PA and NJ is that in PA the local districts oversee local charters (except for cyber charters). In NJ the State oversees them — a good thing, since it’s hard to imagine any accountability at all when 600 tiny school districts have that kind of responsibility. PA is a different animal — Rendell was able to force school consolidation and has it down to 100. Last I heard the DOE (which may be moot after Tuesday) was planning on issuing regulations for charters similar to those of traditional public schools.

    1. PA charters are not necessarily district governed but may be: http://www.pde.state.pa.us/charter_schools/cwp/view.asp?A=146&Q=47379, or http://www.pachartercoalition.com/main/charters_in_pa/pa_cs_law.html, or http://www.pde.state.pa.us/charter_schools/cwp/view.asp?a=146&Q=46483

      They may be established independently.

      The funding situation is very different though. In PA, a district gets a flat amount per 16% of their student population for special education. This amount is only about $3000 to $4000, and again, is allocated per 16% of total population. Charter school special ed funding is done by pass through from the district. The district must pass along its “average expenditure” per special education child to the charter for each special education child, whether mild or severe disability. But, charters only serve mild disability students, and it is actually in their interest to do this as much as possible in PA – because average special ed expenditures per special ed child in districts are about $14,000 to $18,000 per pupil. The charter receives this full amount as pass through and is not capped at having 16% or fewer. In fact, Keystone Education Center CS in western PA has 37%, all with mild disabilities.

    2. Your note on the complications of accountability associated with having 600 tiny school districts casts additional doubt regarding the logic of adding even more tiny educational agencies to the puzzle – Charter Schools. This is the age old debate regarding market driven vs. centralized accountability.

      Many public finance economists would argue the virtues of “competition density” as exists in NJ by having so many tiny school districts, each aligned with a tiny municipality (for the most part). They argue that this provides incentive to attract home-buyers to specific neighborhoods and schools, and more choices (within any geographic space) are better for competition than fewer choices. Its the same logic behind charter schools or vouchers without having to move households.

      But actually, there’s infighting between the voucher crowd and local control – competition density of districts – crowd on this point. While both agree that competition density is good, their policy solutions for increasing competition collide. That’s because vouchers and/or inter-district choice disrupt the cyclical relationship between housing value and school quality (which are, of course, deeply entangled with racial and socio-economic segregation) which is the driving force for “Tiebout” choice (Charles Tiebout).

      So, if we believe in non-housing linked choice as a method for creating competition, our solution is to provide a combination of vouchers, charters and open enrollment, all fully subsidized (or not at all subsidized) – with minimal centralized accountability. Let the market decide? Alternatively, if we believe that many small school districts solves the same problem, allowing consumers to vote with their feet when making their market driven decisions, then we should deny choice options which disrupt the link between housing and schooling (entirely infeasible with the distribution of housing stock in NJ, but that’s where COAH comes in) . Or, moving away from either of these market driven, decentralized approaches, we should move for greater consolidation – hence integration – and greater centralized accountability. It’s incompatible to be arguing for more charters and consolidation simultaneously. It’s also incompatible to argue for local control and vouchers. It’s rather disingenuous to argue for maintenance of local control for most, and option for start-up underfunded charters in the poor urban districts. Yes, “we in the burbs believe competition is good and will fix schools, but only if we let interested activists create underfunded start-up schools in the poor urban core, and maintain our insulation from them.” Those are the limits of our belief in choice and markets, apparently.

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