Does New Jersey really need more small, segregated schools?

Posted on May 23, 2011

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