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NJ charter schools show lack in demographics

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Students with learning disabilities, limited English proficiency or those who come from low- income households are underrepresented in New Jersey’s charter schools, according to a new study.

Conducted by Julia Sass Rubin, associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Ph.D. student Mark Weber, “New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View,” found that these groups of students are more prevalent in the state’s public schools.

The study looked at demographics within seven communities, termed the “Big Seven,” including Camden, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield and Trenton. These cities were chosen because they have a higher concentration of charter schools compared to the rest of the state, according to the study.

In Newark, 80 percent of district school students are on the National School Lunch Program, whereas only 70 percent of charter school students are enrolled in the program, according to the study. Free lunch was used as an indicator of deeper poverty in the study. 

Similarly, Newark’s public schools enroll 9 percent Limited English Proficiency students, whereas the charter schools enroll a mere 1 percent, according to the study. Newark’s public schools also teach twice as many special education students, 18 percent, compared to charter schools’ 9 percent.

It is harder to educate a large population of high-poverty students, LEP students and learning-disabled students, Rubin said.

“If charter schools are not taking a percentage [of these students] like they should, then everyone else’s job becomes that much tougher,” she said.

Although the report did not include causes for the disparity, Rubin hypothesized three possible reasons: fewer students from these groups are applying, fewer students from these groups are being admitted or more students from these groups are leaving charter schools.

Rubin said a strong relationship exists between family income and students’ test results because standardized tests are “for the most part, a measure of poverty.”

One possible reason fewer low-income students are enrolled in charter schools could be because charter schools need students to perform well on standardized tests in order to avoid being shut down by the state, Rubin said. 

The lower rates of economically disadvantaged, LEP and special education students in charter schools result in higher concentrations of those students in public schools, Rubin said.

Not only does this increase segregation, but it also impacts the quality of education that districts can provide and the financial resources available to pay for that education, according to the study.

School districts get additional state aid based on the number of students who are at an economic disadvantage, are English language learners and have a learning disability, Weber said. They then must distribute that money equally throughout the district. 

The main issue is that charter schools in New Jersey are not educating their fair share of ‘at risk’ students, who are more costly to educate. As a result, charter schools have been pointed out as taking an unfair amount of state aid. 

“When you have charter schools come in and take a set amount of money with no regard to whether they are educating as many at risk children, it ends up being a big problem for the public schools,” Weber said. 

Current efforts by policymakers to revise the outdated Charter School Program Act of 1995 drove Rubin to delve into figuring out the demographics of these schools.

The report outlines four solutions for the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey Legislature: implementing a weighted lottery, creating a penalty for charter schools that do not match 90 percent of their host district’s composition, replacing students who leave with students from similar demographics and creating a uniform application deadline and waiting list transparency.

“We wanted to put the data out there to drive the policy discussion in a more informed way versus ideologically,” Rubin said. “The demographic issue has a big impact on both public schools and charter schools.”

The discussion does not end with policy makers, she said.

Students who have committed to pursuing a teaching career in college have an obligation to understand the facts surrounding charter schools and to participate in the debate, Weber said.

Stephanie Rivera, a graduate student, is an example of someone who is well versed in issues facing the modern education system. She is a student ambassador for Rutgers Future Scholars and the president of Future Teachers Association at Rutgers.

“If [charter schools] are only cherry-picking the best students out of the district, I don’t think it is doing the community any service,” she said. 

Rivera, who student teaches at New Brunswick Middle School, believes that the state should be putting more money into the public schools. 

Many of Rivera’s students have non-English speaking parents, and since the charter schools do not offer applications in their language, she said applying is a more difficult process for those students.

“Charter schools are a Band-Aid to a very severe situation — the overwhelming amount of poverty in this country,” she said. “We shouldn’t be looking at charter schools as a solution. We should be looking at how to solve poverty in our country.”

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