The day after Thanksgiving, someone sent me an absolutely outrageous opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal. On-line articles in that newspaper are behind a paywall, which means that I cannot provide you a link. However, I will quote enough here from the faux-scientific piece published by New York Success Academy Charter Schools executive director, Eva Moskowitz, to give you a taste of what she said. Moskowitz has a Ph.D, or I might suspect she has no idea about collecting and presenting evidence for an argument. But she clearly knows better, which means she was intentionally and blatantly trying to deceive what she must imagine is a naive or stupid public.
Moskowitz’s article, titled “The Charter-School Windfall for Public Schools,” is followed by a subtitle to explain: “Competition is making even non-charter schools do better in New York. Yet the city is undermining school choice.” In the article itself, Moskowitz claims that charter schools in New York City educate exactly the same kind of population as the surrounding public schools; they do not, she claims, cherry-pick or cream-skim their students. We know, however, that Success Academy schools do not “backfill students who drop out” (a New York City term) after third grade. This means that Moskowitz’s own schools accept young students and form a school culture. If children leave as they move through the grades, the class simply grows smaller. In contrast, traditional public schools are expected to educate all children who arrive at their doors.
Then as we read further into the story, we see how Moskowitz sets up her misleading argument: “New York City has 32 community school districts. The availability of free facilities in some of them has spurred rapid charter-school growth, while in others, the absence of such facilities has thwarted it. As a result, charter enrollment varies widely, from nearly half of students in the Central Harlem district to none at all in other districts. This divergence, much like Germany’s division after World War II into a free-market West and a Communist East, has created perfect conditions for a real-world experiment. We can examine the 16 districts where charter school enrollment is highest (charter-rich districts) and the 16 districts where it is lowest (charter-light districts) and see how their relative rankings, based on their results on statewide English and math proficiency exams, changed between 2006 and 2014… Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one… And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings and not one rose.”
Refuting these obviously misleading and overly simplistic cause-and-effect claims is difficult without a detailed analysis of New York state achievement data broken down by neighborhood—the kind of data most readers lack. Fortunately, Diane Ravitch has printed a response from Horace Meister, a pseudonym for a New York policy wonk who feels obliged to remain anonymous. Horace Meister documents his research with data from New York’s 2014 Progress Report, released last month.
Horace Meister refutes Moskowitz’s contention that her schools do not cherry-pick their students. “The 2014 Progress Report data, used to compare the performance of all New York City public and charter schools, was released last month. These data show that Success Academy in Harlem serves 9.5% fewer students receiving free lunch, 18.5% fewer students on public assistance, 64% fewer students who live in temporary housing, 46.8% fewer English Language Learners, 44.6% fewer special education students, and 93.2% fewer of the highest need special education students than the average for public elementary and middle schools in District 5 in Harlem.”
Horace Meister also disproves Moskowitz’s central argument that the mere presence of a lot of charter schools improves the traditional public schools through competition. “Ms. Moskowitz argues that the data show that public schools in districts with more charter schools had improved test performance over the years as compared to districts with fewer charter schools. Her evidence is of such poor quality that, were it not for her obvious ideological agenda, it is hard to explain how a former professor with a PhD could make such elementary errors. Some errors are of methodology; others seem to be outright falsehoods. One falsehood is Ms. Moskowitz’s claim that District 5 in Harlem now ranks higher in proficiency on New York State English and Math exams than District 29 in Queens. She says this can be explained by the fact that Harlem has more charter schools… Again, looking at the Progress Report spreadsheet, elementary and middle schools in District 29 in Queens have an average proficiency rate in English that is 68% higher than District 5 in Harlem. In Math the schools in District 29 in Queens have a proficiency rate that is 75% higher than District 5 in Harlem. Not surprising given the lower poverty rates in Queens, but also contrary to Ms. Moskowitz’s claims.”
And what about the correlation, never mentioned by Moskowitz, of higher test scores and gentrification? Horace Meister believes it is important. “Charter schools often go into neighborhoods and districts that are gentrifying. Success Academy, with its expansion into Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Lower Manhattan, despite community opposition, is particularly notorious for employing this tactic. Harlem, the neighborhood that Ms. Moskowitz spends the most space discussing, is a prime example of a gentrifying neighborhood. It is equally likely that changing demographics can account for improving test scores, not the spread of charter schools. Ms. Moskowitz does not bother to control for this, and obviously the editors of the Wall Street Journal did not care to ask her to.”