Mastery and Uncommon charter schools, which opened in Camden in September, failed to meet enrollment projections for their first year of operation by 15% and 21%, respectively, according to an analysis by Education Law Center. In addition, the KIPP and Uncommon charter schools enrolled students with disabilities and English language learners at a level far below the enrollment of these students in the Camden district.
Enrollment data on the three charter chains comes from the State-operated Camden district and raises questions about claims by Mastery and Uncommon that Camden parents prefer charters over neighborhood public schools. It also shows that Uncommon and KIPP charters are not serving students with special needs at comparable levels to district enrollments, raising the specter of growing student segregation and isolation in Camden schools as these chains expand in the coming years.
The main findings from ELC’s analysis include:
? Mastery enrolled 368 students, 15% below projected enrollment.
? Uncommon enrolled 71 students, 21% below projected enrollment.
? KIPP enrolled 105 students, one above projected enrollment.
? Mastery enrolled 37 English language learners (ELL), one above projected enrollment and comparable to the district’s ELL enrollment.
? Uncommon enrolled no ELLs, and KIPP enrolled five ELLs, well below the district’s 8% ELL enrollment.
? Mastery enrolled 59 special education students, 20 below projection and 3% below the district’s 19% classification rate.
? Uncommon enrolled six and KIPP enrolled seven special education students, below projections and far below the district’s enrollment of students with disabilities.
All of the charter schools’ enrollments exceed the district’s 92% rate of students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch. However, data from the Camden district does not break out those students who qualify for free lunch, with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, and those who qualify for reduced priced lunch, below 185% of the poverty level or a household income of $44,800 for a family of four. The data does not provide special education enrollment by disability classification, so it is not possible to determine the severity of the disability of those students enrolled in the new charters as compared to students enrolled in the district.
Because the data also do not identify students’ prior year school attendance, the extent to which these students left a Camden public school or a private or religious school cannot be determined. This information is crucial to determine the charters’ impact on Camden’s budget, given that the district must fund increases in charter payments resulting from enrollment growth, even when the district is flat funded and receives no overall increase from the State.
Commissioner Explains Mastery and Uncommon Approvals, Acknowledges Constitutional Duty to Address Segregative Effect of New Charters
Six months after approving the Mastery and Uncommon charter expansion, NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe sent a letter, dated February 10, explaining his decision to allow the two out-of-state charter chains to open 11 new schools serving 7,000 students in the State-operated Camden school district.
These approvals, when added to the Commissioner’s 2013 decision to allow KIPP to open five schools serving 2,700 students, give the three charter chains control over the delivery of public education for 9,200 children in 16 schools, or 62% of Camden’s 14,800 current student enrollment. To facilitate this expansion, the Camden State Superintendent is tasked with closing an as yet to be determined number of the 26 currently operating neighborhood public schools.
The Commissioner explained his decision to give the green light to the Mastery and Uncommon expansion in a letter filed with the NJ Appellate Court in a pending legal challenge to the approvals by several Camden parents and residents.
The Commissioner’s letter is largely boilerplate about the Mastery and Uncommon proposals drawn from the applications filed by the chains under the Urban Hope Act. The Act, passed in 2012, authorizes the State-operated Camden district to allow new privately managed schools, subject to Commissioner approval, but without the more stringent oversight applied to charter schools authorized directly by the NJ Department of Education. The Commissioner issued the letter to counter the parents’ claims in the pending lawsuit.
In the letter, Commissioner Hespe acknowledges his constitutional obligation to “monitor” the “progress of Mastery, Uncommon and KIPP and “to combat any unforeseen segregative effects that become apparent after students are enrolled.” The Commissioner does not explain how his office will perform this duty, given that the charter chains operate under agreements with the Camden district and not with the NJ Department of Education.
The Commissioner also does not mention his obligation to assess the impact that the loss of district funding to the charter chains will have on the provision of a thorough and efficient education to students in the district’s neighborhood public schools. In several rulings, the NJ Supreme Court has made clear that if the State authorizes the establishment or expansion of charter schools, the Commissioner is obligated under the Education Clause of the NJ constitution to ensure that charter schools do not undermine educational resources and outcomes for all district students and do not result in student segregation within the district.
Need for Commissioner Investigation
ELC’s analysis of the first year enrollment data from Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon raises concerns related to, at a minimum, under-enrollment and whether these schools should be permitted to expand. It also raises concerns of segregation of ELL students and students with disabilities within the district. ELC is requesting that Commissioner Hespe promptly conduct an in-depth investigation of these concerns and the impact of the outflow of charter funding on the availability of staff, programs and services for students in neighborhood public schools. ELC also requests that the Commissioner make public the results of this investigation.
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