"No Comment" Would Have Been Better
Bruce Baker is a professor at Rutgers University who writes an informative blog called School Finance 101. He presented some descriptive analysis of New Jersey charter schools in a post, and ended up being asked to comment on the data by a reporter. The same reporter dutifully asked the New Jersey Charter Schools Association (NJCSA) to comment on the analysis.
The NJCSA describes itself as “the leading statewide advocate for charter public schools in New Jersey and a principal source of public information about charter schools in the state.” The organization issued the following response to Baker’s analysis:
The New Jersey Charter Schools Association seriously questions the credibility of this biased data. Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker is closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure.Note the stretch that they have to make to allege that Baker is “closely aligned” with teachers unions—he occasionally reviews papers for an organization that is partly funded by unions. There is no formal connection beyond that. Note also that the NJCSA statement “questions the credibility of [sic] this biased data”—meaning they doubt the credibility of data from the State of New Jersey, which Baker merely recasts as graphs and maps. There is not a shred of substance in this statement that addresses the data or Baker’s description of them. It’s pure guilt by association (and there’s not really even an association).
Baker is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, which is bankrolled by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Great Lakes Center members include the National Education Association and the State Education Affiliate Associations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Its chairman is Lu Battaglieri, the executive director of the Michigan Education Association.
There are now thousands of children on waiting lists for charters schools in New Jersey. This demand shows parents want the option of sending their children to these innovative schools and are satisfied with the results.
This is an embarrassment to New Jersey charter schools. To dismiss Baker’s results, based solely on the fact that he draws conclusions from them that are skeptical of charter schools, represents the worst kind of policy discourse, especially from an organization that calls itself "the principal source of public information about charter schools in the state."
It is also destructive. As someone who went through the process of getting a Ph.D., I know firsthand that there is sometimes (but not always) subtle or explicit pressure on academics (and graduate students) to remain detached from "mainstream" public policy debates, in part to maintain “objectivity” from the political world of policy advocacy.
But we need serious academics to engage with the problems of public education, and we need them badly. Bruce Baker essentially donates his time and effort to informing education policy debates, and statements like that of the NJCSA only serve to reaffirm many other researchers’ aversion to getting involved.
Let me be clear, though: while this kind of politically-based objection to quantitative analysis occurs regularly, it is hardly limited to one “side” of the charter school debate (or any education debate, for that matter). It comes from both sides.
The only way to stop it is self-enforcement. In the Bruce Baker case, I would guess that the only messenger that could pierce NJCSA’s seemingly iron ideological hull is another prominent pro-charter advocate—one willing to point out that the dismissal of evidence based on nothing more than its conclusions is not only unproductive, it also further entrenches both sides in a terrible stalemate.
All the various players in the education policy arena are unlikely ever to see things eye-to-eye, but we can at least agree that evidence should be addressed on its substance.