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February 28th, 2013:

Why do we think more charters would help?

Patricia Kilday Hart discusses the political battle over charter schools, but in doing so reminds me that there’s a fundamental question that seems to be going largely unasked.

Now, a sweeping bill filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, could lead to an explosion in Texas charter operations. Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would require school districts to lease their under-used facilities to charter schools.

The first draft of his bill would have required the lease for $1 a year; he amended it to require schools be leased or sold at fair market value.

The proposal creates a new state agency with ability to approve an unlimited number of new charter schools, now capped by state law at 215. It also would allow traditional school districts to convert to charter operations. For the first time, charter schools – public schools freed from state regulations regarding such issues as teacher contracts and the school calendar – would be eligible for state funding for leasing or purchasing their own campuses.

Requiring school districts to lease or sell properties to charters, however, would be financially ruinous to many, local school officials say. For instance, when the Houston Independent School District asked voters to approve a record $1.9 billion bond package in November, its long-term school construction scheme hinged on the sale of some $100 million in real estate – under-populated campuses the cash value of which would help pay for modernized schools in high-demand neighborhoods.

To supporters of traditional public schools, Patrick’s bill rubs salt in the wound left by the $5.4 billion in cuts made by the Legislature last session. They also are livid that lawmakers would consider funneling precious education dollars to charter operations just as a state judge found that Texas has failed to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately fund its public schools.

[…]

Patrick’s ground-shaking proposal comes as the charter movement in Texas may have reached a tipping point. In the last two years, says David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter School Association, the waiting list for students seeking admission to charter schools has skyrocketed from 50,000 to some 100,000 children.

Meanwhile, politically knowledgeable groups are joining hands with philanthropic foundations committed to education reform. Houston’s Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Greater Houston Community Foundation are backing a new pro-charter group: Texans Deserve Great Schools.

They have been joined by key leaders in the state’s premier political juggernaut, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, who formed Texans for Education Reform to work on behalf of the same goals. The group is led by former Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas, Patrick’s predecessor as education chair until her retirement last year. Influential lobbyist Mike Toomey, a former top assistant to Gov. Rick Perry who fought for tort reform, has signed on as a lobbyist.

[…]

At a committee hearing Thursday, Patrick set an emotional tone for the debate. Critics of his proposal, he said, would be testifying, not just against his bill, but “against the 100,000 students who are on the wait list” for charter schools.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, quickly countered: “A lot of schools were mothballed because of the cuts we made to public education.” Lawmakers should restore that funding before creating a new call on taxpayer money, he argued.

I’ve already noted Patrick’s concern of convenience for Teh Childrenz, and needless to say anytime an army of lobbyists and other rent-seekers like those noted above get involved in the process one is well advised to keep both hands on one’s wallet. Be that as it may, I’m still wondering why there isn’t more discussion of the question I’ve raised in the title of this post. Why do we think that having more charter schools would necessarily lead to better educational outcomes in Texas? To be sure, having more charters would mean more choices, and that would likely be beneficial for the students who have the wherewithal to take advantage of those choices. But that assumes that charters are overall at least as good as the traditional public schools. Is that a fair assumption? Let’s take a look at the 2011 accountability rankings and see for ourselves:

Campus Ratings by Rating Category
(excluding Charter Campuses)

ACCOUNTABILITY RATING

2011

Count

Percent

Exemplary

1,176

14.6%

Recognized

2,739

34.1%

Academically Acceptable

3,052

37.9%

    Standard Procedures

2,797

34.8%

    AEA Procedures

255

3.2%

Academically Unacceptable

476

5.9%

    Standard Procedures

458

5.7%

    AEA Procedures

18

0.2%

Not Rated: Other

601

7.5%

Total

8,044

100%


Charter Campus Ratings by Rating Category

ACCOUNTABILITY RATING

2011

Count

Percent

Exemplary

56

11.6%

Recognized

94

19.5%

Academically Acceptable

235

48.8%

    Standard Procedures

97

20.1%

    AEA Procedures

138

28.6%

Academically Unacceptable

54

11.2%

    Standard Procedures

38

7.9%

    AEA Procedures

16

3.3%

Not Rated: Other

43

8.9%

Total

482

100%


In other words, 48.7% of all public school campuses were Exemplary or Recognized in 2011, compared to 31.1% of all charter campuses. On the other side, 5.9% of all pubic school campuses were Academically Unacceptable, compared to 11.2% of all charter campuses. If you knew nothing of the politics of this situation, would you conclude after looking at these tables that more charters would lead to better outcomes? I wouldn’t. Why isn’t this a bigger part of the discussion? Hell, why isn’t it a part of the discussion at all?

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not opposed to giving charter schools some more latitude. We’d certainly like to encourage the KIPPs and YESes and Harmonys to grow and do good, and we’d like to not needlessly block the creation of the next KIPP or YES or Harmony if someone has a plan to bring it about. But I do not accept the simple premise that “more charters” is better, because the numbers say otherwise. What is the mechanism by which we expect more charters to make things better? What’s our plan to enforce quality control? What are we doing to ensure that any public funds being diverted to “more charters” will actually wind up being used on education and not for the enrichment of the people currently lobbying for those dollars? Those of you who complain about the number of administrators in the public schools need to take a long look at that list above and ask yourself how much these actors are motivated by the greater good, and how much they’re motivated by their own bottom lines. Finally, what’s our contingency plan in case this doesn’t work out as well as we might hope? We’re jumping straight to a solution without having a serious conversation about the process. In the real world, that’s a recipe for failure. We need to be a lot more concerned about that here. The Statesman has more.

Is Section 5 doomed?

While there’s been a lot of reporting and analysis suggesting a grim future for the Voting Rights Act, SCOTUSBlog’s Lyle Denniston suggests that maybe, just maybe, Section 5 ain’t dead yet.

Sometimes, in Supreme Court argument, a single phrase can speak volumes. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the one member of the Court who bore the most watching because the other eight seemed clearly to divide evenly, used the phrase “trusteeship of the United States government” as a shorthand way to describe how he views the regime set up by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 works. Of course, he meant it as a denunciation.

If Kennedy believes that there is no way to justify any longer that kind of oversight of nine states that have to do the most to obey the 1965 law, that law may well be doomed. But it also was Kennedy who left the impression that he might be willing to go along with a potential way to short-circuit the case of Shelby County v. Holder, and allow the law to survive for some time more.

[…]

But those who had attended the Court’s last hearing on the constitutionality of the 1965 law, four years ago, could recall that Kennedy was equally disturbed then about the threat he saw to states’ rights, and yet the Court concluded that case without striking down the law. It found a way to ease the burden of the law, for local governments, and left it at that.

As the new appeal, by Alabama’s Shelby County, reached the Court, there does not appear to be a ready method of avoiding the constitutional issue — provided that the Court is satisfied that Shelby County’s case is the proper one in which to reach it. And the possibility that it may not be the best test case came up early in the argument, and Kennedy, too, showed some interest in it.

Within the first minutes of the argument of the county’s lawyer, Washington attorney Bert W. Rein, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that Shelby County’s record on minority voting rights had remain “pretty much” unchanged from the past. “You may be the wrong party bringing this,” she commented.

Justice Elena Kagan soon recited the current record of Alabama under existing civil rights laws, noting that the state would be the No. 1 offender in one category, and the No. 2 in another. “Under any formula that Congress could devise [for coverage under Section 5], it would capture Alabama,” Kagan said.

[…]

These questions and comments suggested that, if Alabama and its local jurisdictions could not escape from the law no matter how Congress revised the formula to deal with ongoing discrimination, then the state and Shelby County might not be able to claim any harm from it — and thus not be in a position even to challenge it in court.

It is not surprising, of course, that the Court’s more liberal members would want to find a way to avoid an ultimate decision to strike down the historic law, and they — like everyone else in the courtroom — could sense that that was a real possibility.

But what was potentially significant was that Kennedy perked up. He noted the questions by Kagan and Sotomayor, and asked Rein: “If you would be covered under any formula, why are you injured under this one?” The lawyer said he did not agree with the premise.

Kennedy persisted, saying that Rein should deal with “the hyp0thesis” that any formula would capture Alabama. Why would Alabama have a right to complain? Rein then challenged the authority of Congress to focus on a few selective jurisdictions, like Shelby County, and not look all across the nation to see if the problem of racial bias in voting was prevalent there, too.

Ruling that Shelby County doesn’t have a claim is an option that Dennison discussed previously. It’s a thin reed, and would be at most a temporary reprieve, since there are other cases in the queue that could serve the same purpose, if the purpose is to kill the VRA. But it’s something, for what it’s worth. Rick Hasen, on the other hand, is certain Section 5 is doomed. If Chief Justice John Roberts leads the way in overturning the VRA, you could say it’s the culmination of his life’s work, though Justice Scalia and his evolving view of “original intent” will get an assist. All we can do at this point is wait. The irony of all this happening as a statue of Rosa Parks was being unveiled is off the charts. Texas Redistricting has more, and see what Mustafa Tameez has to say about the VRA and Asian-American voters.

Vouchers continue to be a tough sell

I won’t be happy till they’re dead and buried, but it’s something.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, doesn’t think the Senate has a taste for vouchers. Noting that a two-thirds vote of the 31-member chamber is needed to bring up a bill for discussion, she said, “I believe there are 11 votes to block.”

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he and Patrick have discussed the issue. “It would be very difficult to find the votes in committee or on the (full House) floor for any significant voucher program,” Aycock said.

Besides objecting to diverting state support to private schools, some critics suggest it could be problematic to give franchise tax credits for one type of donation and not others. Some raise concerns about how scholarship recipients would be chosen.

Tax consultant Billy Hamilton, whose clients include Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group that opposes vouchers, said the proposal isn’t good tax policy.

“It’s just another thing that says you can get a special tax break if you do this. If you don’t feel like doing this, you can’t get a tax break, and ultimately your taxes will be higher because other businesses do it,” Hamilton said.

Another complicated tax break that arbitrarily favors some over others is just what our tax code needs, isn’t it? What’s really weird is how at the end of the story Sen. Patrick and his lackey Bill Hammond talk alternately about vouchers being “dramatic change” that will help “transform education”, but also just a small part of a much larger package of reforms that will really only affect a few students, so why is everyone getting all uptight about it already?!? It’s unlikely to be that big a deal on the grounds that private schools don’t serve that many students, won’t be able to accommodate that many more students, and the best of them likely won’t be terribly interested in the kind of students Sen. Patrick claims to be trying to help. It is likely to be a boondoggle for the businesses that take advantage of whatever cookie the legislation would offer, and for some number of parents who were always going to send their kids to private school and now have a way of getting the taxpayers to help pick up the tab for it. The best thing to do here is recognize this for the waste of time that it is and focus on things that might actually have a chance of improving student outcomes.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 25

The Texas Progressive Alliance remains unsequestered as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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