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Some charter school stories

Now that Sen. Dan Patrick has filed his school choice bill, I thought this would be a good time to review some recent stories about charter schools. There were a couple of interesting stories relating to charter schools in the DMN the weekend before last. This story is about four charter school applications that contained identical language in each.

Concerns about the state’s vetting process for applications come as Gov. Rick Perry and key state lawmakers are pushing to allow even more charter schools, which receive more than $1 billion in state funds each year.

State education leaders say they’re trying to improve the screening process to ensure that applications reflect unique ideas, in keeping with the mission of charter schools.

“They’re supposed to be models of innovation in the classroom and the community,” said Michael Soto, a former state board member from San Antonio. “If you can’t even come up with original wording in your application, how can you be innovative?”

The four applications with similar passages had something else in common: They were prepared with help from a McKinney consultant, Bracy Wilson of Help Charters LLC.

Wilson said the copying in the public hearing summaries was an unintentional mistake. He said other copied areas reflect an effort by charter applicants to “look to the past for best practices” from other charters.

One of the four proposed schools, International Leadership of Texas, won state board approval. Eddie Conger, the superintendent, said his school’s mission — to make students fluent in English, Spanish and Chinese — is genuine. But parts of the application were not.

“I give myself an F-minus on the paperwork,” he said.

Conger is a former Dallas ISD principal who made big strides in improving Thomas Jefferson High School in North Dallas. He said he was encouraged by other charter operators to start a school, which will have campuses in Arlington, Garland and a third undetermined location.

Conger said International Leadership paid Wilson to help prepare the application. It’s Conger’s signature on the application attesting to its accuracy. So Conger, a retired Marine, said he assumes responsibility.

[...]

Three of the proposals — from International Leadership, Polaris and iWin — advanced to the state board for possible approval. Applicants said that when board members interviewed them in November, they discovered that parts of their proposals read alike.

“It was a total surprise to me,” said Nora Berry, who had applied to open Polaris Public School in Dallas County. “I had no idea the consultant was working with other applicants.”

Conger said International Leadership paid Wilson and Help Charters $78,000 for helping prepare its successful application. Wilson worked previously at Life School, a group of North Texas charter schools founded by his father, Tom Wilson.

Bracy Wilson ran last year for state representative from Collin County but lost in the Republican primary. His campaign website described him as “one of the leading consultants on charter schools” who has helped clients in numerous states.

Wilson said Texas has one of the most difficult and complex charter application processes in the country, which is why some groups hire consultants.

He said it appears that proxy questions and answers for the public hearings were mistakenly left in the applications. “Each application is reviewed by the respective applicant’s team and, unfortunately, some of these placeholder responses were not identified and replaced with the individualized responses,” he said in an e-mail.

Yet, the locations were changed in each of the summaries.

The summaries also had identical comments. For example, the summaries for both Athlos Academy and International Leadership had these identical quotes from parents: “We’ve been waiting for a school like this,” and “This is the school I want for my children.”

Conger said his school’s public hearing really took place — its application, along with the other three, included copies of the hearing notices that were published in local newspapers and copies of sign-in sheets. But he said the written summary was not “an accurate reflection of the public hearing.”

The applications also show similarities beyond the public hearing summaries. In some cases, descriptions of the proposed school’s philosophy and pledges of support use wording that is identical to previously approved charter schools that Wilson and his firm also worked with.

It’s unclear whether this is a common occurrence or an anomaly, but what is clear is that the process is complex and greatly detailed. To the extent that legislators like Sen. Patrick want to make it easier to start a charter school, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.

Charter school applications are reviewed by the Texas Education Agency before they go to the SBOE for approval. This story points out that the budget cuts of 2011 have had an effect on their ability to move the process along.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, wants changes in how charter applications are screened and approved in Texas. For instance, he’d like a national group of charter school authorizers to train Texas Education Agency staff who oversee applications and state board members who review them. He said he’d also like to look for best practices Texas could adopt.

Patrick said such ideas would be part of a charter school bill he plans to file.

[...]

Meanwhile, the education agency — which oversees all Texas independent school districts and charter schools — struggles to perform its duties with a reduced staff. The agency has lost a third of its employees in the past two years because of state budget cuts. It has about 700 employees, down from nearly 1,100 employees two years ago

A recent report by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission said: “Although the agency has recently experienced a drastic downsizing of its staff, its responsibilities have not been similarly reduced. Spread too thin, TEA struggles to perform all these functions well.”

The report also noted TEA’s “inability to address issues of chronic poor performance in a few charter schools.”

Budget cuts do have consequences, don’t they? I figure there’s a fair amount of overlap between charter school proponents and budget cut enthusiasts. Anyone want to place a bet on Sen. Patrick restoring funding to the TEA so that it can do a more effective job of vetting and approving charters?

Other reading of interest: This WaPo blog post summarizes the recent reporting that many charter schools do in fact take steps to cream off the strongest students for their classes, and this post by a school finance expert who has been a charter school advocate in the past posits that “the political movement of charter schooling [is] no-longer operating in the public interest”. It’s long and wonky, but you need to read it. The bottom line for me is that while I believe charter schools have many positive things to offer as a whole, I have a lot of distrust for the people currently leading the legislative charge for them. We all need to be very clear about what “school choice” means if and when it passes through the Legislature.

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