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HISD nixes charter partnership

First there was this.

Houston ISD board members adjourned late Tuesday without voting on a controversial measure to give up control over 10 low-performing schools after the meeting turned physical and police escorted members of the public — nearly all of whom opposed the plan — out of the room.

Chanting “no more sellouts” and shouting at trustees, most of the roughly 100 community members in attendance watched angrily as officers began physically pulling disruptive residents out of the room. The skirmish came after HISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones declared a recess in the middle of the meeting and ordered the room cleared due to repeated public outbursts.

If trustees choose to meet again, they likely will not return until Saturday at the earliest. Trustees typically provide at least 72 hours advance notice of any public board meeting. The vote had been expected to be narrow, with several trustees already voicing support or opposition for the proposal.

The uproar reflects the heated nature of HISD’s proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy Inc., which already runs four in-district charter schools, to take over operations of the 10 campuses for five years. Without the agreement, HISD would likely face forced campus closures or a state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board due to its failure to improve academics at the schools.

HISD Interim Police Chief Paul Cordova said one person was arrested on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge, one person was arrested on a charge of interfering with duties of a public servant and one person was detained but not arrested.

[…]

In the district’s first public statement since Energized For STEM Academy was named Friday as the potential partner, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the organization “will help our students to reach the level of achievement that we know is possible.”

“Data shows Energized for STEM Academy has successfully led students to high levels of academic achievement as well as prepared them for college and careers since first partnering with HISD 10 years ago,” Lathan said in a statement. She has not granted any interview requests in recent days.

The choice, however, faced immediate resistance. Multiple trustees said they lacked enough information to properly evaluate Energized For STEM Academy’s academic and governance history.

Several education advocates and leaders, including the Houston Federation of Teachers, also raised several questions about Energized For STEM Academy’s ethics. They’ve particularly focused on Energized For STEM Academy’s head of schools, Lois Bullock, who serves as both employee and landlord at another in-district HISD charter organization. It’s not immediately clear whether Bullock has improperly profited off the highly unusual arrangement.

All speakers at Tuesday’s school board meeting opposed the district’s plan. Many advocated for suing the state over the 2015 law that imposed sanctions. Several questioned whether Energized For STEM Academy is dedicated to special education students, noting that the organization has a disproportionately low special education population at its current schools. A few students implored trustees to maintain current operations at their schools.

See here for the background. I was going to tell you to go read Stace and Campos before getting into my own thoughts, but then this happened.

Houston ISD leaders will not turn over control of its 10 longest-struggling schools to any outside organizations, the district’s administration announced Wednesday, a decision that puts HISD at risk of forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board.

[…]

In a statement Wednesday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is “not bringing another partnership proposal to the board, nor will there be another meeting to consider partnerships for the 10 schools.” She said the district will continue to carry out its current plans for improving academic performance at the campuses.

Under a law passed in 2015, known as HB 1842, the Texas Education Agency must close schools or replace HISD’s school board if any of the district’s schools receive a fifth straight “improvement required” rating for poor academic performance this year. The 10 schools all risk triggering the law, and it’s unlikely all 10 will meet state academic standards this year.

With partnerships off the table, attention now will turn to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, who has yet to announce whether any schools or districts will receive accountability rating waivers due to Hurricane Harvey. Agency officials have not said whether HISD still would be subject to sanctions if the 10 schools receive waivers that assure they are not rated “improvement required” this year.

“Any and all decisions by Commissioner Morath regarding accountability exemptions or waivers for campuses affected by Hurricane Harvey will be announced in June,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in a statement.

[…]

In interviews prior to Tuesday’s scheduled vote, trustees Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sue Deigaard and Anne Sung said they were uncomfortable with the amount of information and time they had to vet Energized For STEM Academy. Two other board members, [Sergio] Lira and Jolanda Jones, said Wednesday that they would vote against charter partnership agreements. Trustee Elizabeth Santos had earlier said she opposed giving control of schools to charter organizations.

Many of the most vocal community members involved in the partnership debate have advocated litigation over HB 1842. To date, only one HISD trustee, Jones, has voiced support for a lawsuit. Board members have received legal advice surrounding potential litigation, though they’ve been reluctant to divulge details of those conversations because they took place in closed session.

“Suing TEA is more of a longshot at being successful,” Lira said. “From a historical precedent, there have been very few successful cases when the district files against TEA.”

The announcement that HISD would not pursue partnerships came about two hours after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he supports “HISD simply standing down.” Turner, who hinted at getting involved in partnership plans but ultimately opted against it, said he plans to contact Morath to ask for a one-year waiver.

I’m going to say the same thing I would have said if the Energized for STEM proposal had passed: I sure hope this works. It’s certainly possible that Energized for STEM could have been a successful partner, but it’s equally certain that there was precious little time to consider the idea, and not much community input. The community spoke loudly that they didn’t want that arrangement, and now they have gotten what they wanted. They had ample reason to not like that option, and to not give the HISD leadership the benefit of the doubt. Now we all need to send that same message to the Legislature, because that’s where this mess got started. The Press has more.

HISD considers charter partnership

They’ve got to do something to keep the TEA at bay.

Energized For STEM Academy Inc., an organization run by NAACP Houston Branch President James Douglas and former Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris, has been selected as the potential partner to run 10 long-struggling HISD schools at risk of triggering major state sanctions this year.

HISD trustees are scheduled to vote Tuesday on negotiating and executing a contract with Energized For STEM Academy, which already runs seven in-district charter schools in HISD, to take over operations of the 10 schools ahead of the 2018-19 school year, according to a public meeting notice posted Friday. District officials haven’t released terms of a contract, but it’s expected Energized For STEM Academy would be responsible for hiring, governance and operations at each school.

District officials have recommended temporarily surrendering control over the 10 schools as part of an effort to stave off sanctions due to chronically low academic performance. In exchange for relinquishing control, HISD would get a two-year reprieve from a potential state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board or forced campus closures.

[…]

Douglas, who has previously served as president of Texas Southern University and helped form Energized For STEM Academy’s governing board in 2008, said he’s been in discussion with HISD leaders about the arrangement for three weeks. A contract hasn’t been drawn up, and many details will be worked out in the coming days ahead of an April 30 deadline to submit partnership plans to the Texas Education Agency, Douglas said.

“We know we have to do in a few days what normally would take months to do,” Douglas said. “But that’s what has been handed to us, and that’s what we have to deal with. We can’t waste time worrying about what we need.”

There’s not a lot to go on here, but then it’s not like there are a ton of other great options out there. Reaction is mixed, as you might expect.

A long-awaited proposal from Houston ISD to temporarily surrender control over 10 of its lowest-performing schools is facing mixed reviews ahead of a crucial vote Tuesday.

Case in point: the president of Houston’s largest teachers union, Zeph Capo, blasted the proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy to run all 10 schools as ill-conceived and hastily arranged, saying he has “no confidence that this is in the best interest of children.” Meanwhile, Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones defended the arrangement as “the best choice of all the bad choices” available to HISD, which faces forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board without a partnership.

[…]

Energized For STEM Academy currently operates middle and high schools with roughly 1,000 students combined. The campuses are overseen by Lois Bullock, who has operated in-district HISD charters since 1998. Its two high schools had graduation rates, state standardized test scores and SAT scores that were well above HISD averages in 2016-17. However, one of its middle schools was rated “improvement required” by the state in 2014 and 2016.

Douglas and Bullock oversee three additional in-district HISD charter schools with a similar name, Energized For Excellence Academy, but those campuses have a different governing board.

Capo, who heads the Houston Federation of Teachers, said he has deep concerns about Energized For STEM Academy’s ability to improve academic performance after conducting initial research. He questioned how an organization educating about 1,000 students can oversee an additional 6,000-plus students.

“What evidence do we have that says they can actually do the job?” Capo said.

Capo added that residents and local education advocates, including his union, haven’t had enough time to vet Energized For STEM Academy for possible improper ties to for-profit entities or other conflicts of interest. The organization has filed annual 990 tax forms, which detail many spending patterns, but they don’t post annual financial audits or governing board meeting minutes on their website.

“(Trustees) need to grow a backbone and pay deep, close attention to what’s happening before they vote,” Capo said. “There are far too many questions left unanswered before they vote on Tuesday.”

Skillern-Jones said she supports forming partnerships if it means keeping local control and avoiding campus closures, which she called “devastating” to neighborhoods that are predominately black and Hispanic. She said her constituents, who make up six of the 10 schools, wanted a partner with local ties. The only other organization under consideration for a partnership, Generation Schools Network, is based in New York.

“I’m still looking through all the information, but I know they have a good track record in the district for 20 years, which says to me that we’ve kept them around for a reason,” Skillern-Jones said.

See here for the last update. I get Zeph Capo’s concerns – this is all happening very fast, with not much public input, and while Energized For STEM seems to have a decent track record this is asking a lot from them with no guarantee that their methods will translate or scale to a larger group of students. On the other hand, the remaining options are to find a different charter operator, to close the affected schools and reconstitute them as smaller institutions (which is really unpopular with the affected communities), and hope for the best with this year’s STAAR results. Some activists are calling for HISD to sue the TEA; I’m not qualified to assess the merits of such a strategy, but if it works it would at least buy some time. Energized For STEM may well be the best of a bad lot, but that’s not the same as being good.

Meet the latest education scam

Free money! What could possibly go wrong?

BagOfMoney

An ambitious new player has emerged in the controversial effort to use taxpayer dollars to help Texas parents send their kids to private or religious schools.

Texans for Education Opportunity, which launched in May, supports all forms of “school choice,” including charters and traditional public schools, said Executive Director Randan Steinhauser, an Austin-based school choice activist and public relations consultant who co-founded the nonprofit advocacy organization.

But she said the group’s main goal is to get Texas lawmakers to create “education savings accounts” — a program under which the state would dole out taxpayer money directly to parents via debit card to cover approved education-related expenses, like private school tuition, tutors or homeschooling materials. About a half-dozen other Republican-dominated states, including Florida and Arizona, have already created such programs, although most of them target specific student populations, including disabled and low-income students. (Nevada is an exception, offering assistance to all students.)

Literature provided by Texans for Education Opportunity, which appears to be the first statewide organization focused solely on school choice, suggests the state offer up to $7,800 for any student pursuing an alternative schooling route. That is about 90 percent of what the state provides on average to traditional school districts per student for annual maintenance and operations, the pamphlet says.

The concept is similar to private school vouchers, in which taxpayer funds are awarded directly to schools, but it is larger in scope.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Exter said that concern is separate from the larger one school and teacher groups have long expressed in opposing such programs — that they divert much-needed dollars away from struggling public schools.

Yeah, well, I’ll give you three guesses where the money for this might come from; there’s no mention of any vehicle to pay for this scheme in that intro email or their website. With a board of directors that includes Phil Gramm and a big donor to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I’m pretty sure the creation of an extra source of tax revenue is not on the table. This is a scam, plain and simple, and the real question is who will be dumb enough to fall for it and/or dishonest enough to shill for it.

Two school finance stories

Tough times in the oil patch mean tough times for school districts in the oil patch.

The U.S. shale boom flooded the state’s public schools with a gusher of cash, but that windfall is disappearing nearly as fast as it arrived, making some newly wealthy districts nervous about their financial outlook amid a crude slump that shows no signs of rebounding soon.

The drilling frenzy caused property tax values to skyrocket in recent years. Mineral-related revenue accounted for about $1.5 billion in school district property tax revenue for the 2014 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2014, according to a new analysis by North Texans for Natural Gas, a loose coalition supporting gas development in the Barnett Shale region.

In addition to property taxes, oil and gas production raised about $676 million for the Permanent School Fund, the state’s education endowment for school districts, and boosted the Foundation School Fund, the primary source of state aid for Texas districts, by more than $1 billion in the 2015 fiscal year, the analysis found.

But the collapse in crude prices over the past year has triggered a slowdown in the oil patch, and many of the districts that reaped large financial rewards from the heady days of $100 a barrel oil are bracing for a decline in their tax bases.

“We don’t have the revenue coming in like we did,” said June Russell, business manager at Grady Independent School District, a one-campus school system 30 miles north of Midland.

[…]

For some school districts that struck it rich in the oil boom, the bounty was short-lived. Under the state’s school financing formula, wealthy districts have to send some of their revenue to the state to be distributed among poorer districts in a system commonly called Robin Hood.

That means a year of fiscal prosperity in a district can trigger a transfer to other districts in a subsequent year.

“The way our equalized funding works, you may get a really good bump one year and you do get some benefit from that, but the following year the state catches up and the excess gets reined in,” said Daniel Casey, partner at Moak, Casey & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in school finance. “Typically it’s great on the way up, but it’s more challenging on the way down.”

That’s because it’s possible to pay more under recapture than the district had raked in during the fat times. Be that as it may, this is a prime exhibit of why Texas’ school finance system, which relies so heavily on local property taxes. Some school districts wind up way better off than others, and some have incredibly varying finances based on the price of a global commodity. One lawsuit after another has failed to generate a workable solution – “recapture” refers to the so-called “Robin Hood” system of reallocating funds from property-rich districts to property-poor ones, which dates back to the 80s – mostly because the Legislature has never been able to come up with a system that is more dependent on state funds rather than local ones and which treats districts more by need than by whatever it is the current system does. Maybe this latest lawsuit will finally allow for a more substantive fix, because Lord knows this Lege ain’t coming up with one on its own.

Story #2 has more fodder for the charter school debate.

But a new report from one of the state’s leading school finance experts shows that many charters — particularly the state’s largest charter networks — get more state funding, not less, than traditional schools. The report, from education consulting firm Moak, Casey and Associates, says Texas generally sends more money to large charter schools — those with more than 1,000 students — than to similarly sized traditional public schools. If school districts “were funded like charters,” the report says, public schools would cost the state more than $4.7 billion a year extra.

Charter schools have experienced explosive growth over the last decade. There are more than 600 in Texas today, including some of the nation’s best-known charter networks: KIPP, Uplift, IDEA, Harmony, and Yes Prep. Charter proponents often argue that the schools are models of efficiency, achieving better academic results — higher test scores and graduation rates — than traditional public schools while costing the state less money.

But the Moak report concludes that state funding for large charters is inflated because of what Texas calls the “adjusted allotment.” School districts receive state funding based on a $5,140 per student allotment each school year. That allotment is then adjusted based on certain characteristics, including district size and differences in teacher salaries across the state. Smaller districts have a higher per-student allotment than larger districts.

Charter schools get a per-student allotment based on the average of what traditional public schools receive. The higher allotment for small traditional schools inflates the average, and as a result, large charter schools get more per student than traditional schools of the same size.

School finance expert and former University of Houston economist Larry Toenjes told the Observer he thinks the report’s findings are solid. “Charters argue that they receive $1,000 less per student than public schools. You hear it all the time,” Toenjes said. “But when it comes to Texas’ largest charter schools, they’re wrong.”

The Texas Charter School Association disputes that assertion, and it should be noted that Moak, Casey is on the side of the public schools in the ongoing litigation. I haven’t had a chance to read the report myself, so I can’t say more about it than this. The point is that arguments about charters and public schools aren’t binary. They’re comparing ranges, and some parts of each range don’t match up with the rest of it. Just something to keep in mind.

“Let’s just be real” about charter schools

Very interesting.

Chirs Barbic

“Let’s just be real,” Chris Barbic wrote last week when announcing his resignation as superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Then Barbic admitted what skeptics of charter schools have preached for years — “achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.”

Barbic, as founder of the highly acclaimed YES Prep charter school network in Houston, was used to starting schools from scratch, enrolling students whose parents chose to send them there instead of to their zoned school. Charter schools in Texas are supposed to be open-enrollment, meaning they can’t set admission criteria, but some people argue that charters benefit simply from enrolling children with more motivated parents.

Tennessee presented a different challenge for Barbic. There, he was charged with launching a special school district that included the state’s lowest-performing schools. A key part of Barbic’s mission was to recruit charter networks to step in and improve the schools. However, he ran into some trouble as most charter operators have a start-from-scratch model, rather than taking over existing schools. Even YES Prep withdrew from the experiment.

“As a charter school founder,” Barbic wrote in his resignation letter, “I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier picked up on Barbic’s comments and tweeted, “Chris Barbic — courage to tell truth!”

The Houston advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education also weighed in, taking Barbic’s statement as an admission that his success was “due more to smoke and mirrors.”

In fact, Barbic’s resignation letter does not go that far. He stands by his philosophy that good teachers and principals can make a significant difference in improving student achievement, despite the challenges of poverty.

“The ‘poverty trumps education’ argument sells our educators, and more importantly, our kids way too short,” Barbic wrote. “And it is perhaps one of the most dangerous propositions that exists in our country today.”

Read the whole thing, and be sure to read Barbic’s letter of resignation. Barbic is still very much an advocate for the charter model, but his words about the challenges of replicating the kind of success that some charters have had should be heeded. Tennessee’s Achievement School District experiment is one of only a couple like it around the country, but it’s an idea that has attracted attention, including here in Texas. There was a bill by Sen. Larry Taylor, chair of the Senate Education Committee, to establish Achievement School Districts, also called “Opportunity School Districts” here, in Texas, but it didn’t get anywhere. A “parent trigger” bill that would have allowed “parents of students at underperforming public schools to demand fixes from the state commissioner of education including hiring new staff, contracting with a charter school operator to take over management or closing the school altogether” did clear the Senate but did not get a vote in the House. I feel confident that Dan Patrick isn’t going to give up on either of these ideas in 2017, and Greg Abbott is a fan as well. Barbic himself defended the ASD concept in response to a Lisa Falkenberg column that was critical of an Abbott plan for some form of ASDs in Texas. I trust Barbic’s more recent words will come up when this idea inevitably comes up again in two years.

Here comes the school finance bill

It’s a big deal.

Jimmie Don Aycock

The House education chairman on Tuesday unveiled a $3 billion proposal he hopes will overhaul the way Texas funds public schools and derail a looming lawsuit in the process.

“My objective when I began this was to simplify the situation that we’re in,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said before providing details of his proposal to the House Public Education Committee he chairs. “Please, before you take a shot at it, take a look at it.”

House Bill 1759 would make 13 changes to the way Texas funds public schools. It would provide $3 billion more than what’s needed to fund enrollment growth and would redistribute some existing funding to ensure each school district receives a more equitable amount.

Nearly all of Texas’ 5.4 million schoolchildren would receive more funding under the proposal. No district would see its per-student funding amount drop, according to data released Tuesday, but some would not see any gains.

Houston ISD, for example, would see its per-student funding increase by $213 in 2016 and $269 to $5,747 in 2017. If current funding mechanisms are continued, by contrast, HISD’s per-student funding level would drop. This is because HISD faces what’s called a “recapture cliff” in 2018, when it will be required to give an estimated $101 million back to the state to prop up poorer school districts.

[…]

Aycock hopes his bill will represent enough of a change to derail Texas’ latest school finance lawsuit, filed against the state by more than 600 school districts after the Legislature in 2011 cut billions in public education funding.

Last August, state District Judge John Dietz struck down the state’s public school funding system, saying it created an illegal, de facto statewide property tax and citing problems of equity, adequacy and efficiency. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule before the legislative session ends in June.

Aycock said Tuesday that he thinks his bill makes enough changes that, if it passes, Dietz’s ruling would be reversed or the case would be sent back to the lower court. Sheryl Pace, a school finance expert at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, agreed.

“If this were to pass, I think there’d be a good chance of that,” said Pace. “This is a substantial change.”

See here and here for the background. This is a big step forward, and I agree it would have an effect on the litigation. Keep in mind, however, that funding disparities between districts wasn’t the only issue that was litigated.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

It does, and Rep. Aycock deserves a lot of credit for that forward motion. Assuming the House passes his bill – and I think it will – the question is what if anything the Senate will do with it. The prospect of at least scaling back the school finance litigation is sure to be an incentive for them, but the Senate has not shown any inclination to add money to public education – those tax cuts ain’t gonna pay for themselves, if you know what I mean – and has chosen instead to spend its time on bills that won’t actually solve any problems. Remember, Dan Patrick thinks the main problem with the 2011 cuts to education is that they didn’t go far enough. So good luck, Rep. Aycock. You’re going to need it. The Trib has more.

More on Achievement School Districts

Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep and the superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, one of the models for Greg Abbott’s education plan, weighs in on what these things are and are not.

First, by law, the Tennessee ASD charters can’t pick and choose their students; the charters are not open-enrollment schools. When a charter joins the ASD, it replaces an existing low-performing neighborhood school – one ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in our state (Tennessee’s “Priority Schools”). Nothing about that school’s attendance zone changes – all zoned kids are guaranteed seats just as before, and the only kids who can transfer in to our schools are those zoned to other Priority Schools. Our ASD charters have special education populations that are larger than the local district averages – in some cases, more than one-quarter of the school’s population.

Second, it is important to put our first-year results – the entire ASD operation in Tennessee is only 2 ½ years old – in proper context. Prior to any ASD intervention, conditions in Priority Schools were dire – fewer than one in six students could read on grade level and the average ACT score was a 14. In our first year, we earned Level 5 growth as a district (the highest-possible growth rating in Tennessee) and our Memphis schools grew faster than the state average in math and science. Where our kids struggled in reading – many of them are years behind their peers – our school communities were fast learners, going into the summer with major adjustments and plans for improvement. We worked hard to create a new culture and conditions for success, earning high marks from teachers and parents.

This is what year one in a school turnaround effort is really about – changing the vision of what is possible and setting schools up for rapid growth in student achievement. It has taken many years for the Priority Schools to get where they are, and it will take more than one year to get them where they need to be.

Over the past two years, we have learned a great deal about what it takes to make an achievement school district work. A nimble and responsive governance structure is most important. In Tennessee, the ASD superintendent reports directly to the state’s commissioner of education. If an achievement school district is created to exist in a bureaucracy more cumbersome than the district and schools it is trying to fix, it will never work.

Next, it is critical that an achievement school district have charter-authorizing power. The ability to authorize charters leverages the great public charters already in Texas and provides them an opportunity to serve the highest-need kids.

And finally, an achievement school district will need adequate startup funding. We were fortunate to use federal “Race to the Top” dollars as startup capital. Texas will need to identify when, where and how this money will flow.

See here and here for the background. Barbic was responding to Lisa Falkenberg’s column from a couple of weeks ago. A few points:

– The issue of who the students are is very important. A big criticism of charter schools is that they get to cherry pick their students, which includes the ability to dump students they don’t want to deal with. If they have to take all comers and they can succeed, that’s a huge point in their favor.

– We should definitely be cautious about short term gains. As with sports teams hiring new coaches after bad seasons, there’s almost always an immediate boost in performance for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with actual improvements in quality. I know we all want quick fixes, but until we get some long-term studies that show (for example) an increase in graduation rates and college completion, we can’t say if this model is any better or worse than what we already have.

– Note the bit about the need for adequate startup funding at the end there. Rick Perry thumbed his nose at Race To The Top funds; if Greg Abbott had any problems with that, he kept them to himself. Abbott has studiously avoided any mention of school finance throughout the Governor’s race, while he continues to defend the $5.4 billion cuts to the education budget in court. (Those budget cuts had a negative effect on charter schools, too, according to Chris Barbic.) I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing in Greg Abbott’s record or his current rhetoric that suggests to me that he’s interested in fighting for the resources that an Achievement School District would need. If I had to bet, I’d guess he’s hoping that could be a way to cut costs in the budget.

– But let’s say that Abbott would fight to ensure sufficient funding for Achievement School Districts, even to the point of going hat in hand to the dreaded federal government. If that is the case, then one has to wonder why he wouldn’t fight for adequate funding for the existing school districts. Why not fully fund them and see what they can do before you go reinventing the wheel? I know it’s crazy but hey, it just might work.

Falkenberg on Abbott’s education plan

Lisa Falkenberg has a balanced take on Greg Abbott’s education plan.

Progress has been tragically slow for the students of North Forest. And their saga makes great fodder for those beating the drum to create something called an “achievement school district” in Texas. It would have the power to take over low-performing schools with the intent of turning them around, or turn them over to a charter operator.

Julie Linn, executive director of the well-financed Texans for Education Reform, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News telling lawmakers that an entire generation of students had been lost at the North Forest district during the chronic underachievement. True.

“If an achievement school district had existed,” Linn told lawmakers, “it would not have allowed 20 years of failure at North Forest ISD.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. Many of the failures were the result of the state’s own missteps. Conservators hired unqualified principals and poor-performing superintendents who squandered funds and donations. A parade of monitors and boards of managers had little effect.

But when I called North Forest’s new principal, Pamela Farinas, she supported the concept of achievement districts.

“I think it would have made a big difference,” Farinas said, explaining that every time the state took over North Forest it was the whole state, a “massive entity with a whole bunch of compliance paperwork.”

A small, specialized district knowledgeable about struggling schools would have more power and agility, she said. But she made clear she’s “150 percent” against turning to charters, which are often unwilling or unable to serve the neediest students.

“They’re exiting kids as quickly as they accept them and everybody seems to be brushing that under the carpet,” said Farinas, who worked briefly at a charter school.

[…]

On its face, the idea of a takeover district is attractive, especially with education horrors like the former North Forest still fresh on our minds.

We have to do something. But we can’t just do anything. I think I’m inclined to agree with David Anthony, the former Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent who now leads an influential education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas.

He says the group has traveled the country looking at turnaround strategies. Anthony is not yet sold on the idea of achievement districts. The data just isn’t there.

Even in Tennessee, where homegrown superstar YES Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic went in 2011 to lead the effort to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent, students the first year made modest gains in science and math but fell behind in reading.

The answer, Anthony says, “has to be a long-term, sustainable transformation. It can’t just be the new fad du jour.”

Anthony’s chief concern about Abbott’s proposal is the same as mine: “Why are we investing in a strategy we’re not quite sure about yet?”

See here for more. I consider myself neither an advocate nor opponent of charter schools. The good ones are very good, but there are a lot of not so good ones, and overall the numbers suggest that charters as a whole don’t do any better than traditional public schools. It’s also never been clear to me that the charter model, which depends in large part on a high degree of commitment from students, parents, and (generally less-paid) teachers is scalable to the magnitude needed for this kind of problem. How will charter schools do when they have no choice at all about who they get to educate? That’s a pretty big question.

There’s another reason to be wary of this, and that reason is money. Part of that is about school funding, which is still well below 2009 levels thanks to the massive and as it turns out needless budget cuts of 2011. If we really want to try something that’s never been done before in our schools, why don’t we try funding them at truly adequate and equitable levels first? As Attorney General, Greg Abbott is in a unique position to do something about that by settling the ongoing school finance litigation. His continued refusal to do that, and his constant avoidance of any talk about school finance is quite revealing. But beyond that, there’s also the presence of yet another well-financed interest group on the scene that’s pushing for this change, Texans for Education Reform. Like black holes do with space-time, groups like that warp the discussion and suck in all the light in their vicinity. Who will benefit from Abbott’s plan? It’s a sure bet that the funders behind Texans for Education Reform are at the top of that list. That’s as good a reason as any to be deeply skeptical of this.

Abbott’s education plan

Some actual policy from Greg Abbott.

Still not Greg Abbott

In the 27-page, footnoted report that accompanied the press conference, he proposed to “create a swift, automatic process under which the very worst schools would be removed from the control of their local school districts each year” and instead run through the Texas Achievement School District. That district’s superintendent, appointed by the head of the Texas Education Agency, would have power to make radical changes to the schools, including the ability to fire personnel or turn the school over to a charter-school operator.

In New Orleans’ similar Recovery School District, the campaign noted, 60 percent of the schools are no longer rated academically unacceptable, and graduation rates and college readiness are climbing.

Under Abbott’s proposal, Texas would limit its recovery school district to elementary schools – an unusual step that would allow the district “to focus on students during the early phase of education when a child’s foundation for learning is first laid.”

Mike Feinberg, one of the founders of the KIPP charter-school chain, praised the Achievement School District concept.

“We’ve got to do something with schools that fail year after year,” he said. “It’s insanity for the state to keep wagging its finger, saying, ‘I mean it! One more year!’ That’s the worst way thing that a parent can do with a child. So why would we have that as state policy with schools?”

Abbott also argued that schools that are not failing need more autonomy.

“The state should set high standards, provide tools for success, then get out of the way,” he said at the press conference. “Our public education system is too centralized, with too many one-size-fits-all solutions being pushed down from the top.”

You have to admire a policy that calls for more autonomy on one hand and state takeovers of school districts on the other. Most people would pop the clutch shifting that abruptly, but Greg Abbott, he’s a pro. There may be some merit to the Texas Achievement School District idea, and the politics of it are complicated, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. Of course, the 5.4 billion pound elephant in the room is Abbott’s lack of any mention of funding for schools. I can’t blame him for not wanting to talk about it, since he continues to defend the massive cuts from the 2011 session, especially in a time when the state coffers are overflowing. Must have been tough for him to pick a location to make his announcement, since so many districts are suing the state, as they did just a few years ago. Not surprising that he stuck close to themes that are comfortable to him.

KIPP departs Galveston

I have two things to say about this.

The popular KIPP charter school chain is pulling out of Galveston, where it operates two campuses with about 900 students combined under a contract with the school district.

Because of statewide school funding cuts, Galveston ISD superintendent Larry Nichols said, the district has dipped into savings over the last few years to foot the bill. This is unfair to taxpayers and other Galveston students, Nichols said.

Galveston ISD paid KIPP $5.5 million this year – about $1.5 million more than it would have spent on those students in district-run schools.

“It became kind of an equity issue,” Nichols said. “I’m a fan of KIPP, but we’ve got to live within the budget.”

[…]

The Costal Village elementary and middle schools opened in the months following Hurricane Ike in 2008 to help draw families back to the island. After the contract was negotiated, the 6,800-student Galveston ISD lost $7.4 million in state funding for the biennium in 2011. About $1.7 million was restored by the Legislature last year, Nichols said.

“The original agreement was no longer workable after GISD had to live with quite a bit less money,” the superintendent said.

KIPP leaders said they couldn’t maintain their model, which includes a longer school day and year, for less money. The charter chain spends about $6,200 per student in Galveston, compared to Galveson ISD’s $4,623. And KIPP’s costs were higher earlier in the contract, officials said.

There’s no way to close a gap that large, leaders agreed.

“We kind of both said ‘uncle,’ ” KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg said. “This doesn’t have any solution on the horizon.”

1. The failure of KIPP to stay in Galveston is a direct consequence of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in the 2011 budget, the failure to restore those cuts in 2013 despite a huge surplus, and the failure in general to adequately fund public education in Texas. Republicans own this failure, as they are the ones that are responsible for those cuts, even as they claim to be advocates for “school choice” and a greater role for charter schools in Texas. Dan Patrick, the Chair of the Public Education Committee in the Senate last session, owns this failure. Greg Abbott, who continues to defend the $5.4 billion cuts to public ed in court, owns this failure. Every Republican legislator that voted for the 2011 budget owns this failure. Every Republican legislator and candidate that isn’t advocating for restoring full funding to public education and doing whatever it takes to adequately and equitably fund it going forward owns this failure.

2. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how much better the rest of Galveston’s schools could be if they had received that extra $1600 per student that KIPP had been getting? Maybe now that GISD isn’t writing a check to KIPP it can take some of that money that it would have spent on KIPP and spend it on the rest of their students.

Teaching creationism in Texas

Zack Kopplin reports on some unconstitutional behavior by a national charter school operator that has several campuses in Texas.

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Charter schools may be run independently, but they are still public schools, and through an open records request, I was able to obtain a set of Responsive Ed’s biology “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that Responsive Ed students must complete to pass biology. These workbooks both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.

A favorite creationist claim is that there is “uncertainty” in the fossil record, and Responsive Ed does not disappoint. The workbook cites the “lack of a single source for all the rock layers as an argument against evolution.”

I asked Ken Miller, a co-author of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook published by Pearson and one of the most widely used science textbooks on the market today, to respond to claims about the fossil record and other inaccuracies in the Responsive Ed curriculum. (It’s worth noting that creationists on the Texas State Board of Education recently tried, and failed, to block the approval of Miller’s textbook because it teaches evolution.)

“Of course there is no ‘single source’ for all rock layers,” Miller told me over email. “However, the pioneers of the geological sciences observed that the sequence of distinctive rock layers in one place (southern England, for example) could be correlated with identical layers in other places, and eventually merged into a single system of stratigraphy. All of this was established well before Darwin’s work on evolution.”

[…]

Responsive Ed’s butchering of evolution isn’t the only part of its science curriculum that deserves an F; it also misinforms students about vaccines and mauls the scientific method.

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

On the scientific method, Responsive Ed confuses scientific theories and laws. It argues that theories are weaker than laws and that there is a natural progression from theories into laws, all of which is incorrect.

The Responsive Ed curriculum undermines Texas schoolchildren’s future in any possible career in science.

There’s a lot more, so go read it all, or at least go read the Observer’s summary. Remember, your tax dollars are being used to help pay these guys’ bills. Will the Legislature do anything about it? Maybe, but if Dan Patrick gets elected Lt. Governor, I wouldn’t count on his taking any action. TFN Insider has more.

Back to court for the school finance lawsuit

Like deja vu all over again.

State district court Judge John Dietz likened the state’s school finance case to the soap opera As The World Turns when he opened Wednesday’s hearing on whether to reconsider evidence in the trial that concluded in February.

He drew the comparison not because of the trial’s drama but because of its longevity.

“There were 13,858 episodes of As The World Turns and we are getting pretty close,” Dietz said.

After hearing brief arguments from the state and the six parties in the case, the judge announced that a new six-week trial would begin on Jan. 6 in the lawsuit that arose last summer after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system.

“The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial,” Dietz said.

The two largest groups of school districts represented in the case, along with the state, were in favor of reopening evidence in the case to update the record after a legislative session in which the Legislature restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as a bill expanding the state’s charter school system, also passed.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to allow it to go to [Texas] Supreme Court. It’d be highly likely we’d be back in this court in six months,” said attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents some of the districts in the case. He argued that the high court would remand the decision if it did not consider the impact of the 2013 Legislature.

[…]

All of the parties will be back in court on July 17 to determine what procedures will govern the new trial.

See here for the last update. It makes sense to hash everything out again, since there were some significant changes made by the Legislature. I don’t know that what they did actually fixes the problems that Judge Dietz outlined, but to be sure the facts are different now, and there’s not much point in having the Supreme Court rule on a decision that is no longer current. So have at it one more time, y’all.

Testing and charter bills pass

A lot of stuff gets done at the last possible minute in the Legislature. The two big education bills were examples of this.

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. ”The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

[…]

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. The Trib breaks down what’s in the bills:

HB 5

  • High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credit when they select one of five diploma “endorsements” in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.
  • To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits.
  • The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.
  • Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable labels.

SB 2

  • The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.
  • Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.
  • School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.
  • The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal and closure process.

Given the late changes and the broad scope of these bills, it’s going to take awhile to fully understand what they mean, and to uncover any hidden secrets in them. The Legislative Study Group gave a favorable recommendation to HB5 but an unfavorable recommendation to SB2. Their analyses are always a good starting point. For what it’s worth, I was inclined to support SB2 and I was uncomfortable with the removal of Algebra II from the recommended curriculum. What do you think about these bills?

House approves charter expansion bill SB2

A big step forward for those who would like to see more charters.

Senate Bill 2 passed on a 105-34 vote on second reading. It now faces a third reading before it can be reconciled with a similar version the Senate passed last month.

“I think the bill supports quality charters, helping them to expand and grow but at the same time helping to shut down the poor performers,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

Its author, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has called SB2 the most comprehensive charter school legislation since the state introduced the publicly funded and privately run schools in the 1990s. Previous efforts to change the system made it through the Senate but failed to gain traction in the House.

The bill would update rules on the renewal, expansion and revocation of charters, raising the current cap of 215 charters that can be authorized at any one time by allowing an additional 10 per year up to a total of 275 by 2019. Charter holders may operate multiple schools under a single charter.

It would also tighten nepotism rules – an amendment exempts current employees – and give operators the right of first refusal on the lease or purchase of unused facilities in traditional public school districts.

[…]

The House adopted other amendments, including one requiring teachers at charter schools to hold bachelor’s degrees and another requiring the majority of a charter’s board members to be “qualified voters.”

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, introduced the latter amendment, saying it was not aimed at any particular charter operator. Critics of the Harmony Public Schools charter network have complained to lawmakers in the past about the presence of Turkish citizens among Harmony leadership.

Since the House adopted amendments that make the bill differ from the one that the Senate passed, it has to go through a conference committee and get re-passed by each chamber. I don’t expect that will cause any problems, but sometimes strange things happen in the last days of a session. Trail Blazers and the Observer have more.

Where things stand with two weeks to go in the legislative session

With the Thursday midnight deadline for bills to pass on second reading in the House, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the status of some major legislation and legislative priorities. There are two weeks left in the regular session, and the specter of overtime is hazy but present. A full list of failed House bills is here, I’m going to aim for the highlights.

Budget – In conference committee. The two chambers weren’t that far apart on how much they spent and what they spent it on, but there were real differences and things have gotten a little testy. Still, I don’t expect there to be too much drama on the basics.

Water and transportation – This is where it has gotten sticky. The Senate passed a joint resolution to allocate up to $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day fund for water and transportation projects, with some extra for public education. The House has rejected this approach, and compounded the issue by failing to pass a bill to fund water projects and pulling a bill to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation matters. Both are stated priorities of Rick Perry, who says we’ll go to a special session if something isn’t done about these things. Complicating matters further is an opinion from AG Greg Abbott that Rainy Day fund spending counts towards the constitutional spending cap. The Senate’s approach would have avoided that, but Speaker Straus says it’s a non-starter in the House. The House would prefer to just vote to raise the cap, which requires only a majority, but David Dewhurst doesn’t want to do that because many Republicans (like him) might get attacked in the 2014 primaries for doing so. It’s quite the dilemma. Everyone is saying that one way or another these things will get done, but it’s not clear to me what the path forward is.

Education – We know that some more money will be spent on public education than in 2011, but the full cuts from 2011 will not be restored, and the final amount that will be added is still up in the air. The charter school expansion bill has not yet been heard in the House, and it’s not clear how it will go. Vouchers appear to be dead. HB5, the big bill to cut back on standardized testing and revamp the high school curriculum, was amended by the Senate after being passed by the House, and is now in conference committee after the House rejected the Senate’s amendments.

Medicaid expansion – Dead. As with all things, there are ways to raise the dead in the Lege while it’s still in session, but it ain’t happening here.

Expanded gambling – Also dead. Check back in 2014, if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling.

Guns – The House did manage to pass a number of gun-expansion bills in the days before their Thursday deadline, including at least one truly demented bill. Many of them likely have no future in the Senate, which ought to make everyone whose bills died on the vine on Thursday from lack of time rethink their priorities (not that it will), but the campus carry bill may get a chance to be heard.

Abortion – A combination of resistance by two normally anit-abortion Democrats to some noxious bills in the Senate and that slow-roll calendar in the House have caused all of the major anti-abortion bills to be held at bay so far. The advocates of these bills in the House at least are unlikely to give up, and I for one have a very bad feeling that if there is a special session for any reason, Perry will add this legislation to the call. If the two-thirds rule is not adopted by the Senate for the special, then that’s all she wrote. If there is a special session, I expect a lot of people will pressure Perry to address this, and I expect he’ll listen to them. I hope I’m wrong, but as I said, I have a very bad feeling about it.

Redistricting – Who knows? I’ve seen several people mention that they have heard Perry will call a special on redistricting, but I have not seen Perry himself mention this, though he has talked about a special for water and transportation if they don’t get done. The idea of a special for redistricting came up late in the 2011 session, so this is certainly a possibility, but in my experience Perry usually telegraphs his intentions. But seriously, I have no idea. For updates on other election-related legislation, see Texas Redistricting.

Criminal justice – I defer to Scott Henson on this.

Beer – In case you were wondering, the craft beer bills were passed by the Senate and thus were not subject to the House Thursday deadline, as that was for House bills that had not yet been heard on the floor. The package of Senate craft beer bills should be heard in the House this week.

That’s about all I can think of. if I’ve missed anything obvious, let me know.

North Forest still fighting as the deadlines approach

Never give up, never surrender.

North Forest ISD has spent more than $595,000 appealing the state’s order to shut down, newly obtained records show, and the school district is continuing the court fight as its July closure date nears.

Despite the district’s ongoing appeal before an Austin court, the Texas Education Agency has ordered North Forest officials to start making serious plans to close – including taking action by May 1 to terminate the contracts of all employees for next school year.

The TEA’s appointee to oversee the closure, Doris Delaney, wrote a letter to North Forest ISD leaders this month ordering them to turn over personnel records to HISD – though they can withhold teachers’ job evaluations. She also instructed Superintendent Edna Forte to back up the district’s electronic files and took away the school board’s authority over spending.

“Effective immediately,” Delaney wrote in the April 13 letter, “the Board of Trustees and the superintendent are directed to obtain the consent of the conservator before making or approving any agreement, contract, purchase or payment.”

Delaney, given authority by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, also told North Forest to grant HISD officials access to inspect the district’s campuses and buses.

[Superintendent Terry] Grier and several dozen HISD employees walked through the nine North Forest schools two weekends ago. He said the newer schools were in good shape but several need maintenance work. He’s particularly worried about the condition of one school, indicating that students may have to move campuses next year, but declined to specify.

Chris Tritico, the attorney hired by the North Forest school board, is holding out hope that the courts will side with him and allow the 7,000-student North Forest district to continue to exist.

[…]

HISD officials said they soon expect to get the North Forest personnel files. They also are seeking student records, but North Forest has raised questions about the release, arguing it may violate the federal educational privacy law.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get,” HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “That information’s pretty critical as we try to figure out summer school and what kind of services students are going to need.”

In addition to the continued appeals and likely legal action to follow, the North Forest ISD Board of Trustees has dug in its heels, too.

The North Forest school board on Monday defied a state order to fire all its teachers for the next school year, leaving Texas Education Agency officials pondering their next move as the district is supposed to be taken over by Houston ISD come July 1.

Doris Delaney, a TEA appointee at the school board meeting, told the trustees that they had to take action to fire the teachers under state law, but the board refused, voting against the agenda items or simply not seconding the motions.

Trustees explained that they considered the state’s order “awful” and “immoral,” and community members at the packed meeting agreed, calling out, “Don’t do it. Stand up to them,” said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for the North Forest Independent School District.

State law requires teachers in any district to be notified before the school year ends if their contracts will not renewed the following school year.

What a mess. HISD is not required to hire any of the North Forest teachers, and Superintendent Grier has said that he can’t guarantee jobs for them or any of the 900 existing North Forest employees. I have no idea what effect the board’s intransigence will mean – the TEA said it was “researching” its options.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the most prominent backer of NFISD, continues to rally support for the charter school proposal that would keep North Forest alive. The latest administrative appeal for NFISD will be decided by May 29, but given the things that are supposed to happen or begin happening by today to get the merger into HISD started, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome. Given that one reason for NFISD’s problems historically has been low or negative cash balances, the amount they’ve spent on the appeals probably isn’t helping with that. The strongest argument for NFISD is that they’re as good as neighboring schools in other districts; against that, you have the longstanding mismanagement by the NFISD Board of Trustees. I don’t see how NFISD can prevail at this point, but deadlines or no deadlines I don’t think this will be settled anytime soon.

On a related note, Jay Aiyer takes to the op-ed pages to encourage HISD to think outside the box when it takes over North Forest.

HISD should consider an approach that brings the community directly into the educational policy process through a new kind of charter school model.

[…]

A new approach, developed by the Austin Independent School District and known as the community driven “in-district” charter model changes this. It brings teachers, parents and community leaders together to lead the conversion of several campuses in the Austin school district to create in-district community charter schools. This approach takes the success of charters and places it in the traditional “ISD” context. In sharp contrast to traditional charter conversions – existing teachers, campus union leaders, parents, school staff, community members and principals all share responsibility for the development and execution of each school’s instructional programs. While traditional models of reform impose change from the top down, this approach seeks immediate community buy-in on the front end, and allows them to direct reform.

At the core of this approach is the concept of self-directed schools – schools that are run by teachers, parents, principals and community leaders. What differentiates this from other charter concepts is the combination of substantial community and parental involvement with the great professional teacher autonomy and leadership opportunities that exist in traditional charters. The in-district community charter school concept combines the independence of the best charter schools and embeds it in the public school context.

Houston Independent School District has been at the forefront of many innovative approaches to school reform – Apollo20, magnet school choice, Early Colleges/HILZ, etc. While each has been successful in its own way, all of them have been top-down reform initiatives. The community-charter approach would allow the community to choose any of these or other reforms it wants to turn around community schools. They could even choose to partner with KIPP, YES Prep or other traditional charters.

There is certainly evidence that the community wants to maintain some form of self-governance, and that they support the charter schools’ proposal. It would be worthwhile to explore this option and see how well it fits. The more the community is engaged, the better off everyone is likely to be.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.

[…]

No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @ house.state.tx.us, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Charter bill passes Senate, voucher bill passes out of committee

Score one for Sen. Dan Patrick.

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state’s charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-Houston, said the bill accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

“The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I’m real proud to be a member of the Senate today,” he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

[…]

Talking with reporters afterwards, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it “the most important education bill of the session,” he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed “some of the biggest reforms in education that we’ve passed in a long time.”

Patrick originally intended to lift the state’s 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick was hailed by Democrats after the vote for his willingness to listen and work with them. (The lone No vote was cast by Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, in case you’re wondering.) You know that I’m a frequent critic of Patrick’s, for very good reasons, but I do recognize that he’s got skills, and when he puts them to use in service of non-ideological items, he can be both good and effective. Patrick drew praise from Raise Your Hand Texas for his performance, and his SB 2 got kudos from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who is very much on the opposite side of Sen. Patrick ideologically. I’ll throw in my own “attaboy”, since this bill does most of what I would have preferred and not much if any of what I opposed. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Observer and Harold Cook have more.

And just to balance out all those good feelings, Patrick’s voucher bill, SB 23, was voted out of committee, with four Rs and one D (Eddie Lucio, of course) voting Yes. It seems likely that the remaining Democrats will unite against it, which will be enough to block it from coming to the Senate floor, but you never know. All in all, not a bad week for Dan Patrick.

Their charter school legislation and ours

How much of this sounds familiar to you?

Charter schools would be given free rein if a proposal from Republicans in North Carolina’s state Senate is passed. Under the plan, oversight of charters would be taken from the state’s board of education and given to a charter school board with nine of 11 voting members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders and with nothing in the law to prevent members of the new board from having conflicts of interest. And that’s not all:

The charters would no longer be required to assure that at least half the teachers are certified.
Charter schools would no longer be required by law to conduct criminal background checks of their staff.

Local control would also be slashed, with, for instance, local school boards required to rent buildings to charter schools for just $1 a year unless they could show that they absolutely didn’t have the space or couldn’t afford to make the lease. Requirements on charter schools to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the local population would be weakened, and since the charters don’t provide transportation to school, many low-income students would also be effectively excluded.

The new oversight board is in Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB2, and there had been a requirement that ISDs sell unused facilities to charters for $1 in the original bill; it has since been replaced by a requirement that charters get right of first refusal on such buildings. I have not heard that any of the rest of this stuff in Sen. Patrick’s bill, but perhaps we ought to keep an eye out, just in case. If nothing else, the fact that similar bills are being pushed elsewhere, likely with the backing of usual suspect ALEC, puts the crocodile tears of Patrick and other supporters of this legislation in a new light.

TEA drops the hammer on North Forest again

Pretty much as expected.

North Forest ISD announced Monday that the Texas Education Agency had upheld the decision to close the school district and annex it to Houston ISD this summer.

The ruling, however, does not end the school district’s fight to remain open. North Forest attorney Chris Tritico pledged to once again appeal the closure order, taking his case to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, an Austin court.

“We at North Forest ISD are disappointed by the TEA’s decision to merge North Forest with HISD,” Tritico said in a statement.

He reiterated that the North Forest school board plans to fight for an alternative plan to let a nonprofit management board and some high-performing charter schools run the 7,000-student northeast Houston district.

Tritico refers to the charter school option for NFISD, which has the support of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee but which other elected officials have met with skepticism. The main problem with the charter plan besides the lack of enthusiasm from the electeds was that the plan was insufficiently developed for TEA Commissioner Michael Williams. According to Hair Balls, this was still the case as of Monday. I suppose they’ll have more time to fill in the blanks as NFISD pursues other avenues of appeal.

Whatever does happen, the main focus has to be on improving educational outcomes for NFISD’s 7,000 students. If nothing else, we need to track these students’ progress going forward. As this Chron story from Monday morning before the TEA’s ruling notes, this would be a new thing.

In 2010, the Texas Education Agency abolished the Kendleton Independent School District and its single campus for failing to meet academic benchmarks for four straight years. In northeast Houston, North Forest ISD is headed toward the same fate. On Monday, the TEA is expected to announce whether it is upholding Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ order to close the problem-plagued district and annex it to Houston ISD as of this summer.

The experiences of Kendleton and of Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, a long-troubled district forced into Dallas ISD in 2006, offer some insight into what North Forest may expect if closed: crushed community pride, followed by general acceptance over time.

How students have fared academically isn’t easily known. The TEA hasn’t tracked the former Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students in their new schools.

I don’t know why the progress of these students was not tracked, but it is unconscionable to me that this is the case. We know who these NFISD students are. There’s no reason they can’t be easily identified once they are merged into HISD, and there’s no reason why some reports can’t be generated to monitor their achievements as HISD students. Hell, I don’t see why this can’t be done retroactively for Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students, too. We absolutely need to know if shutting down these problematic ISDs is worthwhile, because if it turns out that it’s not then we need to figure out a better way forward, and soon. If it turns out that it is a good idea, then maybe we need to see if there are some other ISDs that should get the same treatment. Either way, we need to know, and there’s no excuse for not knowing.

HISD and KIPP debate North Forest’s future

HISD SUperintendent Terry Grier and KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg meet with the Chronicle to discuss their vision for North Forest ISD.

Under either scenario, students could face longer school hours to help them catch up academically, and some employees may have to change positions or lose their jobs if they don’t perform well.

Grier said the Houston Independent School District would save money thanks to efficiencies in its bus and food service departments. He also noted that HISD’s tax rate is lower, by about 28 cents, so North Forest property owners would see their bills fall.

Under Feinberg’s proposal, a nonprofit board called PHILO would oversee the North Forest district. It would include a mix of charter schools and traditional public schools. The elected North Forest school board would continue to collect taxes and could perform other duties if the TEA chose.

Feinberg said the novelty of the idea – a twist on efforts in New Orleans and Tennessee – likely would attract outside funding from foundations.

[…]

Grier said his staff has been discussing details about annexing North Forest since the former state education commissioner, Robert Scott, first ordered the move in October 2011. Scott then gave North Forest a one-year reprieve.

“We could merge that district into our district tomorrow morning,” Grier said during a meeting with Feinberg before the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board. “It’s ready to go. And we can implement it smoothly.”

Grier, however, declined to release many details of the district’s plan. He said North Forest High School would remain open, and HISD would start some magnet programs in North Forest. He would not say how many, if any, North Forest schools would be closed.

[…]

The PHILO group would keep open the 10 North Forest campuses in the coming school year, with new charter schools coming on board in 2014. The group has not detailed what changes it would make to help existing North Forest campuses to improve. The number and type of charter schools would be determined by where parents and students applied.

See here for more on the charter schools’ proposal. North Forest is making one last appeal to avoid closure, but I suspect that’s just going through the motions. The TEA will hand down its decision on their final appeal on April 1, so we’ll know soon enough though litigation may follow. As far as the actual proposals from HISD and PHILO go, all I can say is that they’re both a little light on the details. Grier touts his Apollo initiative, which is based in part on KIPP, as their model to follow. One could argue that if you’re going to go that way, you may as well go all the way. I’m not sure I consider Feinberg’s statement about the possibility of outside funding under his plan to be a positive, since that would also imply outside agendas that may or may not be desirable. Regardless, assuming nothing strange happens these are the choices, and the TEA will decide which way it wants North Forest to go.

The prospects for increasing charter schools

According to the Trib, it’s trickier than it might look.

Senate Bill 2, the centerpiece of Patrick’s plans for the session, is the most ambitious attempt to expand the state’s charter school system since it was established in 1995. To succeed, it will have to pass a Legislature that defeated more modest proposals just two years ago.

The graveyard for such measures has typically been the House, whose 150 members represent much smaller districts than the 31 state senators. That means the influence of local power players can override party politics — particularly in rural areas where those players are often school boards and superintendents, two groups that have traditionally had a tense relationship with charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

“In Texas, it’s often the interests of rural, the interests of urban, the interests of suburban. In other states, it might be two factions instead of three,” said former state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, a former House Public Education Committee chairman who is now working as a lobbyist. “The Legislature has a strong hand, but that that hand could be tied when you have seemingly similar but different goals.”

It is a dynamic that threatens to materialize again. The chairman of the House’s education committee, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has said he favors a more limited approach than Patrick’s legislation.

“Senator Patrick and I have had conversations about it, and he knows I’m not comfortable with that large a jump,” Aycock said. “That reflects the nature of the committee, if I am reading the committee right, and I think the House as a whole as well.”

[…]

The legislation has also drawn objections from superintendents and school board members, who argue that in a time of limited resources, charter schools that serve only 3 percent of the public school population should not received additional state funding — and that before looking to expand charters, the state should move to shut down the poor-performing schools.

In 2011, a bill from Patrick that would have increased the charter contracts the state could offer by 10 a year, as well as measures addressing the facilities shortage, were part of a slate of charter school legislation that failed.

But despite past difficulties, there may be room for compromise this time around. Aycock said that he would support a “reasonable” increase in the number of charter school contracts available with proper oversight.

We’ll see what that means. Patrick is supposed to introduce a committee substitute for SB2 today for a hearing on it, so we’ll have a better idea of where this is headed and what its prospects may be then. One thing to note is that even if no bills pass this session, or in the upcoming special session to deal with school finance, don’t count this out for the future. Vouchers were supposed to be dead after Kent Gruesendorf got successfully primaried by Diane Patrick and the Texas ParentPAC, but they have made a zombie-like return this session. Any idea with enough money behind it never truly goes away (*cough* *cough* expanded gambling *cough* *cough*), and the charters have a lot of money behind them.

One more thing:

In the past decade, charter school enrollment has increased steadily to about 155,000 students at about 500 different campuses. After the latest round of approvals in 2012, only six charter contracts remain of the 215 available. An estimated 101,000 students are on waiting lists for the schools, though there are questions about whether that number adequately accounts for students on waiting lists for multiple schools.

I’m glad to see someone question the pedigree of that “hundred thousand student waiting list” statistic, which has been thrown around like a Frisbee at an Ultimate game. As often as I’ve seen that number quoted, I’ve yet to see a source or an explanation for it. Is there an official Charter School Waiting List out there somewhere, or is this just somebody’s best guess? If it’s the latter, whose guess is it and how did he or she arrive at it? This would be a useful topic for some intrepid reporter to investigate.

North Forest still fighting closure

I don’t know how successful they’ll be, nor do I know if I should wish them luck.

Texas Education Agency officials on Friday made their final case for closing North Forest ISD, while district leaders countered that the school system has improved but is being held to an unfair standard.

The TEA’s chief deputy commissioner, Lizzette Reynolds, will issue a final ruling April 1 on whether to annex the 7,000-student North Forest Independent School District into neighboring Houston ISD.

Chris Tritico, an attorney for North Forest, said he would be surprised if the district won the appeal hearing because a high-ranking TEA official is charged with making the decision, and the agency’s commissioner ordered that North Forest must close at the end of this school year after failing to fix its long history of academic and financial problems.

Tritico said after the four-hour hearing Friday that he will take the case to the courts if the district loses the appeal to the TEA.

Allegations of non-impartiality aside, it’s hard to see how NFISD prevails. Be that as it may, Hair Balls goes into more detail about the charter takeover proposal, and the reason why the problems with NFISD have been so intractable.

For anyone who has followed North Forest, including former administrators who returned to the district to try to save it, all progress stops with the school board. Even this most recent innovative proposal to partner with charters, which allegedly includes an almost-signed memorandum of agreement, was approved at a recent board meeting where no such agreement was posted for discussion.

The charter school agreement keeps the school board alive in some vague fashion. Annexation into HISD, of course, does not.

Almost all signs of progress accomplished by state-appointed superintendent Adrain Johnson and a board of monitors, including 6th- and 9th-grade transition campuses that were highly favored by local teacher groups, were abolished within a couple of months of the board’s reinstatement and Johnson’s abrupt firing.

Rumors of unpaid bills, bad debt and poor financial ratings that won’t allow the district to issue bonds continue to dog North Forest, despite claims that the district’s finances produced a clean audit report this year and $4.5 million in spare cash.

We should have a ruling on the appeal from the TEA by the end of March. KUHF has more.

Not so fast on the North Forest charter plan

Not everyone is convinced that the plan to allow a consortium of charter schools to take over North Forest ISD is a good idea.

In interviews Monday, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, all Democrats, voiced reservations about the last-ditch attempt to prevent the annexation of North Forest to Houston ISD.

“I’ve got issues with some of HISD’s performance, but it is such a step up from North Forest in terms of administration, accountability, and they’ve got the resources,” said Whitmire, who represented the northeast Houston district for years until recent redistricting. “There’s a real opportunity for HISD to show what they can do for North Forest. The charters are just speculating at this point.”

The charter schools involved are KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony.

Ellis said he feared the charter schools would try to kick out students who misbehave or perform poorly. Thompson, whose granddaughter attends school in North Forest ISD, said she was unwilling to support an undefined plan.

[…]

[KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg] said the elected North Forest school board would collect taxes, but a nonprofit created by KIPP would essentially run the district starting in 2013, with control over major decisions such as hiring, firing and spending.

By 2014, he said, the nonprofit would turn North Forest into a “portfolio district.” School operators – including KIPP, YES, Harmony and others that are interested – would apply to start and run campuses in North Forest ISD. Families would choose where to send their children.

Those who did not want the new options would remain in traditional public schools run by the nonprofit, called PHILO, Feinberg said.

A director or chief executive officer responsible for managing the school district would be appointed by the PHILO board. Feinberg said the board includes himself, [former HISD Superintendent and Education Secretary Rod] Paige; Jodie Jiles, a past chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership; Shawn Hurwitz, a founding KIPP board member; a KIPP mother who now works for the charter network; and two KIPP alumni – an accountant whose family lives in North Forest and the head of the KIPP alumni association.

See here for the background. The idea has been endorsed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sen. Dan Patrick, as odd a couple as you could find, but I’m a little worried that this may become more of a partisan issue than anything else. If there’s ever a situation where the details mattered, this is it, and so far all we have is a broad outline. I said before that I think this is a worthwhile idea to pursue, but now that we have seen what concerns people, let’s see how Feinberg et al respond to those concerns. So far, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams has maintained that they are moving forward with the HISD takeover, but he’s willing to consider the charter proposal. Let’s see a fully detailed plan, and then we can see if it’s a better idea than what is already on the table.

Charters apply to take over North Forest ISD

Fine by me.

In a potentially groundbreaking move, three of Houston’s top-performing charter schools are making a pitch to run the long-troubled North Forest school district.

The charter groups — KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony — are asking Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams to approve their plan, instead of having the Houston Independent School District take over North Forest ISD, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg confirmed Friday. The idea is still in the developmental stage, but the North Forest school board unanimously signed off on the concept Thursday night, said board president Charles Taylor Sr.

Williams ordered the annexation of North Forest into HISD last month after the former state education commissioner gave the district a one-year reprieve from closure. North Forest has long suffered academic and financial problems.

Under the plan, Feinberg said, the school board would collect taxes, but the charter schools and a nonprofit management group would run the district with power over spending, hiring and other decisions.

The partnership would be the first of its kind in Texas, marking unprecedented cooperation between the three popular charter schools. They typically start their own campuses from scratch, rather than try to turn around a struggling district.

“If I didn’t believe we could do it, we wouldn’t be trying to contribute as part of the solution,” Feinberg said. “At the same time, we recognize how difficult this work is and how very few examples we have of anywhere in the country of where it’s worked. But this is the work that ultimately needs to happen to convince our state leaders, our local leaders and society in general that not just all children can learn, but all children will learn.”

The Chron story adds a few more details.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has thrown her support behind the plan. State lawmakers who represent North Forest could not be reached for comment, though Feinberg acknowledged some weren’t warm to the idea.

[…]

If the TEA approves the charter deal, the goal is for the new model to fully take effect in 2014, said Chris Tritico, an attorney for North Forest.

Many issues would have to be resolved: Would teachers have to reapply for their jobs? Who would run which campuses? What if students did not want to attend the longer school hours KIPP and YES traditionally require? Who would coordinate the food service, the busing, the program for students with disabilities?

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said the district is moving forward with plans to annex North Forest “until we hear otherwise.”

Anna Eastman, the president of the HISD board, said she thinks the charter idea “merits consideration.”

“My only goal in this conversation is making sure the kids in North Forest end up on top,” she said. “A struggling, traditional ISD willing to relinquish management to three high-performing charters, with a good track record, could prove to be a model for other district and charter partnerships.”

One presumes that anything would be an improvement over the current status. KIPP, YES, and Harmony all have strong track records, so there’s plenty of reason to think they could do a good job. I think HISD would also do a good job of it, but they have a full plate already, and perhaps NFISD could benefit from more focused attention. If nothing else, this could help answer the question whether charters like these can produce the same kind of results as they have on their own with a student body that didn’t seek them out. The one thing I would insist on is that the teachers do not lose their collective bargaining ability. NFISD should still be a normal public school district under this plan. Assuming that is the case, I think this is a worthwhile thing to try, and if it goes through I will be eager to see what happens.

More concern of convenience

David Dewhurst channels Dan Patrick.

Being immoral makes Dewhurst sad

Dewhurst, noting his differing view from Straus, said he’s a product of public schools and wants to support them, but said he doesn’t want to leave an estimated 315,000 Texas students in academically unacceptable schools.

“I’m mad. I’m mad as hell about that,” Dewhurst said, adding that it takes on average six years to turn a failing school around. He drew applause from the crowd when he said, “We need to focus on the children, not the educators, not the unions.”

Beyond the ability to transfer to better performing public school, the Senate is looking at a “parental trigger” that would allow a high-performing charter school to take over a failing school after two years, Dewhurst said. He also favors a tax credit bill championed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, that proposes tuition tax credit for businesses funding scholarships to private and religious schools.

“It is immoral to leave children trapped in failing schools,” Dewhurst said.

How touching. What is apparently not immoral to David Dewhurst is letting thousands of people die every year, including many children and their parents and other loved ones, because they don’t have access to health care. Putting the health and well-being of thousands upon thousands of children at risk because their parents can’t afford to take them to the doctor, or to the dentist, that’s just aces by David Dewhurst. Putting children who do have insurance at risk of losing it by making their parents do extra paperwork in the hope that some will forget and thus save a few bucks in the budget, totally moral as far as David Dewhurst is concerned. (Yes, I know, he eventually came around on that. Eventually.) He’s so freaking moral I can barely stand it. What a shining example of morality for us all to follow. If he and Dan Patrick cared about children one tenth as much as they care about this school choice crap they’re pushing, the state of Texas would be a vastly better place than it is right now.

Obviously, I think vouchers are lousy policy, and I’m deeply skeptical that more charters will necessarily improve educational outcomes. I’m happy to debate those things on the merits if you want to. But with the appallingly abysmal record that Dewhurst and Patrick and all of the other Republicans have on healthcare access, especially healthcare access for children, they can take that pious bullshit and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Their actions speak far louder than their phony words of concern.

Senate committee restores some money to public education

Emphasis on the “some”.

Texas public schools would get back a chunk of the $5.4 billion in state funding they lost two years ago under a budget proposal adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

But they probably should not expect much more than the $1.5 billion the committee added to the 2014-15 state budget, said Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

“It is going to be very difficult given the other demands we have in the budget to add any more,” said Williams.

Williams plans to pay for all the demands, including water projects, highways and some form of tax relief, without exceeding the constitutional spending cap. That would leave about $1 billion of projected state revenue over the next two years unspent. Lawmakers could exceed the cap with a simple majority vote in both the House and the Senate, but there is little appetite within the GOP to do so.

Many Republicans are also reluctant to increase education spending until the Texas Supreme Court rules in the pending school finance litigation. A district court judge found the school finance system unconstitutional earlier this month.

“Based on the politics of the state, we will not see the $5.4 billion that was cut last time go back into” education, said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

More from the Trib:

The money would come on top of the proposed $35.1 billion in general revenue for public education, which unlike the 2011 budget did, accounts for new students expected to enroll in the state’s public schools. The additional funding approved Thursday would also restore some of the $5.4 billion reduction in state funding that lawmakers passed during the last legislative session. The full Senate must still approve the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers on the committee suggested they might fight for more education funding, including money for measures like early college high school programs and the Student Success Initiative, which provides remedial help for students who fall behind.

The $40 million for pre-kindergarten — which Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the committee, referred to as a “down payment” — would replace a fraction of the $200 million in competitive grants the Legislature eliminated in 2011 for full-day programs for low-income children. The funds would be distributed proportionally to school districts based on eligible student populations.

Again, note the partial and incomplete nature of this. The Observer highlights one salient feature.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.

You may recall that HISD was talking about raising their tax rate to make up for an operational shortfall next year, which was caused by the 2011 budget cuts. If this extra funding, which keep in mind only represents 28% of the $5.4 billion that had been cut in the first place, prevents the need for that, it would at least be something. That question hasn’t been answered yet.

Anna Eastman, president of the Houston Independent School District’s board, called the Senate panel’s decision a step in the right direction.

“It’s good news and I’m glad to see the state making this effort, but I still think it doesn’t come close to restoring the large cuts made two years ago,” Eastman said. “We’re at a place right now where we have a big gap to fill to maintain what we’re doing.”

Until that gap is closed, Eastman said, HISD cannot consider hiring new teachers or taking on additional costs.

Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker said lawmakers can restore all $5.4 billion cut from school spending in 2011 “and meet other important state needs without raising anyone’s taxes.”

Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, who also serves on Finance, disagreed, citing other pressing needs, finite dollars and a constitutional spending cap. The $1.5 billion increase is recommended on top of the committee’s starting-point budget, which accounted for student enrollment growth.

“We don’t have those dollars. It’s not a choice,” said Patrick, R-Houston. Asked whether it may be an option to exceed the spending cap, which would require a majority legislative vote, Patrick said, “Not in my world.”

So yes, it is a choice, just not one that Dan Patrick wants to make. But it’s very much a choice, and don’t let anyone mislead you about that.

Assuming this survives the full Senate and the House, this is good in the sense that it’s not bad, but it’s not good in a quantitative sense. How can it be, when schools are still down almost three quarters of the original total? I’ve been trying to come up with a snappy analogy for this, but really, what it comes down to is simply the fact that the Lege cut a bunch of money last time, and has now restored just enough of it to keep things from getting worse, but not enough to make anything better. We’re stuck with this until the Supreme Court rules on the school finance appeal. Just take a look at that chart I embedded above of inflation-adjusted dollars per student, provided by the office of Rep. Gene Wu, and you’ll see how little that $1.5 billion will do.

On a side note:

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

I wouldn’t take that bet.

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.

HISD cold on Patrick’s charter proposal

HISD has a bone to pick with Sen. Dan Patrick’s school choice bill.

Sen. Dan Patrick

The Houston Independent School District was charter friendly long before other school districts were, mainly due to the influence of then-Superintendent Rod Paige. The nationally known Knowledge is Power Program, for instance, probably would not exist on the scale and scope it does today if Paige hadn’t allowed the original campus to co-locate in HISD’s existing school district facilities.

Ironically, it is the facilities portion of Senate Bill 2 that have become the sticking for HISD. Under the bill, school districts with “unused” or “underutilized” would be required to notify the Texas Education Agency, which would then post excess property online for charter schools to lease or acquire at the cost of $1.

[…]

For HISD, turning over unused facilities would be financially disastrous, district leaders say. Surrounded on all sides by aging campuses, the state’s largest school district has turned to selling off excess property to fund the construction and reconstruction of schools around the district. Last year’s $1.6 billion bond package, in fact, pledged to replace Condit Elementary School and The High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice through sale of surplus property.

When The High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice sits on land near the prime intersection of Memorial and Shepherd drives, it’s not just an inconvenience to give up the land to others. It’s probably a $35 million loss.

Spokesman Jason Spencer notes HISD has recouped $32.4 million in taxpayer money over the last five years through the sale of property, money that is being reinvested in Houston schools. At this moment, HISD still has 10 properties posted for sale, with proceeds earmarked for facility needs.

“Any legislation that would hinder HISD’s ability to continue recouping taxpayer assets by selling property and reinvesting those tax dollars back into Houston schools would add to the financial burden on HISD taxpayers at a time when the Texas Legislature is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools,” Spencer said in a rather stiff but clearly unhappy statement from the school district. “It is HISD’s position that the state does not have legal authority to require a locally controlled independent school district to essentially give away facilities that were approved by voters and funded by local taxpayers.”

That’s a pretty strong critique. It was also apparently an effective one, because according to the Trib, Sen. Patrick proposed an amendment that would raise the cost to market value, which seems like a reasonable alternative to me. It may make the charter schools unhappy, however, since one of their main complaints is that they don’t have the same capacity to raise money for capital expenditures as school districts, since they can’t float bonds. I suspect that will be addressed in some other fashion, so it probably isn’t an obstacle. We’ll see what the bill looks like when it emerges from committee. See also the TSTA, which observes that the reason why “some new buildings, particularly in fast-growth districts are empty [is] because school districts couldn’t afford to staff and open them” after the $5.4 billion budget cut from last session that Patrick continues to support.

One more thing, via the Statesman.

At the onset of the hearing, Patrick said he expected opposition from school district officials, but warned that his primary concern was for students and parents who want an alternative to traditional public schools.

“I want you to understand that when you testify, you’re not testifying against a bill,” Patrick said. “You’re testifying against 100,000 families who are are on the wait list who are desperate for their children to have choice.”

Sen. Patrick has made some variation on that statement throughout this process, to emphasize just how much he cares about the children, and how those who oppose him are standing in the way of his coming to their rescue. It’s all very touching, but you know what else many parents – a lot more than 100,000 of them in this state – are desperate for? Affordable health care, and access to it. To say the least, Sen. Patrick is notably less concerned about that. If he were concerned about it, he’d be out there leading the charge to expand Medicaid, since children are among the main beneficiaries of Medicaid. I guess there’s only so much concern one can have about the welfare of children before one starts to get worn out, or something. Suffice it to say that Sen. Patrick’s pleadings don’t impress me very much.

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.

Patrick files his “school choice” bill

From the Trib:

The State Board of Education currently oversees applications for charter school contracts, which state law caps at 215. Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 would create a new state entity to authorize the contracts and lift that cap, allowing for an unlimited number of charter school operators in the state.

“There is no one answer to transforming schools but lifting the cap to add high quality public charters will give Texas parents, including the nearly 100,000 currently on a charter school waiting list, more choices to find the best education for their child,” Patrick said in a statement.

The legislation also includes language that makes it easier for local school boards to vote to become “home rule districts” and convert into charter schools. It follows Gov. Rick Perry’s call for more charter schools in his State of the State address, where the governor praised the innovation they bring to the public education system.

The charter school measure is one of a comprehensive set of proposals expected from Patrick to expand school choice in the state this session. Patrick has said those will also include fostering open enrollment across school districts and creating a private school scholarship fund through offering a state business tax savings credit to corporations.

Here’s SB2. The Observer summarizes what’s in it:

– Scraps the cap on state-approved charters, which currently stands at 215. Charter holders can already open multiple campuses (big chains like Harmony or KIPP), but charter advocates say there’s huge unmet demand, with long waiting lists at many charters across Texas.

– Creates a seven-member “Charter School Authorizing Authority.” Currently, charters are approved by the elected State Board of Education, but Patrick’s bill would put the power in the hands of seven appointees: four picked by the Governor and one each appointed by the lieutenant governor, education commissioner, and the State Board of Education chair. The governor would get to name the board’s presiding member.

– Give charters money for school buildings and other facilities—something charter schools in Texas have always done without.

– Requires school districts to make any empty or “underutilized” facilities available to charter schools that want them for the low, low price of $1.

– Makes it easier to close low-performing charters. Under Patrick’s proposal, the new charter authority must close charter schools that get poor academic or financial ratings from the state in three of the last five years.

– Gives more freedom to “home-rule districts.” Any school district can already become a home-rule district with approval from its local school board and the state, freeing itself of many rules imposed by the state. It’s a favorite cause of free-market groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but in 17 years, no district has even tried to make the switch. Patrick’s bill would give “home-rule” districts almost all the freedom charter schools enjoy, and let districts make the change with a majority vote of the school board, not the two-thirds vote required today.

But the Texas Charter Schools Association is delighted with what’s in here. But there’s plenty here to rile advocates of traditional neighborhood schools—from the extra facilities money in a time when the Legislature is otherwise tight-fisted with money for schools—to the requirement that school districts hand over their empty buildings to charters.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) raised some of those concerns Monday afternoon in a Senate Finance Committee working group. ”I don’t want to take away from what has to be done for charter schools, but we don’t want to leave the public school facility needs out at the time,” he told Patrick.

“These are public schools, and we’re not funding them,” Patrick said.

Lot of that going around, isn’t there? I’ve said before, I favor broadening school choice within and across school districts, I’m open to increasing the number of charters, and I absolutely oppose the use of public funds for private school “scholarships”, which is to say vouchers. As I have done before, I will once again point out that the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency is nearly double that of traditional public schools, and it’s currently very difficult to shut down a failing charter school. If SB2 does make it easier to close a failing charter then that’s all to the good, because charter schools are not a panacea. They’re a piece of the puzzle, and a relatively small one at that. Expecting them to be more is asking for trouble.

UPDATE: I received the following in my mailbox this morning from Raise Your Hand Texas:

Texas Needs to Clean Up Existing Charters Before Issuing New Ones

(AUSTIN, TEXAS) Raise Your Hand Texas released the following statement from CEO Dr. David Anthony regarding the introduction of charter schools legislation (SB 2) today by Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston):

On proposal to remove the charter cap:

“Unlimited expansion of charters as proposed in SB 2 will result in more charters, but not necessarily better ones. With 17.9% of charters rated academically unacceptable under the accountability system in 2011, let’s show that we can effectively oversee the charter schools that we have before authorizing the creation of a bunch of new ones.”

On facilities funding for charter schools:

“According to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, Texas expended $938 million on charters in 2011-2012 to serve 3% of Texas students. We simply can’t fathom providing facilities funding for charter schools in addition to the funding that they already receive when Texas public schools are still suffering from $5.3 billion in funding cuts.”

I think these are both valid points.

School finance system ruled unconstitutional

Surely no one is surprised by this.

The system Texas uses to fund public schools violates the state’s constitution by not providing enough money and failing to distribute the money in a fair way, a judge ruled Monday in a landmark decision that could force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for education.

Shortly after listening to closing arguments, Judge John Dietz called the funding mechanism unconstitutional. He has promised to issue a detailed, written decision soon. The trial took more than 240 hours in court and 10,000 exhibits to get this far.

Judge Dietz made the ruling in the last lawsuit, in 2005, and apparently referenced that in giving his decision from the bench. He will hand down his written opinion at a later date. There’s a ton more detail to come on this – for now, Twitter is your best reference; try searching hashtag #schoolfinancetrial – but I’m sure millions of words will follow elsewhere. So far what we do know is that Judge Dietz found in favor of the school districts on “property tax, equity, and adequacy claims”. He ruled that the cap on charter schools did not violate the constitution, saying that claim and the claims made by TREE are matters for the Legislature. Beyond that, we know that this will be appealed to the Supreme Court, we know that budget writers like Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have spoken about setting some money aside in anticipation of such a ruling, and we know that unless the Supreme Court substantially reverses this ruling, there will be at least one special session next year. Fasten your seat belts, etc etc etc. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Here’s coverage from the Observer and the Trib. I also have statements galore, from the CPPP, MALC, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Wendy Davis, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Rep. Carol Alvarado, Rep. Jessica Farrar, Rep. Donna Howard, and Texans Deserve Great Schools, who seem to be missing the point. Finally, I now have a copy of Judge Dietz’s ruling and the LBB chart mentioned in the ruling.

UPDATE: Stace has more reactions, and Lone Star Ma chimes in.

What we need is better choice

With all the talk about “school choice” floating around, it’s important to remember that in Houston at least we already have a lot of options from which to choose.

Houston’s urban school leaders vowed Wednesday to continue efforts to expand quality school choices, despite financial and regulatory challenges.

Top charters schools – including KIPP and YES Prep – receive less state funding than their traditional counterparts, and Houston ISD is sometimes handcuffed by state regulations, according to speakers at the seventh annual Children at Risk Children’s Summit.

Regardless of the challenges, Houston parents are hungry for quality choices, leaders said.

“It’s like Jerry Maguire. You have them at hello,” said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who went door-to-door to recruit families for his new campuses in the late 1990s.

Today, more than 36,000 Houston students are on waiting lists for top charter schools. And about 68,000 students transfer from their zoned HISD school to another campus, under the district’s school choice model that includes dozens of popular magnet schools. Another 10,000 students transfer to HISD schools from outside the district.

“We’re a pretty good choice option,” Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Both Grier and charter school leaders agreed that educating the overwhelmingly low-income, minority populations that they serve takes extra time, effort and money.

We all know about the money part of that equation, so I won’t belabor it here. To the extent that Sen. Dan Patrick is talking about letting other school districts have the kind of choice model that HISD has, I’m all fine with it. I don’t know how much of a panacea that will be in less populated areas, and let’s not kid ourselves about the increased costs associated with sending kids off to non-neighborhood schools, but as a matter of principle there’s no good reason why parents and kids shouldn’t have as many viable options open to them as possible.

But as we know, this is just a side dish, with vouchers as the entree. Again, I’m not going to belabor that here, but instead want to talk a bit more about charter schools.

Charter school leaders said they will continue to look for ways to expand, which is challenging without the ability to ask for school bonds like the $1.9 billion one that HISD voters passed in November. They launched a partnership with the neighboring Spring Branch ISD last year to operate schools inside existing campuses, further lowering costs.

“We’re not going to build a $25 million building when we can get great results with less than that,” said Jason Bernal, YES Prep Public Schools president.

[…]

“High-performing charters like YES Prep and KIPP are scalable,” Bernal said. “It just validates we can continue doing what we’re doing.”

I hope he’s right about that, because we’d all benefit if schools like YES and KIPP can extend their reach. As the chart above shows, there’s probably only so far that they can be extended. It’s important to remember, however, that most charter schools aren’t KIPP or YES. In fact, the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency is nearly double that of traditional public schools, and it’s very difficult to shut down a failing charter school. Somehow, that sort of thing never seems to be part of the discussion. If we’re going to expand access to charter schools by raising the state limit on charters, then we need to increase oversight and accountability on charter schools as well. I got a press release from Texans Deserve Great Schools, which is funded in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, whose report on school funding was the basis of this Chron story, that includes policy recommendations to address charter school oversight. I’m not sure I agree with everything they say – in particular, I remain skeptical of the cult of online learning and the belief that technology will solve all our problems; again, this is a separate issue – but aside from that they do make a number of good suggestions. You can read their release here and see for yourself. For extra credit, read the issue briefs and policy papers from Raise Your Hand Texas. There’s no shortage of education policy and reform out there. As with charter schools, the goal is to get as much of the good and as little of the bad as possible.

Patrick teases his school choice proposals

He doesn’t want to call it “vouchers”, but if it walks like a duck…

“If there’s one message that I want to send, it’s that I want to champion public education,” said Patrick, the new chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee.

Whether the education community is ready to embrace Patrick in that role is another matter.

Through his chairmanship and a recent alliance with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, he has the powerful platform he once lacked. His ambitions are pinned on expanding school choice in the state’s public education system. The plan is expected to include vouchers for private schools, a policy previously opposed by every major education association in the state and many within his own party.

Patrick declined to discuss the details of his proposal, which he said he intended to announce before Thanksgiving along with Dewhurst. But he said the legislation would be broader than many might think.

“When people attack me on vouchers, I look at the word voucher as some people see it like I look at a rotary telephone. It’s outdated,” he said. “When we talk about choice today, it’s the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines. It’s charter schools. It’s virtual schools. It’s online learning. It’s the secular and religious schools in the private sector.”

I suppose anything is possible, but I sure don’t see much in Patrick’s record to support a claim of championing public education. Patrick has relentlessly championed property tax cuts, which has directly led to the funding crisis the state faces today, and public education bore the brunt of that last session. You can’t champion public education without championing a sufficient revenue stream for public education.

But that’s an argument that isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. I want to examine the bits of policy Patrick mentions. Let’s take them one at a time.

– “When we talk about choice today, it’s the choice to choose schools within a district, potentially across district lines.” I don’t know how it is in other districts, but in HISD we already have a fair amount of freedom to pick a school. There may be an application process and some prerequisites to qualify for a specific school, and you may not get your preferred choice, but that’s life. As long as the schools have the resources they need to handle the demand for their services, I have no problems at all with this. As for attending a school in a different district, I’d need to know more. I don’t have any philosophical objections to this, but I am concerned about how the funding would work. If I decide I want to send my kids to, say, Clements High School in Fort Bend County, I’d be sending them to a school whose district doesn’t get the benefit of my property taxes. What mechanism would there be to ensure that districts don’t get swamped by kids outside their borders, and to ensure they can handle the load they do get?

– “It’s charter schools.” I don’t have any problems with the idea of helping out charter schools, but we need to be very clear about what that means, because there are acceptable ways of doing that and there are bad ways of doing that. The previously-floated idea of using the Permanent School Fund as a source for building capital for charter schools is a bad idea, since it runs counter to the stated purpose of the PSF, which is supposed to be invested for maximal return. Shifting funds from public schools to charter schools in a zero-sum fashion is a bad idea. If Patrick wants to find a suitable and stable funding source for charter schools, I’m open to that. Let me hear the details and we can go from there.

– “It’s virtual schools. It’s online learning.” I am deeply skeptical of this. This sounds more like buzzwords than proven craft. While there is value in online learning as a supplement, and a virtual classroom is better than none, I think we’re a long way away from this being the best way to go about doing education. My feeling is that this is the sort of thing that will be pushed as a way to cut costs, without regard to effectiveness. I’m very wary of anything that falls under this classification.

– “It’s the secular and religious schools in the private sector.” And to this I say No. I refer to what Ronald Trowbridge wrote for my opening position. I believe this is an inappropriate use of public funds, and as we have already seen, there are plenty of other ways to promote “school choice” that don’t involve private schools. Let’s talk about those things and see what we can do with them.