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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.

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.

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.

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.

The HISD/charter school “talent war”

This sounds more alarming than it should be.

KIPP, in competition with HISD for students, increasingly is wooing high-level staff, too. Mike Feinberg, cofounder and superintendent of KIPP Houston, calls the contest for administrators “a talent war.”

Since last year, at least 13 principals, administrators and central office workers have left HISD for KIPP, with some getting raises and promotions and others taking pay cuts. One has returned to the district, and another exited KIPP after a year.

Another popular charter school, YES Prep, has hired two HISD principals. HISD has poached at least one administrator from KIPP.

The turnover has some HISD trustees worried about morale under Grier, at the helm nearly two years.

“People leaving are young people who we’ve grown. They speak of their real regret about leaving,” said Trustee Anna Eastman. “I think it’s telling. We need to be listening to our employees and be aware if they are not satisfied, challenged or feeling valued in their jobs.”

[…]

HISD officials, reluctant to talk about specific employees, said privately that some who left for the charter schools weren’t top performers, and one who asked to return was denied. Two worked at campuses that Grier tapped for his reform program, Apollo.

“While I hate to lose good people, and we have lost several to the charter organizations,” Grier wrote in a memo to principals in May, “I believe that our best principals continue to work in HISD and I want to keep it that way.”

At that time, HISD board member Mike Lunceford was expressing concern about the departure of principals from two top-rated schools in his district, Twain Elementary and Johnston Middle.

“HISD does not need to become the farm club for KIPP,” Lunceford said.

On the one hand, HISD should note that it must be doing something right if charters like KIPP want to hire its employees. On the other hand, HISD shouldn’t delude itself about why KIPP has been successful at doing so. It needs to understand why these employees choose to leave, and what if anything it ought to do about it. Some things – better pay, better opportunities for advancement, better working conditions – can and should be addressed where possible and appropriate. Others, like differences in philosophy, should perhaps be left as they are. If HISD doesn’t know or is unwilling to find out where all this is coming from, it can’t possibly respond to it. That would be a shame. The idea of charter schools was that a little competition would be good for the ISDs. This is a chance to test that theory.

All this is happening, by the way, as KIPP and other charter schools deal with their own legislative budget cuts. One effect of such cuts is a fairly significant departure from norms for KIPP:

There will be no more Saturday classes for students at the Knowledge is Power Program.

The extended school week — one of the trademarks of the popular charter school system — is going by the wayside, along with out-of-Houston field trips and pay raises for employees.

[…]

With its fiscal year starting July 1, KIPP Houston had to decide on cuts prior to the end of the special session that cost them $4.8 million in state funding for 2011-12.

Formal Saturday class for middle-schoolers is being replaced with independent study projects, a move that will save KIPP Houston at least $350,000 and, Feinberg says, might even help students develop better time management skills.

As Martha points out, having that extra time for remediation has been a key advantage for KIPP. It will be very interesting to see how this affects them.

More charter school stuff

Now that you’ve listened to my interview with Chris Barbic, here are a couple more charter school-related articles of interest. First, from the Trib, a story about charter schools getting help for facilities from the Permanent School Fund.

Fledgling charter schools, like any other start-up business, have difficulty establishing credit. Because the schools must renew their charter with the state every five years, banks can view them as a risky investment, said Cinnamon Henley, executive director of the Austin Discovery School, a charter that opened in 2005.

Without access to financing for buying or building new facilities, charters are subject to the whims of the rental market, which can make budgetary planning difficult.

Some state lawmakers are pushing to change that with legislation allowing some charter schools to be eligible to access the Permanent School Fund.

Proceeds from several sources — including revenue from taxes and offshore oil-drilling leases — go into the $23 billion fund, which is managed by the State Board of Education. Interest from the fund feeds the Available School Fund, which helps pay for public school textbooks.

The proposal to expand access to the fund has prominent backers, including state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who introduced the legislation. Her House counterpart, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the Public Education Committee, filed a companion bill last week.

Not everyone is on board: Traditional school districts do not like the idea. The Texas Association of School Boards opposes opening the bond guarantee program to charters, said Dax Gonzalez, a spokesman for the association, adding that charter schools are generally deemed to be poor credit risks.

“We’ve had around 280 charters awarded over the last few years,” Gonzalez said. “Out of those, 71 are no longer operating anymore. That’s about a quarter of charters that have been abandoned or closed down. That doesn’t show that they are going to be around for the state to recoup their investment.”

I’ve discussed this before, and my feelings haven’t changed. I don’t think the PSF is the right vehicle for this, because I don’t think it’s a sufficiently sound investment on the state’s part. There should be a way for charter schools with a good business plan and/or a track record of success to get state resources for facilities, but it should be created and funded by the Legislature. If that gives some charter school supporters in the Lege heartburn because of the budget crunch, that’s just too bad. If you want this to happen, you can find or create a revenue stream for it.

We also have this op-ed from the Sunday Chron about why Houston is such a hotbed for quality charter schools. The three people referenced are Soner Tarim, founder of the Harmony schools, Mike Feinberg of KIPP, and Barbic.

Houston’s charter school sector, which accounts for a rapidly growing 16 percent of public school enrollment, is among the biggest in the nation, and almost certainly the best. So why does Houston host three great charter chains, along with what may be the best urban school system in the nation? I recently asked Tarim, Feinberg and Barbic, and got answers that would not surprise any student of entrepreneurship. Just like Silicon Valley, Houston’s education miracle shows the importance of entrepreneurs, capital, transparency and political leadership favorable to competition.

To start with, entrepreneurs see a need, and as Soner Tarim points out, with a rapidly growing and increasingly low-income student population, “there was such a need.” But there was also great talent. Houston has attracted entrepreneurial educators from across the globe, many, like Tarim, drawn by the University of Houston, Rice and nearby Texas A&M. Other educational entrepreneurs were not new to the country, but were new to Houston. Feinberg, Levin and Barbic were among an army of young, idealistic TFA corps members from out of state drawn to Houston to save urban schooling. Houston has the nation’s largest TFA chapter. Unlike many cities, Houston welcomed TFA rather than seeing corps members as taking jobs from locals.

So what makes Houston different? First, the Houston Federation of Teachers never had the power to keep out TFA or hamstring KIPP and other charters. But that still left a bureaucracy, which, as Jay Mathews writes, resented KIPP’s notoriety and success. Before KIPP became a charter, the Houston Independent School District central office investigated KIPP, and at one point reassigned its classrooms. Political leadership saved the day. HISD Superintendent Rod Paige publicly praised KIPP and intervened when bureaucrats attacked. Paige also had HISD serve as an incubator for YES Prep. As Barbic recalls, “A lot of superintendents would have seen that innovation and tried to kill it, but Paige did the exact opposite.” Paige’s successors have followed his lead, fashioning a public school system that can compete with the charters.

In many cities opponents manipulate zoning and building rules to keep charter schools from finding sites, but Houston has few regulations. Not coincidentally, it also has low construction costs and cheap land. As Mike Feinberg points out, “Fifteen acres in Houston is about the same cost as one acre in Los Angeles.” That meant that once school leaders like Feinberg, Barbic and Tarim refined their operations at one or two campuses, they could expand cheaply and rapidly.

This expands somewhat on what Barbic mentioned in the interview about how charters coexist with HISD and in an ideal world each would push the other to be better. I don’t think you can fully discuss this subject without noting that our entrepreneur-friendly environment here is also attractive to a range of hustlers and con men and that the charter school business has seen its share of each as well. That would make a good subject for a longer analytical piece, not a short op-ed. Greg has more.