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Mike Feinberg

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.

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.