Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texans Deserve Great Schools

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.

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.