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YES Prep

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.

Interview with Chris Barbic

Most of what we’ve talked about regarding the budget and the cuts that would result from it has to do with the public schools. But in the background of all this is charter schools, which will also be affected by what the Lege does with the budget, and possibly by other legislation. Some charter school proponents were recently in Austin touting various bills to help them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like I really know enough about charter schools, which whatever your opinion of them are an important part of the educational landscape. So in order to educate myself a little, I asked Chris Barbic, the founder and CEO of the YES Prep schools if I could interview him, and he graciously agreed. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

I got a lot out of that, and I hope you do, too. The main thing is that I think I had always somehow pictured public schools and charter schools as being in conflict, or at least in competition, but now I don’t see it that way at all. In an ideal world, it’s more of a convergence, even a symbiosis. Take a listen and let me know what you think.