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Charter School Approval Sparks More Debate

Williamson County charter school wins approval, but the charter school issue in general remains contentious

By Kimberly Reeves, Fri., Jan. 9, 2009

Charter School Approval Sparks More Debate

Karalei Nunn was just looking for a good alternative for her third-grade son.

The number of students in the Georgetown Independent School District's Gifted & Talented program was limited, and district officials did not appear willing to change that fact. Nearby Round Rock was no longer accepting out-of-district students. Nor was Nunn inclined to enroll her child in any of Williamson County's parochial schools. So Nunn, almost two years ago, gathered a group of parents and began exploring different options. They decided to file a charter application; selected the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum; and sought a charter-school operator.

"We looked for someone who had a good track record and a good track record of staff retention," Nunn said of the process. "They also had to be willing to take on the curriculum that we had picked." So an application was filed, and the State Board of Education approved Imagine International Academy of Williamson County – the first charter school in the county and one of the final eight charters to be approved last month under the current state cap of 215. The school, to be based in Georgetown, will open for kindergarten through ninth grade in the fall of 2010.

But critics such as Karen Miller, who fought the for-profit Chan­nel One television programming in schools, have accused Imagine of being a for-profit parent company, with headquarters in Arlington, Va., in the guise of a nonprofit subsidiary. According to the Texas Education Agency, Imagine's application – which, in essence, "borrowed" the nonprofit status of another Imagine entity – was perfectly legal and fully vetted before Attorney General Greg Abbott's office. Miller is still suspicious.

"What is the motivation here?" Miller asks. "This is a company that uses its own subsidiaries for construction and renovation of buildings. That may be more efficient, but isn't there a conflict when you see so many business interests intertwined? I just question their motives."

But raising such questions – are Imagine's various interests a measure of efficiency or a larger scheme to bilk public money? – simply is not part of the Texas charter-school review process. Even as conservative groups lobby hard for the state to increase or eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools in Texas – a matter that legislators could address in the new session – Imagine's application points to differences between Texas and other states when it comes to charter approval. For one thing, other states with large charter networks use for-profit operators. Jonas Chartock, who ran the Charter School Policy Institute in Austin before taking on duties at the SUNY Charter School Institute in New York last year, said for-profit and nonprofit charter managers are not uncommon, as long as authorizers are assured that an arm's-length relationship exists between the board of directors and the hired charter operator.

Of course, the application process is far more rigorous in New York, the monitoring more frequent, and the goals for the charter schools more defined. While state lawmakers such as Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, have fought in recent sessions to keep Texas charter schools more accountable on the back end (although it's uncertain whether she'll lead the charge again this session), states such as New York are clearer about their expectations on the front end. "It's definitely a lot more stringent up here," Chartock said. "We set a really high bar for the education plan – how the curriculum is defined, the amount of instructional and leadership support, whether there are the right levels of support relative to the demographics of the school. That would apply regardless of the operator."

In Texas, almost anyone can get in the charter game as long as the application is completed properly. But once in operation, charter schools receive far less regulatory attention than public schools. As an example, charter schools have existed since the mid-Nineties in Texas, yet the Texas Education Agency can provide no clear research of the results of various models, and rarely does the TEA close charter schools for academic nonperformance. As one former charter school application reviewer noted, "You can't get rid of them unless they walk off with the money."


*Oops! The following correction ran in the January 16, 2009 issue: In a News story that appeared in the Jan. 9 issue ("Charter School Approval Sparks More Debate"), we should have noted that Williamson County parent Karalei Nunn was concerned about the quality, not the number of seats, in Georgetown ISD's Gifted & Talented program.

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