Who Can Vouch for the Charters?

The state's charter school experiment is mixed at best -- but the Lege just loves 'em

Student José Gonzales at his cubicle at the Eagle Academy. The former Travis High  student says switching to the charter school turned his educational career around.
Student José Gonzales at his cubicle at the Eagle Academy. The former Travis High student says switching to the charter school turned his educational career around. (Photo By Michael May)

As proposals for public school voucher programs and related school issues are once again under discussion at the Legislature, it's a good time to take a closer look at "charter schools." The charter school program was created by the Legislature in 1995, partly as an alternative to direct state grants ("vouchers") to families to spend on private schooling. Charter schools are public schools "chartered" by the state to be managed by independent organizations (e.g., a university) or private companies. They provide greater school choice to parents and act independently of traditional school districts.

The theory was that educational entrepreneurs, freed of cumbersome regulation, would establish alternative role models for traditional public schools. The early enthusiasm for charter schools was so blind that, in 1997, the State Board of Education granted charters to all that applied, without so much as interviewing the applicants. Grant them all, the board decided, and let the free market sort them out.

Since that time, the charter school movement has done an excellent job of proving just how feeble free-market analogies are when applied to education. It is much more difficult for "consumers" (i.e., schoolchildren) to change schools than to change, say, brands of cereal. When a cereal company fails, you may miss its crunchy, wholesome flavor, but you are unlikely to discover that your old brand gave you scurvy. Yet when the Academy of Austin, an Eastside charter school opened by a for-profit national company, abruptly closed in 1999 without so much as notifying parents, it was hard to explain to parents and children that the closing was simply the salutary effect of market forces.

Not only did kids feel betrayed by teachers and principals, they were transferred to another school in the middle of the year, suffering the academic and social consequences. Yet due to the way the charter legislation was originally drafted, Academy of Austin had committed no violation, and neither the school nor the chain it was a franchise of was required to return the state's money. "That should have been a crime," says Carolyn Boyle, coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, a statewide organization opposed to the privatization of public schools. "Can you imagine these children showing up for school and finding the doors locked? It only takes one bad year to affect a child's entire education."

Laissez-Faire Education

Thanks to examples like Academy of Austin, charters have earned a negative reputation. But there are also some successful charter schools. In Austin, the KIPP Academy and American Youthworks charter schools are proving that dedicated, professional educators can successfully educate students otherwise left behind by conventional schools. KIPP -- i.e., "Knowledge Is Power Program," founded in Houston -- is perhaps the only charter program that is providing a viable model replicated both nationally and across the state. American Youthworks has thus far remained a small, local operation, but could in principle also be a national model for dropout prevention.

In contrast, the Eagle Academies, which targets a similar at-risk student population but has a much more spotty record, has opened 23 schools across the state. "The process has now been refined," says Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas. "There are now extended interviews. We believe in the controlled growth of charters, and don't expect to see the kinds of problems we have in the past."

It is in fact the unbridled zeal of charter supporters that has most undermined the success of their experiment. The laissez-faire approach to charter schools -- both the reckless granting of charters and the lax regulations of the Texas Education Agency in monitoring and governing them -- has resulted in a large number of failing schools. Last year, 40% of the charter schools rated were considered "low-performing" by the TEA, compared to 1.8% of traditional public schools. A careful review process in the mid-Nineties would likely have weeded out in advance many of those likely to fail, and allowed the best models to be expanded. Instead, the deluge of mediocre or poor charters has all but eclipsed the few that provide an excellent, innovative curriculum for students (see chart, p.26).

Something clearly had to be done. In 2001, Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, authored House Bill 6, legislation designed to rein in the worst abuses of the original charter school program. To understand how lax the original legislation was, simply contemplate the new rules:

  • Charters are now required to hire teachers with at least a high school education and must do a criminal background check.

  • There are now rules governing nepotism and conflicts of interest among charter holders and affiliated companies.

  • All payments to charters schools can be used only to the benefit of students, and the charter holders are now responsible for money received from the state.

  • Charters are now subject to the same open records laws governing other public schools.

    The new law also capped the number of available charters at 215 (although existing charters can add campuses). And it stripped the State Board of Education of the power to revoke or expand charters; that responsibility was moved to the commissioner of education. This year, for the first time, the commissioner is closing five charter schools solely for failing to meet the state's academic standards.

    But the implementation of HB 6 has proved how much easier it is to grant a charter than to revoke one and recoup the state's money. Even with the new provisions, it took the TEA over a year to close down Prepared Table and Alphonso Crutch's Life Support Center, two flagrantly mismanaged charters based in Houston. The 24 or so charter schools that have been closed either voluntarily or forcibly still owe the state $5.7 million that may never be collected. And these are only the schools where wrongdoing was discovered. The TEA only has nine staff members assigned to monitor 261 schools -- pending this year's budget cuts -- virtually assuring that many other abuses simply haven't been discovered.

    Charter supporters remain optimistic. "We are seeing improvement in charters who have a few years experience," says Susan Barnes, the assistant commissioner for charter schools at the TEA. "You can't expect them to learn everything at once."

    Skools 'R' Us

    Successful charters have complained that HB 6 has hurt more than it helps, by placing a hefty administrative burden on schools that operate with much smaller staffs than most public schools. Rebecca Benz, assistant superintendent at American Youthworks, says increased regulation has undermined the flexibility that charters are intended to provide. "We are expected to produce much of the same information as a typical school district," she said. "But we don't have access to nearly the same amount of resources and staff. And we just had to produce a renewal application, which took a year to compile. What other school has to do all that work just to remain in business?"

    American Youthworks has managed to balance its budget and satisfy the TEA's requirements, but others have not been so successful. Last fall, the Kenny Dorham School for the Performing Arts in East Austin, opened in 2000, closed in response to an array of mismanagement problems. Administrators couldn't identify who was on the board, for instance, and the school had failed to do criminal background checks on its personnel. Mired in debt and facing a state takeover, the school shut its doors. "Running a school is, in fact, like rocket science," said Louis Malfaro, co-president of Education Austin, a union representing AISD teachers and staff. "There is this idea that little mom-and-pop schools will do a better job than traditional public schools. But this is a complicated enterprise -- it is not enough to just have a good idea. There are administrative tasks, professional development for teachers, an aligned curriculum, services for students with special needs, and an array of other concerns."

    Last summer, the Public Education subcommittee on charter schools, chaired by Dunnam, held hearings in order to report to the legislature on the success of HB 6. The committee's report, obtained by the Chronicle, detailed the sorry academic performance of a majority of charter schools -- even when compared to public schools that serve students with similar demographics. The report advised that the TEA be given greater power to investigate problematic schools, and questioned why the commissioner had allowed several charter holders with low-performing schools to open new campuses.

    After the sweeping Republican victory in November, however, Dunnam was removed from the Public Education committee and the report was never officially released.

    Letting the Eagles Fly

    It's not difficult to surmise why the new Republican leadership buried Dunnam's report. Despite the cautionary tale provided by the charter school history, the new Legislature is considering several bills that would further deregulate Texas schools. Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the new Public Education chair, has introduced the most prominent, HB 2465, that would provide vouchers (Grusendorf calls them "freedom scholarships") for students in large, urban districts that could be used for private school tuition. It's being called a "pilot" program, and its scale is still under discussion, but in its current version it would be offered to students in the state's six largest city school districts, including AISD.

    If such a bill is passed, dozens if not hundreds of "voucher academies" will spring up, some of them currently charter schools that will decide to turn private -- thereby avoiding state regulation altogether. Forest Watson, one of the founders of the Eagle Academies, says his academies would become private if the option was made available. "We have got a public school system that is entrenched, and resistant to change," says Watson, formerly the superintendent of Hurst/Euless/Bedford ISD. "I've worked from the inside to try to make change and did little. Now it is time for market forces to come to bear on the system."

    Carolyn Boyle, on the other hand, considers the record of the Eagle Academies -- nine of Eagle's 23 schools have been rated low-performing for two years in a row -- and wonders if there aren't other motives. "A private school is not accountable at all," she says. "They don't have to take the TAKS. If these Eagle Academies [as charters] continue to be low-performing for another year, it is likely they will be shut down. If they are private, we won't have any way of knowing." end story

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