Setting the Waco Tribune-Herald Straight

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I have copied this editorial from the Waco Tribune-Herald.  My response can be found below.

Editorial: Charter schools — easy on the throttle

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hard to believe, but the one-time experiment that was charter schools in Texas has become a teen-ager in Waco.

Thirteen years ago the Economic Advancement Corp. got the go-ahead for what today is Waco Charter School — funded by the state but without an attendance zone.

That same year one charter school that would succeed and one that would fail were presented for state approval.

The one that succeeded, Rapoport Academy, started with elementary grades, is going strong with a middle school and high school on Quinn Campus. It will graduate its first class of 12th-graders next spring

The school that failed, Emma L. Harrison Charter School in East Waco, did it so spectacularly as to provide lessons the state should have taken to heart.

The learning process took time in Austin — too much time, in fact. For too long, Gov. Rick Perry and other boosters of charters seemed intent on doing what is often ascribed to liberals, “throwing money at a problem.”

Charter schools needed better monitoring and more accountability to the taxpayers. For a time the state was in a pedal-to-the-metal rush to create more charters without mechanisms to assure quality.

One might say we are in a good stretch relative to charter schools. We haven’t heard of too many horror stories about children’s time being squandered and creditors forming long lines as they did with the Harrison school. Needless to say, the task assigned is too important to hand over to fly-by-night operators.

Nonetheless, in the last Legislature a stealth effort was waged to start spitting out new charters without assurances of quality.

Tacked onto an unrelated bill was a measure to allow the State Board of Education to grant 10 new charters per year. It also would have allowed an open-enrollment charter holder to self-authorize the establishment of an unlimited number of additional campuses, even if it has had campuses rated unacceptable.

One obvious problem with this: money. If the Legislature insists on holding the line on how much it spends on the schools it now has, it has no business authorizing new ones.

Running a charter school is tough, in part because charters have no local tax base to tap for infrastructure. Those that have succeeded have done a remarkable turn.

Texas needs to concentrate on making it so that all who are in the arena — whether it be traditional public schools or open-enrollment charters — are sufficiently funded. Meanwhile, it needs to go lightly on the throttle in creating new charters, so that taxpayers get the expected return on their dollars and the result is quality schools.

_________________________________________________

Dear Waco Tribute-Herald Editorial Board,

I trust that your editorial on Charter Schools only reflects that you are misinformed on the subject, and not that you intentionally “misspoke”.

You describe the effort to pass a charter school expansion bill as a “stealth effort”.  This bill, SB 1830, had a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee, was passed to the Senate floor, where is was passed unanimously.  It was then sent to the House, where a House Public Education Committee Substitute gutted most of the beneficial parts of the bill and passed it to the House Calendars Committee.  The bill could not proceed from the Calendars Committee because the House legislative process was shut down by the “chubbing” (Texas House version of filibustering), done to prevent a vote on the voter ID bill.  SB 1830 wasn’t the only Senate bill that didn’t make it to the House floor.  Almost every Senate bill was blocked by the chubbing.

In an attempt to get some of their bills passed, the Senate attached their Senate bills, which were blocked by the chubbing, as amendments to House bills that made it to the Senate.  You erred when you said that SB 1830 (as an amendment) was attached to an “unrelated bill”.  The amendment was attached to HB 3220.  This bill caption was “Relating to the applicability of certain laws to open-enrollment charter schools.” Clearly an open-enrollment charter school expansion amendment fell within the purview of this caption.

This was not a “stealth effort.”  It was not unique to the charter expansion bill.  The Senate was attempting to use this amendment tactic on all of their “chubbed” bills. Everyone in the Capitol knew what was going on, and knew the reason.  It was an attempt to bypass the chubbing, which had shutdown the House’s legislative process for the purpose of keeping a popular bill designed to stop voter fraud from getting a House vote.

Your statement that the charter school expansion bill was designed “to start spitting out new charters without assurances of quality” is brazenly false.  The new charters would be vetted with the same procedures used in the current laws.  Actually the bill would have given the Commissioner more authority to close bad charter schools than he currently has.

The bill would have allowed only 12 (not 10 as you stated) new school charters in the next year.  It is disingenuous to describe that small number as “spitting out new charters.”  Since there are 17,000 students on waiting lists to enter a charter school, there is a great need for these 12 new charter schools.

Your next false statement is, “It also would have allowed an open-enrollment charter holder to self-authorize the establishment of an unlimited number of additional campuses, even if it has had campuses rated unacceptable.”  This is what that portion of the bill actually says:

If a charter school meets the following standards of quality:

1. 90% or more of the campuses under the charter are academically acceptable or higher for the 2 preceding years (for a charter with less than 10 campuses, 90% or more = 100%), and

2. no campus has been rated as academically unacceptable for 2 out of the preceding 3 years, or such a campus has been closed, and

3. the charter holder satisfies generally accepted accounting standards;

Then that charter holder can provide written notice to the State Board of Education  (SBOE) of their intent to open a new campus.  The SBOE has 90 days to disapprove of the new campus.  If they do not respond, then the charter holder can assume that the new campus is approved.

Given this language, how can a charter holder “self-authorize” a new campus?  The SBOE authorizes the new campus, by not disapproving the new campus within the 90 day window.

These rules actually benefit the SBOE.  They are busy enough reviewing new charters applications.  Why should they spend time and red tape going through a new campus approval process for a charter holder that has already demonstrated excellence?

I must commend you on one of your paragraphs.
“Running a charter school is tough, in part because charters have no local tax base to tap for infrastructure. Those that have succeeded have done a remarkable turn.”

In one paragraph you talked about money.  You wrote, “If the Legislature insists on holding the line on how much it spends on the schools it now has, it has no business authorizing new ones.”  When you authorize a new school, you don’t “create” new students to fill that school.  The students that enter a charter school must leave another school, usually an ISD school.  The state stops paying a daily allowance to the ISD school and starts paying an allowance to the charter school.

In a report entitled “Apples to Apples” published in February 2007 by the Resource Center for Charter Schools http://www.charterstexas.org, the authors estimated that in the 2007-08 school year the weighted average cost per student per school year in a charter school was between $1,040 and $1,465 less than in an ISD school.  Therefore, every student that switches from an ISD school to a charter school saves the state at least $1,000.

You may object by saying the these are variable cost saving, but it doesn’t affect the fixed costs of the ISD school.  These costs are fixed costs to the ISD school, but they remain variable costs to the state. Regarding facilities costs, it is my understanding that when Austin pays a “facilities allotment” to an ISD school, they pay it on a per-student basis, which makes it also a variable cost to the state.  Since charter schools cannot receive a “facilities allotment”, then the amount of any such “facilities allotment” represents additional savings to the state.

You may object by saying that the $1,000 savings mentioned above doesn’t take in to account the fact that the state only pay a portion of the variable costs at an ISD school and the rest is borne by the ISD.  On the average, that is true, but on the margin, the state pays the entire cost of the next student that enrolls.  The state also saves the entire cost for the first student to leave.

If an exodus to a charter school causes unused facilities at an ISD school, a very easy way to use these surplus facilities is to lease them to the charter school.  The most difficult hurdle for a charter school is finding affordable and appropriate classrooms for their students.  Most charter schools would love to rent classroom space in an ISD school.

So your statement about cost should be, “If the Legislature insists on holding the line on how much it spends on the schools it now has, it should authorize as many new good charter schools as it can.”

But what about the situation of a bad charter school like Emma L. Harrison Charter School?  It is unfortunate that the school failed, but there is a silver lining on this dark cloud.  The school no longer exists.  It was only a temporary problem.  But there is no silver lining with “failing” ISD schools, because they don’t go away.  They are a permanent problem, failing class after class of students.

Finally, I want to address the most subtle and fallacious argument used by the opponents of charter schools.  It is hidden in two statements in your editorial.  They are, “Charter schools needed better monitoring and more accountability to the taxpayers. For a time the state was in a pedal-to-the-metal rush to create more charters without mechanisms to assure quality….[The state] needs to go lightly on the throttle in creating new charters, so that taxpayers get the expected return on their dollars and the result is quality schools.”

What organization is responsible to provide “better monitoring and more accountability”, and “mechanisms to assure quality” such that “taxpayers get the expected return on their dollars and the result of quality schools”?  Is it the charter schools?  No.  The responsible organizations are first the Texas Education Agency,  second the Commissioner, and third the SBOE.  To say that we need less charter schools because we need better “quality control”, is shifting the blame from the TEA, Commissioner, and SBOE to the charter schools.  It is analogous to saying, “We need less doctors because the government cannot adequately administer the licensing exam,” or “We need less restaurants because the government doesn’t have enough health inspectors.”

This covers the errors in your editorial.  Now I must cover a major omission.

There was an effective “stealth effort” to keep HB 3220, which contained the charter school expansion amendment, from becoming law.  After HB 3220 passed the Senate, it went to conference committee to harmonize the different House and Senate versions.  Then the conference version was sent to the Senate and House for final approval.  The Senate passed the conference version.  If the House passed the conference version, it would go to the governor’s desk and most likely be signed and become law.

When the conference version came to a vote on the House floor, Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) killed the bill on a point of order.  Since it was an ambush that no one expected, I describe it as a “stealth effort”.  According to the Quorum Report, Rep. Burnam said, “I hate charter schools.  I’m going to kill this bill.”  I wonder how Rep. Burnam would respond to the 17,000 kids on waiting lists asking, “Why?”

Sincerely,
Bob Schoolfield
bob@ceoaustin.org
Austin, TX

If anyone would like to verify the facts of this letter, they may contact any of the following individuals or their staff:

Sen. Dan Patrick 512-463-0107
Sen. Florence Shapiro 512-463-0108
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. 512-463-0127
Quorum Report http://www.quorumreport.com
Ms. Brooke Terry, Education Policy Analyst, Texas Public Policy Foundation 512-472-2700

_______________________________________________

Another excellent response to the editorial was given by Richard Baumgartner

Jun 19, 2009 6:01 PM | Link to this

As the founder & director of Rise Academy charter school in Lubbock and as a founding council member of TCSA (Texas Charter School Association), I am compelled to respond with the following:

Although I will give some credit to the editors for at least recognizing that the Rapoport Academy is succeeding,the overall implication of the editorial is that Rapoport is a rare exception in an otherwise rolling sea of charter school disasters. Not so. Rapoport is not alone as a charter school of excellence. The KIPP schools are nationally renowned for their success. So are the Harmony Science Academy schools. Rise Academy is an exemplary charter going on four straight years. There are many others, and only a tiny fraction of Texas charters were ever dysfunctional “fly-by-nights.”

What are the editors talking about when they claim that there was a “stealth effort” in the recent legislative session to “spit out” news charters? The effort to modestly lift the cap on Texas charters was contained in a stand alone bill (HB 1380)and was part of a comprehensive effort to advance charters while allowing bad apples like the Harrison school to be shut down. The only reason the provision to add 10 more charters per year was tacked onto another bill was because Waco’s own esteemed Rep. Dunham and his crony Rep. Lon(“I hate charter schools”)Burnam from Forth Worth killed the charter bill. Good grief! Are 10 new charters per year really a number of such proportion as to incite a widespread panic?

The editors show their lack of understanding in regard to the charter school model in their contention that the legislature “has no business” granting new charters because of all the extra money that will be spent. Charters versus traditional public schools is basically a zero-sum game. The amount of money (really, only about 85% of it)that would otherwise be spent on a child in the traditional school district follows the student over to the charter school when the parent makes that choice. The public school loses the money and it transfers to the charter school. The taxpayers aren’t paying twice for the same kid as the editors imply.

It is true that additional charters could come into existence by means of allowing already-existing, objectively successful charter groups to replicate. This no doubt strikes fear in those wedded to the local public school monopoly model. Our response is: “So What?” How can anyone lose if Texas has more KIPP schools, more Harmony schools, more Rapoports? The only losers then would be the local public districts unable to compete when parents are empowered with choice. So be it!

Richard Baumgartner
Rise Academy
Lubbock

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