A Parent’s Perspective: District-Charter Partnerships Strengthen Public School Systems

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Inga Cotton speaks in support of charter Democracy Prep to take over Stewart Elementary School at an SAISD board meeting in March.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Inga Cotton speaks in support of charter operator Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary at an SAISD board meeting in March.

Put yourself in the shoes of San Antonio Independent School District leaders earlier this year: faced with a perpetually failing campus, they chose to enlist the help of charter operator Democracy Prep to transform Stewart Elementary into a school that offers high-quality education and a brighter future for its students.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a Stewart parent: the forthcoming district-charter partnership is almost certain to have brought on both change and uncertainty.

A recent commentary on the topic mentioned my blog, San Antonio Charter Moms, but did not accurately describe its mission. It is not an “advocacy group for charter expansion;” rather, it aims to give parents tools and information to make informed decisions and raise the overall quality of education in our city.

The blog started in 2012 with a small group of moms curious about some of the new charter schools that were coming to San Antonio. While the “charter moms" name has stuck, the purpose has expanded to include all types of schools.

School models tend to be secondary to parents as governance systems usually work in the background. That is, unless there is a breakdown and a school is faced with closure or new management. At the end of the day, parents want a school where their child is happy, feels safe, and makes progress in learning.

Charter partnerships, such as the forthcoming one at Stewart Elementary in SAISD, can strengthen the public school system by raising the quality of education and, thus, creating benefits for San Antonio's children. But from a parent’s standpoint, both opportunities and risks lie in bringing partnerships into our neighborhood public schools.

Looking to charter schools for expertise makes sense. The Texas charter school sector as a whole is successful. According to Charter School Performance in Texas , a study published by CREDO at Stanford University in August 2017,

" ... on average, charter students in Texas experience stronger annual growth in reading and similar growth in math compared to the educational gains of their matched peers who enroll in the traditional public schools ... The impact on reading gains is statistically significant. Thinking of a 180-day school year as 'one year of learning,' an average Texas charter student exhibits growth equivalent to completing 17 additional days of learning in reading each year."

Those are averages – meaning, some schools do better than others. Public school districts must select successful charters with expertise in serving certain types of students, such as low-income students or those who have too few credits for their age. When those charter schools bring proven expertise to help a district school succeed, students benefit.

Charter schools can learn from district schools, too. Neighborhood schools experienced in supporting groups like English-language learners and special education students must pass that knowledge on to charter operators. Democracy Prep is tasked with accommodating all students assigned to Stewart Elementary.

Not all charter schools are doing a good job. Like failing district schools, failing charters should be closed, too. Resources and students should go to the successful schools, but ensuring that happens requires thorough analysis on behalf of leaders and parents.

This raises the broader issue about school quality and parental choice that applies to all public schools: Parents need support to make good decisions. They need objective information about school quality, like the TEA's school report cards, and forthcoming letter grades for districts and campuses.

There should also be limits on choice: Parents should not be allowed to choose a failing school, either district or charter. Why would parents want their children enrolled in a failing school? A child's lag in academic progress often does not become apparent until there is a serious problem.

But parents may like intangible things about their kids' school – friendly people on campus, a feeling of safety and belonging, a sense of tradition, a location within walking distance from their home – and we must have compassion for families who make the best decisions they can with the information and resources available to them. Many parents have told me that transportation, application processes, deadlines, and wait lists are all major limiting factors in choosing a different school.

That's why every neighborhood needs a high-quality public school. In neighborhoods where public schools have been failing, the tendency to cover up the problem has eroded parents' trust. SAISD is working to fix the problem of failing schools through innovative partnerships, but the district must now also work to rebuild trust with its constituents. While there is a lot of uncertainty among Stewart Elementary parents, experiences at other campuses gives reason for hope.

Ogden Elementary, for example, has been a residency lab school of the Relay Graduate School of Education for one year now, and both teachers and school leaders there have said parent engagement has increased because children are talking about the changes in their school.

Part of rebuilding trust is reassuring parents that, in the new world of district-charter partnerships, the community’s most vulnerable students will be taken care of. The system needs safeguards to ensure it is fair and improves – not worsens – inequality in our city.

To ease the discomfort of change and uncertainty, SAISD must communicate clearly and compassionately with affected families and ensure its most vulnerable students still get the attention they deserve.

These are difficult times, but there is the potential for SAISD to emerge as a stronger district and a true leader in the region and the nation.

14 thoughts on “A Parent’s Perspective: District-Charter Partnerships Strengthen Public School Systems

  1. As a taxpayer I am not interested in spending one dime on any religiously affiliated or politically oriented charter school – or any charter school! Politicians – stop screwing around with our public education system here in Texas. Pay teachers decently and let them teach!

        • While Jose may be incorrect, he is right in one sense.

          Politics do play a role in our public education process, whether it is the Left on funding that is and never will be enough, or the Right on subject matters where they would like to rewrite history, or at least influence it with a Judeo-Christian tradition.

  2. We don’t need to outsource education. We should make the schools better. Our SAISD management is arrogant & driven by data. The real action of teaching occurs in the classrooms, not the constant berating, micro-management, and retaliation from the district level who have been out of the classroom too long and believe themselves above the common school educator. The district management perpetuates & promotes itself through the testing and creates a hostile and unhealthy environment for the schools.
    I am a taxpayer, former SAISD school employee, and a lifelong educator. To speak with a manager you are first asked which school pillar (character traits) you think is most important. Yet this very management is condescending & has its own agenda despite the employees concerns. Recently several school staff were fired or transferred the last week of school (despite their evaluations), on the last day of work for library staff many were transferred & told bluntly they did not have the skill set. Many managers & principals treat school staff with hostility, demean them, & ignore their concerns. This is where the changes need to occur.

    • So what you are saying is that a public ISD, with a citizen elected board has failed to implement the measures you recommend, and which do make sense? How are busy parents supposed to navigate this political minefield to help bring about this change?

      How can be fix this, now! Decades have come and gone, and yet the same issues continue. While I am not necessarily happy for any outsourcing, maybe some competition will lead to real change. Then again, we do have nice “Go Public” marketing campaign. 🙂

  3. If the district-charter partnership is a good idea because the charter can help the district perform better, then the question really is, why isn’t the district using the charter’s successful blueprint for themselves to use around the district?

    By creating a partnership, you are adding middle men to the equation and middle men cost money to employ. Remember, the whole concept of charter schools was that running education like corporations are run (to make a profit) would improve schools. Even non-profit, charter schools can still make a profit because the term non-profit doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to make profit, it just means that the primary goal can’t be to make a profit. Your secondary goal can be to make a profit though.

    Even though, I agree with what most of this article says, I didn’t like the generic statistics thrown out near the beginning of the article. This is only because it makes an attempt to compare two different systems on the same playing field when the data that comprises the statistics are nowhere near even. By law, charter schools are capped for total enrollment, so they can’t suffer overpopulation like a public school can. Even though charter schools are supposed to have open enrollment, they tend to attract the best students of low performing schools. No one ever seems to remember that a student/family that is apathetic towards education will never choose to pursue enrollment at a charter. If you won’t care or are indifferent about something, you won’t waste time to improve it. Those are the types of students/families that charter schools never have to deal. This situation leaves public schools with a higher percentage of this type of student. You can’t compare performance when one school gets the cream of the crop while the other school gets whoever remains. Charters will say they take on this type of student also but if someone took the time to apply to a charter then at least 1 person in that child’s life cares about their education making that child/family no longer part of the demographic I’m speaking of.

  4. I agree that too many charter schools have been set up merely because they can take advantage of funding allotted by right-leaning strictures. Too many of these schools follow politically inspired religious extremes, at the expense of the pupils’ learning potential. I’ve seen advertising by these campuses with grammar errors, which is very sad…they don’t even know what they don’t know. The article’s premise giving schools one year or more to show their progress is too much time…we’ve lost that time in a growing child’s life, and won’t be able to go back to fix it. I say give the children a school that is established according to commonly accepted educational principles, such as what we already have. Experimenting with “new stuff” doesn’t make sense to me if it doesn’t work, and too many of these don’t work. Make what we already have better. Texas and the other southern states rank way down on school system rankings for other reasons than the fact that they are within the existing educational framework.

  5. We have had our children in public, religious and charter schools. We chose charter schools due to the rigorous academics and the the involvement of the teachers. Our children were totally bored with public schools as the teacher seemed to only would “ teach” to the test. At charter schools one can explore opportunities like learning Mandarin, stem, and Singapore math. We are so far behind as a country in what public schools teach the kids here. In other countries the children are taught at least two other languages. Charter schools at least let the children compete on a global level academic wise. The charter schools that I know of are not religious. All you have to do is look at what other children are learning in Asia and Europe to totally understand that we are failing our kids and that we are falling behind. We don’t make the money to send our kids to $22,000 a year private schools but charter schools allow was to choose rigorous academics that they need to compete on a global level. Trying to make everyone go public is beyond me.

    • I am not sure which charter school you are referring to in your comment (BASIS?), but I wonder if one good public/private partnership might be to utilize some charter schools as extensions of magnet schools or GT programs, which are never enough for the number of students who wish to attend? The public funding might go further, and the efficiency may leave some extra funds to go to other programs.

  6. I have yet to see credible proof that charter schools are doing a better job than public schools.
    If Texas is serious about improving our school system, it needs to abolish standardized testing. It needs to require that teaching curriculum cover basic subjects like reading, writing and balancing a check book.
    One major weakness with our public education system is that all students are not seen from an individual perspective. No child is the same as another.

    • “No child is the same as another.”

      Couldn’t agree more. One can complain about how only motivated parents/students are choosing options other than the local public school, and yet if these same public schools would have the right priorities, perhaps they would not choose to leave.

      I am fully aware of the downward spiral that initiates when the most engaged parents at a public school leave for another option, but a taxpayer should ask why the public school is not meeting that child’s needs. Societal conditions (poverty, language barriers, broken homes, etc.) have forced our political representatives to have public schools move beyond a mission to teach, to also feed and care for deserving students, all to be applauded, even if the the funding at the state level is never sufficient. Yet, education for all (and the funding to go with it) should also be a priority. Since it isn’t, schools do their best, but per capita, many don’t get their fair shake of funds; those that do get a bit more and it is usually because the law dictates it.

      At the same time, why would we as a city, state, or country choose to contain the potential of other students, given the long term ramifications for the United States? While charters may not be the only solution, some school choice should be given to parents who cannot otherwise afford private or parochial options. I fully agree that public funds should not flow to private and religious institutions, but if an organization or corporation is willing to meet the requirements to be considered a public charter school, and that may be the only option for many parents and students, why not?

      If the public charters can offer a rigor or academic curriculum that is more challenging for these students, so should the public school. Too often, it does not, year after year. Whether it is fewer magnet programs, limited GT courses, not enough qualified teachers due to state certification requirements, or some other reasons, kids only have 13-15 years of education, if PreK is included, and these issues have been ongoing for decades. Don’t blame parents for choosing another option, and don’t penalize children who just want to learn.

  7. Ultra Left Corner: No public or private charters! No public funds for any other schools! No tax credits for homeschooling or private or religious school!
    Ultra Right Corner: School Vouchers for all! Tax credits for private school or religious schools! Outsource it all!

    Probably Many Parents who aren’t already baptized into one of the above: Just give every child an education that meets their needs, be it public, or public charter, or something else. Give parents help to educate their children. Then, stay out of the way.

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