Charter Takeovers Erode San Antonio’s Public School System

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A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School in 2018.

San Antonio Independent School District’s narrative about charter school integration into the district radically simplifies reality in the service of private power.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez says public schools and charter schools should work together. In doing so he seeks to transform a complex, deeply political discussion into a one-dimensional misrepresentation in which “reform” is presented as neutral, natural, and disconnected from social and economic developments taking place throughout the nation.

“School privatization is a hoax, and ‘reformers’ aim to destroy public schools,” says Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, historian of education, and assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Indeed, public schools in the United States are under attack, and charter schools are merely the latest attempt by private corporations to rebrand the school reform movement and exploit public funding for profit. Behind simplistic narratives about reform lies the school-voucher movement reborn and rebranded – the market touted as the replacement for any and all publicly and democratically controlled entities.

Charter schools have less qualified teachers, higher teacher turnover, much higher suspension rates for students – especially children of color and those with disabilities – and they push out students with behavior issues and special educational needs.

Even circumventing the rules and regulations that govern public schools, charters fare no better in measures of student success. Their “no-excuses” frameworks have been described as “militaristic and anti-democratic.”

The idea that we should be working with them is absurd: their goals – and the goals of their advocates – could not be further from our own.

I believe in public schools that are owned and controlled by the people, for the people. They should be responsive to the public will, and their policies, practices, and procedures should be decided democratically by the public and their representatives. Students should have ownership of the spaces in which they learn, parents should have a meaningful voice in their children’s schools, and teachers should have a say in how their workplaces operate.

The movement to privatize public education opposes all of the above because, in the end, it undermines democratic input into public life.

While school privatization “reformers” are backed by big money donors and corporations, opponents include San Antonio’s Our Schools Coalition of community members, teachers, and parents, the Movement for Black Lives, the Network for Public Education, and the NAACP – the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

It’s big corporate money versus civil rights organizations, community groups, and teachers. The choice could hardly be starker. That’s why charter advocates pretend this argument is about teachers’ contracts and unions that are scared of change: if they were to tell the public the truth, they’d lose the argument before it started.

Who supports Martinez’s plans for charter collaboration in SAISD? San Antonio Charter Moms, an advocacy group for charter expansion, and what is loosely referred to as “the business community.”

Parents, teachers, students, community groups do not.

In fact, in order to hand over Stewart Elementary to a New York-based charter company, Martinez and his board drowned out debate, community and teacher input, and consultation.

Parents, community members, and teachers repeatedly called on Martinez and the board of trustees to consult and partner with them in deciding the future of their neighborhood school. Again and again their calls were ignored by the district leaders whose job is to serve them and act in their interests. Again and again district leaders refused to consider alternatives to plans which had been devised behind the scenes ​many months earlier. While the Stewart community was excluded at every turn, Democracy Prep was being courted by district leaders.

Stewart teachers, parents, and students were effectively dismissed and denied the chance to escape the State’s “improvement required” rating by a district leadership unwilling even to make its contract with Democracy Prep conditional on the school’s failure to meet standards.

But last week, preliminary STAAR scores indicated that Stewart Elementary could obtain a passing, or “met standard” rating from the state, SAISD Deputy Superintendent Pauline Dow said. While final STAAR results and the State’s accountability ratings won’t be released until August, those of us trained on the state calculators for school performance are certain Stewart Elementary will finally emerge from its “improvement required” status.

Regardless, Democracy Prep is slated to take over Stewart on July 1.

A campus that could be safe from state sanction is being dismembered and sold off, all but two of its teachers leaving rather than work for the charter company with high teacher turnover rates (34 percent across all campuses last year), low expectations for teacher qualifications (as few as 44 percent of teachers being certified), and regressive and punitive disciplinary practices (28 percent suspension rate). Many students have opted to leave, even under district pressure to remain, and the campus’s future remains uncertain.

It could have been a different story, and now we have proof that our most underperforming campuses can turn themselves around without the “expertise” of outside charter companies.

San Antonio’s public schools are far from perfect, and we should move boldly to transform them into the schools our children deserve. But handing them over to private, profit-seeking entities isn’t the way to proceed. Powerful forces are doing everything they can to cash in on the privatization of public education in this country. They are desperately working to shape a narrative which – if they succeed – will have you fighting the people you should be supporting, and supporting the people you should be fighting.

17 thoughts on “Charter Takeovers Erode San Antonio’s Public School System

  1. No doubt there were things that should have been done differently in the process of transferring Stewart to a charter operator.

    But to brandish all charter schools with one broad brush only defeats the aim of the the opinion. Defining all charter school proponents as big business or aligning any advocacy for school choice with big pockets who only aim to destroy public education serves to define an important issue at the extremes.

    Push everyone to their corner, while the ones who are affected continue to suffer from year to year.

  2. Charters are an attempt to have a separate but equal system of education that is intended to achieve results on the cheap. Education is treated as a commodity and we see now that it is harming the communities that have the most need. I applaud the tough questions that were levied against Promesa when it was seeking its charter. To think that kids in the 78207 would be served by a “school” that didn’t include funds in its budget for safety, transportation, or a library is troubling, is that the choice that charter proponents are advocating for our kids? Charters can advertise that they are “public” but ask anyone how does one get appointed to serve on the board of IDEA or KIPP and the answer time and timen again is you can’t. That’s the difference, in any I.S.D a citizen can run and be elected to the governing board of a school district. That’s democracy, that’s choice. I have seen the changes that have come to SAISD the last three years. The disorganization, the plans that are implemented in a way that dooms them to not succeed. I have read about teachers being “empowered” by these changes but that’s not the case in many campuses that are not considered one of the “boutique” schools. I used to think that charters and traditional public schools could coexist but the truth is they can’t. Charters are like weeds they are taking precious resources from our true democratically elected public schools.

  3. Regardless of whether you’re for or against charters (I’m against), SAISD allowing Democracy Prep to take over Stewart hurts public schools overall. It is a public school district admitting they do not have what it takes to educate the students of this neighborhood and that they feel a charter will do better. How can a district expect to win the “Go Public” battle with a move like this? If Democracy Prep does well this coming school year , I have no choice but to think SAISD needs to get out of the way of educating any students at all because they do not know how to administer education properly. If Democracy Prep does worse, it shows SAISD made a very bad decision. Either way, SAISD has put themselves in a no-win situation. It might be a good thing though, leading to SAISD being absorbed by another district.

    • Just like bad public schools, there are bad charter schools, and by all means they should be held accountable. But notice how the article and map provided only data points that fit the narrative. Why not also show the other charter schools and their percentages?

  4. Nice article, looks like Bob is trying to show his “news organization” isn’t so one-sided towards charter schools.
    It is Bob. An article a few weeks ago covered a KIPP graduation Bob, but I didn’t see a single article on any SAISD graduation and how many kids the district sends off to top universities across the country every year. Luke you are more qualified to run a school district than Pedro. Atleast Pedro has some the softest hands for a man I’ve ever shaked.

  5. Mr. Amphlett, I admire your passionate commitment to education, but can’t agree with you.

    I grew up on the West side of San Antonio and have a very good idea about the realities faced growing up “underprivileged.” My parents worked days, nights, and weekends to be able to save me from the local public schools (Edgewood district in the early 80’s) and send me to Saint John Bosco. The idea that Lyndon B Johnson elementary is “publicly owned” is true, but this truth is more theory than reality. Did my parents’ complaints make a difference? No. Would voting for different school board members have changed much for me? I doubt it. What did make a difference for me was being able to choose a different school, an option that required constant struggle on the part of my parents and the kindness of the administration of SJB, who was understanding when we could not afford the tuition.

    Affluent people (like me in the present) have this option, because they can send their children to a private school if they choose, can move to a better school district if they choose, and can move their child to a different school when necessary. I’ve seen this countless times with my peers. Do private school administrators listen to their parents? Not in all things, but to a great degree, yes. Why? Because they know they are not a monopoly and that they need to do a good job to stay open.

    I think this is closer to “democracy,” because parents can “vote with their feet” by moving their children to a different school. People who are struggling should have this option too and that is what Charter schools provide. I think parents know what is best for their children and when presented with a choice will almost always make good decisions.

    I would also add that in the best charter schools, no real profit is made and I agree that they should all be non-profits.

    Further, when it comes to the best charter operators, it’s completely unfair to paint them as a profit-seeking conspiracy. They are much more like you–passionate educators committed to making a real difference and closing the achievement gap, not just meeting the minimum state requirements and calling that a success.

  6. The use of inflammatory language by the writer doesn’t help his argument. Neither does the fact that he simplifies charters vs. public schools to a trite debate about big money vs civil rights advocates. The is and will always remain more complicated.

    What Luke fails to mention in his” big money vs. civil rights” arguments is that he is writing this piece as a mouthpiece for an organization (The Alliance) that will only exist because of the dues provided to it by teachers. As a quasi-union, the Alliance has no real power and can only brandish hyperbole and whiney rhetoric to make their point. As long as the Alliance continues to take this approach, it will continue to demonstrate that it puts the protection of adults (many of whom are extremely low performing) above long-term improvement and opportunity for students. Creating boogie men that go bump in the night are a great way to feed fear, stoke flames, and take the Trumpish approach to the conversation. What can we expect, though, when the author’s primary goal is to fill the coffers of his organization with the cold hard cash of low-performing educators.

    Let’s get back to the table work together. Neither side of this debate can live apart from the other, and I am utterly convinced that despite the flaws in many charter programs, we still have much to learn. Right now, I do not hear a pro-child argument in the crowded room. Just a bunch of adults yelling at each other.

    -A sincerely concerned parent

    • Ah…at last a voice of reason….so well stated. It should be about the child/student..not about who is running the show, who is getting the money, who is getting or leaving the jobs, etc. etc. If the bottom line were children accomplishments (as opposed to organization accomplishment) maybe this would be resolved a lot quicker. However, it’s all about trying to point out who is wrong (SAISD or Charter Schools or unions, etc.). FOCUS people !!

  7. SAISD has been taken over by pro-charter people. If SAISD had any vision it would work with other public school districts and consider merger. There’s no valid reason to have 16 separate and unequal school districts in the San Antonio metropolitan area. Having these 16 districts is nothing more than defacto segregation, something what the capitalists have always pushed.
    SAISD board needs to resign!

  8. A lot of big, sweeping statements in this article, supported by quotes from friendly sources. But very few specifics or facts. For example, are higher turnover rates in charter schools necessarily a bad thing? Isn’t one of the problems with public schools the inability or unwillingness to get rid of substandard teachers? I realize it’s a big, complex topic, but the article would have been more persuasive if it has just focused on whether Stewart should have been converted to a charter school.

  9. FOR-PROFIT Charter Schools are the republican answer to putting public education out of business in the US. The state of Texas does everything imaginable to drive our public schools into the ground financially,….while shifting the funds to their friends in the charter school rackets.

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