Charter vs. Public Schools: Not a Zero Sum Game

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Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are two college bound studentst at Travis Early College High School.

San Antonio already has a champion basketball team, a River Walk that draws thousands of tourists and a star mayor about to hit the political big time. Yes, a city on the rise.

Soon, it may experience something just as positive: an injection of high performing charter schools. I know you weren’t expecting that last “positive.” What’s wrong with our schools just as they are?

True, the city does have pockets of education excellence. The Young Women’s Leadership Academy in SAISD was ranked the #1 middle school in the state and Hawthorne Academy, SAISD’s first in-district charter school, was designated as a “gold ribbon” campus, given to high-performing, high-poverty schools.

Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: college bound and loving it.

YWLA students (from left) Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: a sisterhood of support. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

But still, there are significant problems. Only one in 10 San Antonio students entering 9th grade will graduate from high school prepared for college work.

San Antonio can do better, and there are plans in the works to give thousands of students school opportunities to turn that around. Your city is in a unique position. Although you have some very good charters already, the numbers they serve are small. That’s about to change, and San Antonio, being fairly new to the game, can choose its own fate.

Based on how this has played out in other cities, the options are clear.

Option 1: San Antonio can choose acrimony, following the path of New York, Boston and Los Angeles. You’ve probably read news stories about the fighting between New York’s new mayor and the leader of the city’s top performing charter group. The mayor doesn’t believe in charter schools; the charter leader doesn’t believe in city schools.

Option 2: San Antonio can go the way of Denver and Washington, D.C., where relations between the two worlds are relatively smooth and all students benefit, not just the charter students.

In Denver there’s a compact agreement that mixes the charter world and district worlds. Top charters are invited into district buildings to share space.  In exchange, the charters take on more of the special education burden.  Under the city’s “Compact Blue” arrangement, charter and district teachers and administrators gather together on professional development days to share lessons-learned.

Denver is not alone. Here in Texas, Houston’s Spring Branch district set up a cutting edge compact where the charters share space and the students intermingle for electives. The superintendent used the compact agreement there to reset the district goals: Within five years, Spring Branch plans to double the number of students who successfully complete some form of higher education, ranging from a technical certificate to a four-year degree, taking it from the 36 percent to 72 percent. The charter compact will help them get there.

In Washington D.C., there’s little official mingling but relations are smooth (charter students make up 45 percent of the population) and there’s friendly competition, probably the reason D.C. students show the fastest improvements on federal tests.

Option 2 is clearly better for students in San Antonio, but there are no guarantees things will play out that way. Already parents in San Antonio have heard warnings of  “corporate charter chains” poised to invade your city. That rhetoric is borrowed from the toxic national fights over charters and borders on the silly. Would everyone who became millionaires working for KIPP charters please stand up?

KIPP, which is already in San Antonio, is part of the expansion plans. That’s a good thing. The typical 5th grader enters KIPP San Antonio a year or more behind, but by the end of 8th grade the average student is reading and doing math on a 10th grade level. Another charter group already in San Antonio, and scheduled for rapid expansion, is IDEA Public Schools, which were just nominated for the prestigious Broad Prize for their record educating poor Latino and African American students.

Carlos Sanchez shows off his physics roller coaster at KIPP Aspire. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Carlos Sanchez shows off his physics roller coaster at KIPP Aspire. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Also part of the expansion plans are some newcomers, such as Rocketship, a California-based charter I spent a year following for my new book. If Rocketship’s K-5 schools come to San Antonio, I predict immediate wait lists of Latino parents trying to get their children enrolled.

In the coming months, some will tell you that allowing charters to grow is a zero-sum game, with the district schools losing every time a new charter opens. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not like that in either Washington or Denver, a city where student academic scores are rising every year because of the decision to wrap charters into district schools.

Washington and Denver are win-win models — and choices San Antonio should make.

Richard Whitmire, author of “On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope,” will appear at Twig Book Shop Monday, June 23 at 4:30-6 p.m. Whitmire will also be moderating a luncheon and panel discussion on Innovation in Public Education, including blended models and STEM focused curriculum, at the San Antonio Area Foundation on Tuesday, June 24 at 11:30 a.m. Space is limited, RSVP by emailing

 *Featured/top image: Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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28 thoughts on “Charter vs. Public Schools: Not a Zero Sum Game

  1. John, good point. There’s corruption in some of the schools. Let scrap the whole thing and “go public”. Good solution, bud…

  2. John, good point. There’s corruption in some of the schools. Let scrap the whole thing and “go public”. Good solution, bud…

  3. Hmmm …. I think we are missing the obvious solution here. Create a governing body to conduct monthly oversight that is funded by the charters. Three strikes in any given school year and the charter leaders are replaced. Three strikes per year in three continuous years and the charter is revoked.

  4. Thank you for providing a counter-argument pertaining to this discussion. I think the public is being inundated with the constant reports from conservatives (yes, conservatives) of how charter schools are evil. It’s time for progressives (yes, progressives) to begin telling the true stories of success wrt charter schools and their cooperation with public schools.

    Again, thank you for providing a well-balanced forum for this discussion.

  5. The notion that private business does things so much better than government is completely bogus. Charter schools like any other outsourced government function sees the contractor greatly cut the expenses including salaries and pocketing the difference. The first goal is profit. Education takes a backseat.

  6. For profit school does indeed imply that the goal is profit, not education. I don’t understand why the nation went down that road to begin with. I see this type of charter as defunding our education system. But, if we are already on that path, now what? I want to know what we need to do more than what we all hate.

  7. Even with elected school boards and government accountability (the same one that holds charters accountable) corruption happens in ISDs too. It isn’t isolated to charters alone. So if we are going to talk about corruption, let’s address it as a concern for all publicly funded programs and those who are supposed to hold them accountable.

  8. Beyond the fallacy of separate, but equal the socioeconomic “specialization” occurring in charters operating independent of school systems seems to be setting up or promoting educational castes.

  9. The charter school movement IS making some people millionaires, and starving the public schools of resources. One reason these schools “work” is their high drop-out rate: the low-performing or special needs students who can’t make it leave (or are told to leave) before the standardized tests are given.

    What is the criteria for being “college ready”? SAT/ACT scores? If so, the ACT itself says only 30% of graduates nation-wide meet their criteria.

  10. Sarah – you mean educational castes like one where those who can afford it have options like moving to a better zoned school or forking thousands for privates schools, while those without means have no other educational options? Or how about one where high-performing students can be accepted into selective magnet schools? There is no “educational castes” being set up here by charters. By funding schools with property taxes and zoning families by zip codes, perhaps we’ve been living in this caste system all along.

  11. Annie- I mean it discouraged blended socioeconomic communities of learning as “gated” living enclaves have traditionally done. My husband continues to teach both our neighborhood students and those students that some of these charters reject, differentiating their instruction so that they are guided to become college-ready critical thinkers.

    And be clear about which accountability parts of independent corporate charters are similar to public ISDs and which are not. Yes, they all take the STAAR. No they do not have the same funding restrictions, nor oversight currently, though State Rep Mike Villarreal has pledged to work toward justice and fairness on this call. No, their teachers are not mandated to be Certified, and so will not fall under the new State Teacher Eval systems to be piloted this year.

    Let’s make sure to put public monies into quality public classrooms to teach our children and support and train our teachers. We can do it!

  12. I think the core of this situation is why do parents choose to leave their neighborhood pub school? A “go public” campaign is just a slogan. What is the state doing to keep parents at pub school? I chose to leave our supposedly great public school to drive 2 hours everyday to take my child to BASIS. If public schools can’t match pace with charters then parents will keep leaving them. I think it’s sad. I do believe in public schools and think school should not be for profit, but I won’t sacrifice my child to insane amounts of testing, bullying, and a mediocre curriculum, which is what we were getting at NEISD.

  13. It is obvious that this piece is biased. It would have been nice if the author would have provided a more balanced argument. Charters might appear to be great in theory, but empirical research doesn’t reveal such a positive picture.

  14. Charters are around to destroy real public ed and crush teachers, especially where they are unionized.

  15. I have a problem with education managed by a business. I keep reading how students who do not perform get dumped and it only makes sense. I have no data except that looking for a charter in the entire San Antonio area for my child with Down syndrome, I was unable to find a single one who will accommodate her. According to her teacher, her prospects of integration are great! Of course, she will be useless to a business who needs to show results in order to get contracted again. I am not supporting an education system which will not make the same standards of “excellence” available to all children.

  16. Clearly, this issue has struck a nerve. We should plan on attending the two upcoming events at which this author will be speaking.

  17. Mitzi, right on, but I cannot attend these events because we’ll be out of town with my “TeacherMan” husband as he trains Louisiana ELA teachers in curriculum and differentiating instruction to bring Pre-AP/AP level rigor to all their MS & HS kids in traditional public school settings. He trains teachers all over Texas too. Quality and rigor in traditional public school settings can happen.

  18. .

    The academic literature shows that education reform had it’s genesis in the privatization movement from the extreme right wing. The way it has been made acceptable to liberals and low information parents is that it is framed as a civil rights issue. The term cleverly co-opted to hide the defunding of the public school system, the other clever deception was that public schools are failing. They are not failing, what is failing is the social mobility ladder in this country. Inequality and poverty go hand in hand, add to that a lot of first generation migrants and what they public systems needs is more service, not less.

    Locally the, Brackenridge Foundation, read Republican and very corporatist, helped fund the Charter experiment here. Nationally, the Walton family, the Milton Friedman foundation etc. are driving the movement.

    Charters that are not public, have a privately elected school board. That means they obtain our tax dollars yet do not have to answer to us. Whatever their curriculum is, be it a hyper Euro Centrist curriculum in a city of brown culture and heritage then so be it, they do not answer to us. That is taxation without representation.

    Charters are for PROFIT, even the ones that are Non-Profits are run by for profit management corporations. The bottom line is the most important responsibility for corporations. They have the utmost responsibility to their shareholders. Students and parents are treated like consumers. That’s why the economic term for school choice rings so true.

    Most charters employ the newest and cheapest teachers without certifications, they employ Teach For America rookies who have a burn out at a rate of approximately 2 years. They are an easy way of keeping costs down, then they are eligible to become Educational Entrepreneurs and make money off our tax dollars by creating software, or some other technology that replaces teachers. In their paradigm screen time is an equitable substitute for teacher student relationships. Of note, few if any of these reformers send their own children to charters. Bill Gates’ children went to Montessori.

    Charters are NOT subject to the same transparency and regulation as public schools. (Try filing a Freedom of Information Act Request to one and experience that for yourself.)

    A lot of schools not just charters, but more so charters, especially those who cater to children of color adopt an extreme version of No Tolerance and feed the School to Prison Pipeline.

    Nationwide the scandals coming out of charters are frequent and have most to do with embezzling, kickbacks and profiteering but on a grander scale than any public school board can even hope to get away with.

    The attrition rates are very high, they weed out the children who do not test well as a way to inflate their test scores, and then brag about how well their students perform.

    Charters like Great Hearts and Basis, place their campuses close to wealthy neighborhoods by design to skim the students whose parents can afford to send their kids to private school but like having the choice between vacations, and free schools.

    They do not accept the levels of English Language Learners, and children with learning disabilities at the same rate as true public schools.

    They say they are open to all and the system is by lottery. Yet, anyone who has been through the byzantine application process of these schools in particular knows that it is prohibitive. Top that off with no Free Lunch Program and Free Transportation and you have a successful segregationist 2 tier system of schooling.

    They say they do more with less tax money but do not explain that they do not receive as much money because they do not have the same enrollment rates for students who the federal government gives more money for enrolling. Yet they do receive private foundation money, they fundraise, and ask parents to pitch in.

    With San Antonio’s past, and in light of the Texas leg and their recalcitrance in fighting the equality of funding, we as a city should address the underlying social issues and put a cap on charters now, before they destroy that last bastion of the democratic social contract.

    Financial mismanagement and lack of equal funding mechanisms are not a school’s fault, much less the teachers, their unions or students within.

    Poverty stricken kids are not remedial, bad or criminal nor all the children of white liberals gifted and talented or entitled to be constantly stimulated, whites of all political persuasions taking their children out of the inner city schools has had a negative effect on these schools and yet this is spoken about in terms of personal choice. Meanwhile, class consciousness, race consciousness and solidarity are swept under the rug.

    Historical racism and white flight are even ignored in this column which is sad because now is a great time nationally and locally for this dialogue and RR is one of the only local media outlets willing to tackle these tough problems, respect for that RR.

    The Free Market logic driving the privatization of schooling wants us to dismiss these points and just insulate ourselves with the “i’m doing the best for my family” mantra, stop that. We’re better than that, we in San Antonio are less selfish than that, let’s open our eyes together and come up with a county wide funding mechanism and an inner city superintendent that has the spine to champion it.

    In case you live in a bubble, readers, and this sounds farfetched, here is an open access peer reviewed source for your own research:

    Google Diane Ravitch, Bill Moyers, Julian Vasquez Heilig, all public intellectuals and or educators
    Go to the San Antonio Public Library and ask to see the SAISD vertical file and the one on Civil Rights

    In case you did not grow up here and or do not have the benefit of the real life experiences of being part of a community of color, these are great to really know the history of San Antonio. If you are a person of color they will help you speak out.

    Read The Politics of San Antonio: Community, Progress and Power
    A Cold Anger by Mary Beth Rogers
    Paternal Continuity by Kenneth Mason
    Jan Jarboe Russell on education and politics in the archives of the San Antonio Light
    African Americans and Race Relations in San Antonio, 1867-1937 by Kenneth Mason

    Currently “a local KIPP aspire Principal’s employability is under investigation by the Texas Education Ageny for past federal financial crimes.”
    http://www.expressnews Feb. 3, 2015

    If you are receiving information from the schools themselves and or their paid consultants, like Heartland Institute, Mathematica, etc. think about how Big Tobacco got away with what they were doing for so long. Doubt, misinformation and fake studies were par for the course.

    Update: locally a KIPP principal (Fredericksburg road campus) has been found in Feb. 2015 to have committed federal financial crimes but somehow serves as a principal here.

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