It’s Time for San Antonio’s Public Schools to Compete

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A class at Stewart Elementary prior to announcing the charter takeover.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students at Stewart Elementary School, which will become an in-district charter come July 1.

San Antonio’s public schools are far from perfect. Everyone knows that, even those who support them. One San Antonio Independent School District teacher recently wrote, “We should move boldly to transform them into the schools our children deserve.”

But they don’t.

Sometimes being bold means doing what teachers unions won’t like – handing over underperforming schools to leaders with a proven record of turning them into exemplary schools, for example. SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his board made the right choice for Stewart Elementary when they opted to turn it over to New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep rather than having the State take it over and possibly close it.

So what if Democracy Prep is a charter school? So what if the company is from New York? As long as its leaders can fix something that has been broken for five long years, why not let them try?

While it’s true that Stewart was starting to turn the corner this year, it was a case of too little too late. Too bad. Had it been turned around sooner, this whole mess could have been avoided.

This fight is not about teachers losing their jobs. There are more openings for teachers than there are teachers to fill them. Teachers who want to remain teachers can continue to teach. Have you seen the big billboards all over town imploring, “Want to teach? When can you start?”

Charter schools are not the bad guys. They exist only because parents want choices. Why else would they keep growing at record levels? Why else would there be thousands of parents on waiting lists hoping the next charter school opens in their neighborhood?

Charter schools are funded by the State much the same as public schools. The big difference is that they receive less state money but are expected to do more with it. In most cases, they do. When they don’t, the State shuts them down just as it would any other school.

The real reason teachers unions are up in arms is one dreaded word: competition. This is a natural fear for them. Those who have never faced competition, fear it. Those who have always known it, embrace it.

In the past, all public schools had to do to exist was exist. If you lived in a certain district, your child went to a certain school. If you didn’t like the school, you could opt for a private one, usually a parochial school, and pay the tuition while you paid school taxes, too. The unions were okay with that. They didn’t lose a dime of dues. Now, every time they lose a teacher to a charter school, they lose teachers dues.

Competition is not to be feared. It’s nothing new to education. It’s where public and private universities have lived since the invention of higher education. They don't mind competing because fighting for every student they enroll is the only world they’ve ever known. Soon, it’ll be the same way for all pre-K to 12th-grade schools.

Teachers unions will eventually get used to working in a competitive world. But first, they must realize it’s here stay.

In the meantime, teachers unions might be wise to use their revenue from dues to help better train teachers instead of using that precious money to buy off lawmakers who keep voting for the status quo.

From now on, parents will be calling the shots – not the unions – because they realize that voting to keep things as they are is the same as voting for mediocrity and low expectations. The status quo is under attack.

Parents want choices now. Shouldn’t public schools be one of those choices, too?

43 thoughts on “It’s Time for San Antonio’s Public Schools to Compete

  1. THIS is exactly right. Public schools are miserably bad in SA, even the “good” districts. A little competition is ALWAYS a good thing. If the public teachers are so convinced their product is better, why not find out?

  2. This is a tired argument that privatization advocates have used time and time again. They demonize teachers to cover up the fact that their real agenda is to take the control over public education out of the hands of the community and give it to private corporate entities. It also misses the real point that SAISD families have never had a chance to share our vision for our schools. The superintendent and board could care less what we think.

  3. Great another instance of some one with ZERO experience coming out of the woodwork to claim that “competition” is good for education. The bull that Sosa is peddling sounds good on paper but I’m not buying it. Sosa casually brushes off the fact that the community around Stewart had no say as to whether they wanted an outside company with suspension rates of 29% up to 49% coming in and running their community school. Lionel Sosa would be wise to do a little more homework as opposed to buying into the tired Republican narrative of competition = better educational outcomes because sadly he is showing he is behind the times.

    • It doesn’t even sound good on paper. He’s trying to have a private vs. public debate rather than a charter school takeover of our public schools. Teacher Unions are not protesting private schools – they are protesting resources being taken away from the public and given to private corporations. That’s not competition- that’s theft.

      • well man, hate to tell you but taxation is theft and the way ISDs spend our money and get no improved outcomes is certainly FRAUD

  4. Having spent 13 years in corporate America and now 6.5 in public education, I feel I have the right to say that if you’ve never taught you might want to sit this fight out. Like in any industry, there is some protectionism going on in public education. And yes, competition is good. However, people like Mr. Sosa simplify the issue by demonizing unions rather than looking at many of the underlying issues facing public schools. I work harder as a teacher than I ever did in the financial industry for a third of the compensation and a whole heck of a lot of heartache. I do not regret my choice, however. But it does sadden me that politicians and “experts” want to find ways to hurt local schools and communities for the gain of private companies who have still not proven successful playing with the same set of rules. If public schools are given the leeway to fire poor performing teachers and, just as importantly, effectively expel low performing students who hurt the school culture and measures, public schools would be a model rather than a scapegoat.

    • “effectively expel low performing students”
      This is exactly the mentality that we need to get rid of. The purpose of a public school is to figure out how to produce upstanding citizens. The cookie cutter model is not working. I’ll take competition every day if it means they will work to figure out how to really teach ALL of our future population.

      • Private and charter schools can and do “effectively expel low performing students” and or with behavior problems. How is competition when they don’t use the same rules?

  5. While I’m sure other, more qualified people will respond soon (as I am not a teacher), I would like to point out just a few errors.
    1. The “Want to Teach?” billboard is nothing more than an advertisement for an online certification program – it has nothing to do with the actual process (and difficulty) of finding a teaching job.
    2. I do not think teachers are fearful of competition. The problem is the uneven playing field you ask them to compete on. Public schools must serve every kid that walks through their door without regard to disability, to family involvement, to academic need.
    3. Teachers “unions” are not mandatory, and teachers don’t have to join them. But if you complain that teacher unions use a portion of these voluntary dues to influence legislators, you should also be complain that realtors, or engineers, or other interest groups also “buy off lawmakers”. These contributions are an unfortunate, but necessary evil.

  6. We teachers really appreciate when someone does their homework. And we are so disappointed when someone, in this case Mr. Sosa, who is no doubt a very bright individual, does not. I am a teacher who is a member of the teachers’ union that I believe he is referencing. He suggests our union should be using some of our funds to help train teachers. If he had done his homework, he would know that our union does exactly that. We have had a partnership with our district to do training for new teachers for 17 years. It is based on the highest level of education research and helps teachers learn how to integrate those best practices into our classrooms . . . classroom management, maintaining high levels of student engagement, scaffolding instruction, etc., and yes, a section on effective homework. Virtually every new teacher I speak with feels the same way I did when I took the class as a new teacher . . . it was far and away the best and most helpful training I had as a beginning teacher. Unfortunately, rumor has it that SAISD administration is planning to cease the program for next school year. Sounds like petty retaliation and the new teachers are the ones who will suffer by not having this outstanding training.

  7. Lionel Sosa failed to disclose his vested interest for charter schools. Surprise, he serves on the Board of Directors of a charter school, and to pretend that he is an outside unbiased, observer is simply dishonest.

    • Thank you. A quick Google search pulls him up on the board for KIPP. Probably the most important piece that Lionel and the RR left out.

        • Thanks, but it seems rather important for the the KIPP connection to have been mentioned in your bio…or actually, it would have been good for you to note it in your article along with your grand kids going to a San Antonio ISD school. For full transparency, I work for a teachers union–Texas AFT.

  8. Thank you for your opinion on education, branding and marketing guy! Maybe youd be open to some tips on your profession from some teachers?

  9. Yes, Competition is Here to Stay. More charter schools are opening on Northwest SA, and we have “excellent schools”. Parental choice to use this education resource and, Local School Districts and charter organizations need to collaborate to teach our children. School District Bond money elections will eventually meet with voter disapproval. Yes, I have a Texas Standard Teaching Certificate but decided to leave the profession.

  10. I see you have a lot of experience in education Lionel. The biggest obstacle SAISD teachers face is an engrained culture where education is
    not prioritised and/or lack of parent involvement in their child’s education. I meet parents everyday during the school year that never finished high school who don’t encourage their children to do better than they did. I have kids who will tell you to your face they are waiting to live off the government like some family members. I have parents who will put 22in rims on their busted up Navigator, but will send their child to school in dirty clothes and holes in their shoes. They keep chrome rims clean though. Each year I have children that are emotionally disturbed, but a parent or guardian drags their feet to get their child the help they need. I have kids who consistently fall asleep in class because they regularly stay up till midnight or 1am playing Fortnite online. Maybe your experience running a hispanic branding and marketing agency and reach out to these parents and communities? There needs to be a complete shift in thinking and parenting.

    Also, the “Want to teach? When can you start?” billboard. Go ahead and do that alternative certification program and get back to me how easy it is to land a teaching job. Many school districts don’t even accept alternative certification candidates. Great marketing by them. I’m sure you can appreciate that.

    I also live in Southtown. I hope to see you around and we discuss this further over a few beers.

    • Thanks Spencer,
      Please check out my site, OurKidsCan.org. I appreciate you comments and experiences. I hope my work helps change the poverty state of mind you describe.

    • Wow! I am amazed you are strong enough to write comments many people would fear saying in today’s society. No doubt the issues that come out of how you characterize the engrained culture of education in the population of students/families you serve do play a role, maybe a major one.

      Since you seem to be one to call it like he sees it, I wonder if you might provide perspective on how the other kids (the ones who really want to learn)/families (who truly understand the importance of education) feel when I am guessing a disproportionate amount of your precious teaching time (and maybe even some funding programs) are spent on those with the mindset at home you describe. Do they seem like ones who more likely consider alternatives, even if they would prefer the local, public option?

      Again, not to ever put any blame on any child, but to gain some understanding of the magnitude, and maybe brainstorm on how to reach these parents, beyond simple outreach and websites.

  11. Families are demanding more choices in education. We want a school that provides the best academic experience for kids and we have little patience for the politics and infighting that comes with the old way of doing things. Our first allegiance is not to our district, our school or even our teacher. It is to our children. Now we can choose a better experience if one exists and so we are. If public schools want to keep their parents then they must change whatever barriers to competition that exist and innovate so they can be seen as a viable option. Think about that the next time you order an uber or send a fedex. Competition breeds improvement and innovation.

  12. I agree with the Rivard Report writer that completion in college education is working, and, is good in K thru 12 public education.

    My K thru 12th private education in San Antonio Catholic schools was excellent. I paid for it by working part time. My K thru 12th education prepared me well for college. I feel that public education was inferior 60 years ago, and, is still inferior for my grandchildren today.

    I disagree with the Rivard Report writer that the teachers union primarily fears losing teacher jobs. I believe that the teachers fear losing tax revenue that could be spent on students and on teacher raises. I believe that, perhaps too much money is being diverted to executive salaries and inflated school service contracts.

    Property tax appraisals have doubled in many parts of San Antonio over the past 15 years. That means that tax revenue has doubled for school districts, over the past 15 years. Teacher pay and other school costs have not doubled. I believe that our “hard earned” tax revenue is not being properly managed by school districts. The teachers union is vital for making school districts more efficient.

    • Unfortunately, the increase in tax revenue (via higher appraisals) does not necessarily equal more money for the schools. Our state legislature plays a shell game by REDUCING the state share of funding as the districts collect more in tax revenue. That way they can redirect these “extra” funds to other expenses while claiming that they haven’t raised fees or taxes.

  13. Someone on here posted that public education is supposed to be a common good not a commodity. I couldn’t agree more. “Choice” promotes the idea that public education is a commodity. Certainly parents are important stakeholders but so are the rest of us who do not have school-age children any more. Where is our choice on how our tax dollars are spent? What if I don’t like the way a charter is spending the tax dollars they get? What is my recourse? I can’t elect someone else to their school boars because their boards are not elected. Sometimes I can’t even find out when and where their appointed board meets in order to speak at a meeting. Charters are not public schools. They are private entities that receive public tax dollars to operate schools in the same way private prison companies operate prisons and detention centers. And we’ve seen how well that is working out.

    • The entire history of education, at all levels, has never been a common good, even if that is the idealized, utopian vision. Yes, if you do not have children, you still pay through taxes for education of society. Still, you do have a vote in your local ISD board, and state representatives who make appointments to a state agency that is supposed to watch over public and public charter schools.

      However, businesses do not get the same vote, even if they make up a large portion of the tax base. No, they should not get a vote. The point is we don’t always have full recourse in how all public funds are spent. I personally feel religious institutions should also pay property taxes, given that so many in their congregations let their religious convictions dictate policy choices.

      While there are many bad charter schools (like maybe some public schools), to blindly characterize them all like any private companies that operate prison companies and detention centers is foolish.

      Even if a private company operates a charter school, the school is still public in the sense that enrollment is open to all without a tuition requirement. If they are bad, the state should close them. If they are good, they should be praised. Even public schools pay private companies billions of dollars each year, from the building of a school, to its very operation day in and day out, in term so supplies, equipment, IT cloud services, testing, etc. Why should the administration aspect be demonized, if it works. If it doesn’t, there is recourse: parents/students will leave and the state will revoke the charter.

  14. There is no evidence that charter schools are doing any better than public schools. In fact my understanding is charter school students are exempt from taking standardized tests, which many teachers feel is not educating.
    Sosa, you talk about competition, the sad truth is our inner city students are already in “competition” with Alamo Heights, NEISD, NSISD, all better funded and serving a higher white percentage of the community. Why does San Antonio need 16 separate and unequal school districts? Perhaps to continue defacto segregation?
    Teacher unions are far more important and needed than reactionary concepts to weaken our public education system!

    • Funny you bring up the suburban districts. In NEISD, if you follow their board meetings the last several months, they have been messaging how the present state funding system is leading the a budget crisis there as well. Of course, they are happy to blame the bulk of it on enrollment declines, or actually parents moving their children to charter schools, all of whom have to take the same standardized tests as well. It is private and parochial schools that are not required to do so.

      As for sixteen districts, perhaps some consolidation is in order, but I am not sure how much better they are funded in instruction, though maybe facilities. I really would like to see actual data on per capita spending at each school, for each category of student (regular, bilingual, special, etc.)

      In any case, I am not convinced that consolidation will solve the situation by centralizing more administration and creating more layers of middle management. Maybe it will help, but the supply side of education can’t solve everything. The demand side has to also play an important role in success.

  15. Thank you, Mr. Sosa! You are exactly right.

    Regarding that prison argument… the critical difference is prisoners don’t choose prisons. Parents choose charter schools. No one has to go to them. It’s zoned ISD schools that people have no way out if the conditions are bad and they don’t win the random lottery to go to a charter school. That’s why charters in San Antonio have such enormous waitlisted.

    Regarding the argument that Mr. Sosa has a “vested interest” in a charter school. He’s a board member. Board members aren’t paid. The charter school, like all Texas charter schools, is a 501c3 nonprofit. We are talking about a man who volunteers at a nonprofit. Seriously.

  16. Mr. Sosa, I am a educator that taught at Stewart Elementary and I’m sorry to say, it is not about the competition. The truth is that we finally reeled in our parents (doing so was unimaginable), trained and coached our teachers, analyzed all available data and were finally seeing gains. What you do not mention in your article is that Stewart has been through several principals within a short amount of time, teachers had the option to leave every year and be placed elsewhere and we did not have the resources, equipment and technology that other campus in SAISD nor in the city have until this past school year. Have you ever step foot on our campus before? If you did, you would notice that we had chalkboards, chairs that were falling apart, computers with buttons missing, broken laptops and students expected to work in classrooms where behavior students have not been identified. Students were yelling, screaming, running down the hallways, cussing at their teachers, running down Rigsby and restraints were needed. This all changed with the 2017-2018 school year. We now had teacher that “wanted” to be there and teach our students no matter the cost, late nights, trainings, coaching and planning. We finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and we were coming out of IR. No where in your article states that we had the biggest gains in the school district in growth. Our Stewart students were jumping in their reading levels, math scores, behavior, coping skills and most of all…..relationships were built with the parents, students and community. That is why the faculty and staff was upset, not due to competition. Also, Democracy Prep will not have a bilingual program for our students, further sending students to neighboring campuses and breaking up families. Nowhere in your article does it state that we have been predicted to come out of IR and nowhere do you state that based on preliminary STAAR results, we did make it out of IR. That is why. We want to be there for our students.

  17. The dilemma that has been mentioned by some, but needs greater attention is that public schools take all comers. While we all want what is best for our own child, if we have a “cherry picking” system, what happens to children with disabilities? Or children with parents that are not advocates? Or parents that cannot transport their child to the best schools? Looking in my rear view mirror, I realize my public education in a diverse setting was valuable in ways beyond test scores. Yes we need innovation, new ideas, accountability, and all the things mentioned above. But solutions that do not account for those at the bottom of our society or those without advocates should not be funded with public dollars.

  18. Having mentioned this in earlier notes until we as a society recognize that the education of our children begins at home as early as possible and we are successful in convincing all those parents that do not ascribe to this basic principle our public schools will continue to struggle to achieve better results. As I see it a big difference between public schools and all the others is the intensity of the parents’ advocacy efforts and willingness to sacrifice on their children’s behalf.

  19. Hi JC, I’d like to correct a few misconceptions you seem to have.
    Charter schools are public schools under the Texas Education Code. They can not discriminate on the basis of disability and have to provide the same accommodations as any other kind of public school under both state and federal law. Admission is by blind lottery, and the schools don’t have any idea which applicants have disabilities. My own kids have 504 plans at their charter school to deal with brain injuries from a car accident, and the school has met with their doctors and designed their educational experience to accommodate their issues, not in a check the box/compliance kind of way, but in a move-heaven-and-earth so they’ll succeed kind of way. The whole dynamic is different in a charter school because the school only gets paid by the state when families choose it. Consequently, the school culture is built around doing what’s best for kids, not what’s acceptable to the teachers union or the people who donate to elections. I should also mention that our charter school got the Niche award for most diverse public school in San Antonio, and it had the highest STAAR results in Bexar County last year. Diversity, astounding academics, and amazing accommodations for disabilities all in one public charter school—and talking to other parents at other charter schools, my experience is not unusual.

    • Charter schools are not public schools. The state may have stuck a label on them that says that, but they are not. They are private entities that receive public funds.

      • How can can charter schools be private entities if they are just as accountable to the state and to the public? Both public and charter schools could do the job better by working together and learning from each other.

  20. It’s a bit more complicated than saying they are just as accountable to the state and public. And the notion from the comment by Victoria about special education students and the lottery, etc., is not the whole story. Charters are often not equipped to take some special education students with severe disabilities, and overall they enroll less special ed kids (athough only 2% less). I’m not sure I understand Victoria’s comment: “Consequently, the school culture is built around doing what’s best for kids, not what’s acceptable to the teachers union or the people who donate to elections.” Huh? As a union we fight for more funding and for what we consider quality safeguards–e.g. lower class sizes. Things that unions promote for teachers themselves–e.g. planning and prep periods, certification and yes, workplace rights–benefit the kids. Charters are free from class size limits, most certification standards, planning/prep and duty-free lunch laws, many disciplinary protections for students, and many workplace rights for teachers.

    The notion that enrollment results from a “blind lottery” that magically fills the school is erroneous as well. Many (not all) charters, particularly bigger chains, market their schools to specific students.

    Are charters public? Well, yes, but not in the same way as traditional public schools. Sure, they get public money, but they are most often run by boards that are not democratically elected and have much less transparency. Not to mention some chains have top managers with outlandish salaries and they run their schools more like corporations.

    Charter school accountability did take a bit of a leap with SB 2 from 2013, with provisions like revoking charters after three years of not meeting state standards. Overall, charters underperform traditional public schools in Texas in most areas (although the most recent reporting shows gains in achievement that often result in just as good ratings as peers in traditional public schools.)

    • It’s more complicated only because some folks have a knack for complicating most anything to fit their agenda. I have no agenda and work for public schools as hard as I do for charter schools. I believe it’s all about parent choice. It’s about their right to choose the school that’s best for their children. When public schools can prove there is no need for charters because they are as good or better, then the parents will choose them. Don’t think student defection driven by parent choice means nothing. It means everything. Public schools should be as strong a choice as any charter school. And when public schools can prove that, they will stop the bleed with no help from the unions.

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