Texas Needs to Rewrite the Rules for School Districts and Charters

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

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the SAISD school board made the decision in March to enter into a two-year agreement with the Democracy Prep charter to take control of Stewart Elementary, pictured here.

If public school funding in Texas were a high school football game, independent school districts would be running the ball uphill and into the wind, while public charters played offense with a tailwind, looking down at their opponents.

The playing field, by intention and legislation, isn’t level. That isn’t opinion; it’s fact. Since the Texas Legislature passed a 1995 law allowing the establishment of public charters, charter operators have been allowed to operate free of many of the rules governing the 1,027 school districts in the state.

“Charter schools are subject to fewer state laws than other public schools,” the Texas Education Agency states on its Charter Schools web page. “The reduced legislation encourages more innovation and allows more flexibility, though state law does require fiscal and academic accountability from charter schools.”

That law promoting innovation and experimentation, critics argue, gives an unfair advantage to charters at the expense of districts. As charter schools continue to expand 23 years later, district leaders have called for greater equity in how the State governs and finances all public schools.

It’s been four years since a state district court judge ruled that the public school finance system in Texas is unconstitutional, and two years since the Texas Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case, declaring the State’s funding system an embarrassment yet constitutional.

“Texas’ more than 5 million schoolchildren deserve better than serial litigation over the increasingly Daedalean system. They deserve transformation, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century,” the court wrote in its 100-page opinion.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick published an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News Friday that sidestepped the Supreme Court’s conclusions in a commentary titled, “State committed to funding education.”

That raises the question of whether legislators will act on the findings of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which was created by legislators in 2017 and will deliver its report in December in advance of the 2019 legislative session.

One logical solution would be for legislators to recognize that districts operate under a greater burden than charters and should be funded accordingly while also being incentivized to innovate. In other words, if the State is going to impose greater regulation on district schools, it should recognize that cost and adjust funding formulas.

Legislators also could help districts weather falling enrollment attributed to charter growth by providing targeted bridge funding that recognizes districts cannot immediately implement significant budget cuts without affecting the quality of service to students.

Everyone wants improved education outcomes, but how we get there depends on your philosophical view. While some people are resolutely anti-district or anti-charter, most civic-minded people understand that neither the districts nor the charters are going anywhere, so the focus should be on encouraging even greater innovation while working to level the playing field.

There are plenty of other states and, for that matter, nations that serve as examples for smarter funding and oversight of high-performing public schools.

Highly engaged parents understandably don’t want to wait for a commission report on Texas public school funding. They want the best possible education for their children now. More and more of those families who live in neighborhoods with underperforming district schools are opting to enroll their children in charters if they can gain entry. The majority of families, however, simply do not have that option. There are more than 5.5 million students attending public schools, according to the Texas Education Agency, with only five percent enrolled in charters. Charters are an option only for a small minority.

Many of the leading charters report long waiting lists even as they continue to expand and open new campuses. In San Antonio, that trend is most evident in the charter schools organized under the Choose to Succeed mantle: BASIS Schools, Great Hearts Academies, IDEA Public Schools, and KIPP San Antonio.

Charter schools operate with greater freedom and fewer challenges by design. Most charter operators do not provide the same level of expensive special education services for students with disabilities. Many do not accept students with juvenile criminal records. Charters can more easily expel disruptive students.

Most big urban districts offer 13 fall and spring sports for boys and girls, employing coaches, maintaining facilities and equipment, while also offering many other non-athletic extracurricular activities. Although Texas does not require districts to transport students, most districts operate and maintain costly bus fleets. Most charters do not provide transportation.

Jessica Rieger makes sure a Davis Middle School student understands the lesson in English class.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Jessica Rieger makes sure a Davis Middle School student understands the lesson in English class.

The State’s complex funding formulas treat charters like small school districts, so they receive what amounts to a subsidy that leads to greater funding for each charter student than a student enrolled in a big urban district. Put another way, each time a student moves from one of San Antonio’s big school districts to a public charter, the cost to taxpayers goes up. Worse, as districts lose students to charters, the State penalizes them by reducing funding, which is why both the North East and San Antonio ISDs face multimillion dollar shortfalls in the coming year.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that charters are not bound by the section of the Texas Education Code that governs the employment of teachers by districts. Teachers employed by school districts enjoy greater job security, but it’s more difficult to terminate an ineffective teacher who has cleared a probationary period. Charters are free to hire and fire at will, and they do. Teacher turnover rates at charters are three times higher than at district schools.

Teachers employed in SAISD enjoy two key incentives to spend their careers there. The district is one of only about 20 in the state that enrolls teachers in Social Security while also paying into the state pension fund. That’s a key benefit because teacher pay and pensions in Texas rank poorly nationally, as the Texas Tribune reported last week.

An even greater benefit afforded SAISD teachers is continuing contracts. All other districts statewide offer term contracts. In effect, SAISD teachers enjoy tenure. Terminating an ineffective teacher who has passed the probationary period costs an average of $50,000 in legal fees, according to SAISD’s Chief Communications Officer Leslie Price, and requires a months-long appeal and review process that includes a hearing before the school board.

The vast majority of teachers are some of the most selfless, dedicated people in society, and many inspire students to great levels of achievement, but that is no solace for parents who find their children in a classroom with an underperforming teacher protected by a continuing contract.

The district could move to term contracts like all other districts in Bexar County and beyond with a simple school board vote, a move that likely would ignite a war between trustees and the San Antonio Alliance of  Teachers and Support Personnel, commonly referred to as the teachers union. Tensions already run high as a result of the decision by Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the board in March to enter into a two-year agreement with charter operator Democracy Prep to take control of Stewart Elementary, a failing school on the city’s Eastside.

Readers interested in learning more about school finance reform should dive into Investing in Our Future, a series published by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. For more than three decades, the State’s elected leadership has failed to address comprehensive school finance reform.

What lawmakers do or do not do next year will signal whether the State’s more than 5 million students will get the education they need and deserve, and whether districts and charters will operate under an equitable set of rules and regulations.

As a footnote, I served as a judge for the 2017-18 Trinity Prize for Excellence in Teaching, which recognizes two teachers working in one of the area’s 21 school districts. We met personally with each of the 19 finalists after reviewing their nominations. The winners honored at a ceremony Friday at Trinity University were Andrea Lucas, a fourth-grade teacher at SAISD’s Lamar Elementary School, and Jeff Wheatcraft, the STEM coordinator at Alamo Heights Junior School. It was hard not to vote for all 19 finalists. Both winners received a crystal apple and a check for $2,500, presented by the Trinity’s Department of Education and H-E-B.

11 thoughts on “Texas Needs to Rewrite the Rules for School Districts and Charters

  1. You mention turnover of teachers in charter schools. I contend that has more to do with frustrations experienced by charter teachers regarding hours worked, lack of a good teaching support structure, and other demands rather than the charter getting rid of low performing teachers. In other words, I don’t think charter school teacher turnover is a function of being able to easily terminate a poor teacher. The article then seems to laud the “tenure” aspect of SAISD’s teachers contracts. I was a bit confused by it wondering if you were saying that was a positive or a negative attribute?

    Possibly the charter school experiment in Texas will force the legislature to enact meaningful changes to the operations of Texas’ public school districts.

  2. Why not call for less regulation of the public schools to level the paying field. Then the excellence could be spread more widely. Let’s level up instead of leveling down.

    • I feel like public schools should take advantage of the lower amount of students to specialize more. The problem is that the districts will justify the more if they don’t have 20 kids to stick in a class. But a class with ten students in it is going to be more overall successful. It gives teachers more time to focus on students who have needs instead of leaving them behind entirely playing standards catch-up.

      • Lower student enrollment means further budget cuts. Just because a school has fewer students doesn’t mean class sizes drop. It means teacher positions are eliminated. Ultimately, class sizes stay the same or get bigger, and teachers will have to wear more hats and carry the burden of the eliminated teachers.

  3. “Highly engaged parents understandably don’t want to wait for a commission report on Texas public school funding. They want the best possible education for their children now.”

    You would think that this is something that both the state and local school district administrators would ignite a sense of urgency, but it often moves at the snail’s pace of bureaucracy.

    “The state’s complex funding formulas treat charters like small school districts, so they receive what amounts to a subsidy that leads to greater funding for each charter student than a student enrolled in a big urban district.”

    Do charter schools receive any funding for buying land and building schools? I thought they did not in the past, but there was some effort to change this for the future.

    “Most big urban districts offer 13 fall and spring sports for boys and girls, employing coaches, maintaining facilities and equipment, while also offering many other non-athletic extracurricular activities.”

    While it is important to have a balanced education and have a mix of academic and non-academic activities, one question to grapple with is whether the priority should always be focused on the academic, if we are seriously concerned with US student achievement levels relative to the world.

    While we may not want to emulate the high stakes, stressful environment in many countries, one can argue that the pendulum (particularly in Texas) seems to swing a bit more toward activities (or specifically one activity). As much as there is to be said for the community and school spirit benefits, a fraction of the student body actually gets to partake in what I would assume are very expensive to build and maintain facilities.

    Given tradition, that is not going to change, and it should not, but everything sacred cow should be included in a reflection on what is most important to support the next generation.

    • Good morning, X. James

      The state does not provide funding for public school buildings or land purchases. School districts issue bonds that allow them to borrow money to undertake such capital projects as building or renovating a school. That bond debt is serviced, or repaid, with the school taxes we all pay.

      Public charters use philanthropy and the higher per capita funding they receive from the state to purchase land and build, to buy existing buildings, or simply to pay rent. Some charters also are partnering with school districts and other entities to occupy vacant district campuses. Great Hearts Monte Vista South, the K-6 school, is located in the Temple Beth-el campus classrooms , while its North 7-11 grade campus is housed at Trinity Baptist Church. IDEA Carver, a K-11 school, occupies the Eastside building that was built with the philanthropy and vision provided by David Robinson, the Spurs’ Hall of Fame center.

      I also want to say that high school sports, especially football, do trump academics in the sense that districts facing budget shortfalls will lay off teachers and other workers before they will make significant cuts to the football budget. Parents who enroll their children in charter schools obviously place academic achievement above participation in school sports.

      Thank you for reading and posting a comment. –RR

  4. The problem is that school districts refuse to offer a challenging curriculum at the elementary level. An “A” at a public elementary school is probably a “B/C+” at a private school and many engaged parents know this. Great Hearts has a long waiting list because many parents want a classical curriculum for their kids. There is nothing stopping public school districts from starting a magnet school with a classical curriculum at a public elementary school. The public schools have way more money to spend than charter schools. But the public schools spend a lot of money on meaningless fluff such as football and cheerleading instead of providing the challenging curriculum that the charter school parents want. Public schools will keep losing students and money as long as they continue to deny families the challenging curriculum that they want for their children.

    • I needed a good laugh. Public schools offer a very challenging curriculum, but sometimes challenging student behaviors interfere with that. Unlike charter and private schools, public schools cannot just wash their hands of these children. Give public schools more options with discipline, or I’d love to see a charters take up the responsibility of educating this special demographic.

  5. We moved our children to Great Hearts for one main reason – technology. Too much technology is in the classrooms. From apps for every subject to Google Classroom and Classroom Dojo, school districts are using technology just for the sake of technology. The final straw was when our daughter read a short story (on an iPad) and instead of writing a summary she recorded a video log to share with the class. Our districts are spending millions of dollars on iPads, laptops, chromebooks and desktops without having any data that shows learning on an electronic device is effective. Our kids are part of a huge beta test for tech companies – we opted out.

    • It is interesting you mention too much technology. I also noticed that there is a significant amount of funds spent on smart boards and software in some local districts to “gamely” learning and to babysit kids while the teacher breaks out a smaller group of students to either teach or assess. While I don’t mind the occasional use of an iPad as a creative device to supplement writing, a video log seems to be using it to replace it.

      Meanwhile, many district IT departments seem to be going whole hog outsourcing to Google purely based on budget constraints, without considering or offering any direction to teachers, students, and parents about the pitfalls of using such “free” services.

  6. This is total garbage. ISDs can avoid every rule that charters avoid by simply using the District of Excellence process.

    Traditional ISDs refuse to do things because school boards are *generally* full of myopic short-term thinkers who are more worried about the unions’ negative response, and then they proclaim that charters can do things that they can’t, when the reality is that they simply don’t want to change.

    And you can see this truth by what they lobby legislators for. When was the last time that an educrat went to the Texas House and testified against the idiotic rule about having an asbestos-training person send over a report to the TEA that no one reads? Or any sort of request for deregulation? Never. Or request that the rules that they believe give a benefit to charters be extended to regular ISDs? Never. So spare me.

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