Understanding the School Choice Debate: A Primer

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KIPP Aspire

Texas Senate Bill 2 is the latest piece of legislation in the long-running debate/argument surrounding education reform in Texas. The issue, simply put, has come to be known as "choice."

Simple? Nothing could be more complex and ultimately, more divisive. Choice, it turns out, is in the eyes of the beholder, a word that means different things to different people and interest groups.

Like many social issues in Texas, a crimson red state shared by rising numbers of coming-of-age immigrants and minorities, the conversation is often shanghaied by political forces driven more by ideology than education ideals.

One irony is that the parties most in favor and opposition to SB-2 are not necessarily those who will be most effected by any new legislation. Bills that include school choice would have the greatest impact in the inner city and low-income districts.

The San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) is this city's poster child in the debate over school choice. As the largest inner city district, it would be the most affected by any legislation authorizing state-funded vouchers, changes in charter school rules, and new evaluation standards for district teachers. Individual district residents, both taxpayers and parents, can't really participate in this legislative debate. The reality is that we must await legislative outcomes, followed by Gov. Rick Perry's action, and only then come to terms with change.

Until then, to better understand the debate, it’s helpful to know the definitions and the key issues.

Lamar Elementary, a traditional middle school

Lamar Elementary, a traditional middle school. Photos by Bekah McNeel.

Traditional Public Schools/ State Schools

These are the schools we grew up with: taxpayer funded, open enrollment, and evaluated by standardized testing (TAAS became TAKS became STAAR). Public school districts and their curriculum are governed by local school boards and the Texas Education Agency. SAISD has 48 traditional elementary schools (PK-5), one traditional academy (PK-8), 10 traditional middle schools, and eight traditional high schools.

Internal Charters

These are the hybrid options. They receive state funding, and are responsible to provide their own facilities; however, they also are authorized by the district, and accountable to it.  To obtain a charter, SAISD schools must propose (and maintain) a three pillared enrichment to the district curriculum, or an innovation that will improve education. Internal charters receive limited extra funding to underwrite innovation, but they remain accountable for all standardized tests and district standards.

Students must apply to attend internal district charters. While open to students outside the school's geographic reach, students within the "feeder pattern" are admitted automatically.  SAISD's 13 internal charters include Bonham Academy (PK-8), Hawthorne Academy (PK-8), Briscoe (PK-5), Irving Middle School (6-8), Rhodes Middle School (6-8), and others.

Christina Medrano's class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Bonham Academy - an Internal Charter. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Magnets

"Magnet schools" are defined as specialized schools or programs within traditional public schools that operate parallel to the standard curriculum. SAISD currently groups magnets as "specialized schools" (see below). SAISD magnet programs are open to students outside their feeder patterns and district. SAISD's 13 magnet programs include the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) at Burbank High School, Media Production at Brackenridge High School, Architecture and Environmental Studies at Jefferson High School, and World Languages at Brackenridge High School.

Specialized Schools

These are like magnet programs, but rather that supplemental programs, they stand alone, like Young Women's Leadership Academy and Travis Early College High School. They also can be "schools within schools," such as New Tech San Antonio High School and Phoenix Middle College. These specialized schools are often called "internal charters" because of their relationship to the district, as well as their funding structure.

A sunny day at Young Women's Leadership Academy

A sunny day at Young Women's Leadership Academy, a Specialized School.

Charter schools

These are tuition-free institutions sustained by a mixture of public and private funding.  They are bound by state standards, but have the flexibility to determine curriculum, in accordance with the desired results set forth in their charter. Charter schools can be single, independent alternatives run by non-profits or universities, or they can act as non-profit chains managed by a corporate body. The state authorizes charters, and caps the number that can receive government funding. In the last decade, San Antonio has seen the advent of big name charters like KIPP and IDEA, which bolster the credibility of the movement and growing rapidly in reach and reputation. New charters are sprouting up in the city center and beyond – Anne Frank Inspire Academy within the John H. Wood Jr. Charter District for instance, will be opening a middle school this fall.

KIPP Aspire - a Charter school

KIPP Aspire - a Charter school

Private Schools

These are institutions that charge tuition for enrollment, and as independent institutions, maintain control over their admission standards and curriculum. Accrediting organizations such as the Texas Alliance of Accredited Private Schools (TAAPS)and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) provide standards and regulation for private schools.

At the heart of the school choice debate is the belief among Republican conservatives that children in every income bracket should have access to all of these options, as well as online technologies that allow students to master subject matter without standard "seat-time" requirements. Democrats argue that any state-funding of private education initiatives siphons money from public education programs and weakens the integrity of inner city districts.

The issue would be complicated enough without the battle over evaluation of teachers and schools, part of the education reform proposed in SB-2, which would play a large role in determining which schools and districts were failing, and opening up options to the populations they serve.

For more information on the technology and evaluation debate, check out the following websites: Texans Deserve Great Schools and the Texas AFT Legislative Hotline Blog.

For the purposes of this primer, it is crucial to understand a few terms:

Vouchers refer to certificates granted by the government which would allow families to apply the taxes they already pay to their district public school to private school tuition. Other programs like this include tax credits for money spent on private school education.

Charter school caps refer to the number set by a governing body (in the case of TX SB 2 it is the state) limited the number of charter schools that can receive funding.

Out of district tuition refers to tuition paid to attend a public school not in one's assigned district. Districts set their own fees for this, and under Texas law can decide independently whether or not to enter into contracts with parents or other school districts to accept students for enrollment. Children in underperforming schools can apply for a Public Education Grant, allowing them to attend a school not in their district or feeder pattern.

The one issue not up for debate in the Texas Legislature or in the minds of citizens is that the public school system is in a particular kind of crisis. Whether increased competition, evaluation, or funding is key to reform, citizen engagement is essential. Our children are depending on it.

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One thought on “Understanding the School Choice Debate: A Primer

  1. Good post Bob, always enjoy them. The recent Superintendent debacle gives all the more reason for school choice because a parent should not be landlocked and shackled to these decisions based on zip code.

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