Monday, July 04, 2005

Backlog Gives Reprieve to Troubled Charter Schools

July 1, 2005, 11:49AM

Backlog Gives Reprieve to Troubled Charter Schools
2 here targeted for closure are among those able to take advantage of the bottleneck
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Problems with Gulf Shores Academy, according to the Texas Education Agency:
•  Debt: School owes about $10.6 million for overreporting attendance
• Violations: Numerous special education and compliance audit violations
• Rating: Unsatisfactory student academic performance every year since 2001
Houston charters with pending renewals:
• Academy of Accelerated Learning
• Alphonso Crutch's Life Support Center
• American Academy of E xcellence
• Amigos Por Vida — Friends for Life
• Benji's Special Education Academy
• Brazos School for Inquiry and Creation
• Crossroads Community Education Center
• Gulf Shores Academy
• Houston Gateway Academy
• Houston Heights Learning Academy
• Jamie's House Charter School
• Two Dimensions Preparatory Academy

The Houston charter school that produced NBA first-round draft pick Gerald Green is one of two area campuses targeted for closure by the Texas Education Agency because of failing academics and millions of dollars they owe the state.

Joining Green's Gulf Shores Academy — which reportedly owes the state almost $11 million — on the list is the Alphonso Crutch's Life Support Center, where fewer than one in 10 students passed all of the mandatory state tests.

The TEA's decision not to renew the troubled charters comes two years after the terms of the charters expired. They're among 34 charters, including a dozen in Houston, stuck in a backlog of pending renewals, which allows all of the schools to remain open until the TEA makes a final ruling or the schools clear a lengthy appeals process.

State officials said they hope to clear the bottleneck of renewals for these charters by the fall.

There are currently 197 state-sponsored charter schools; 66 are in Houston.

"It all kind of takes a longer thought process than what people think," said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokeswoman. ''It's a very, very large group."

While some argued these schools deserve another chance because they serve students who would otherwise drop out, other advocates said keeping open troubled campuses hurts the entire charter-school movement.

The state should have jumped at the chance to deny some of these renewal requests two years ago, said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

"It surprises me that nothing has happened," said Clark, who researched and wrote charter-school evaluations in the 1990s. "The systematic failure to address the performance expectations of students in the schools doesn't seem to be enough to signal the end of state funding and the closure of these charters."

About 61,000 children in Texas attend charter campuses, which are tuition-free public schools created to give parents more choices and educators more flexibility.

Charters granted in 1998
The movement is a decade old in Texas. The bulk of these backlogged charter renewals were originally granted in 1998 — dubbed "third-generation schools." Because of weak review and oversight, several of the 109 charters awarded that year have been plagued with financial and management problems, experts said.

''They just kind of gave them out willy-nilly. There were a huge number of problem schools in that generation," said Carolyn Boyle, coordinator for the Coalition of Public Schools, an Austin-based group that opposes vouchers.

Texas has since significantly slowed charter-school growth by capping the number of charters that can be issued at 215 and tightening accountability laws.

National experts said Texas also should strengthen its renewal process to encourage decisions to be made before the original charter expires.

"It actually shouldn't take that long," said Anna Varghese, a vice president at the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that supports charter schools.

This renewal cycle is an anomaly because of the large number of charters, TEA officials said. Each application must be reviewed by several departments, and the process can take months, Culbertson said.

Some charter supporters said the state's two-year backlog is unfair to students.

"That's absurd," said former state Rep. Ron Wilson, who is representing Alphonso Crutch in its appeal to remain open. "Their education careers are hanging in this balance because of this kind of inaction."

The TEA tried to close Alphonso Crutch in 2001 because of alleged mismanagement, but an administrative judge decided to keep the school open for its 900-plus students. The school and state remain at odds over attendance figures and special education compliance, and Crutch has already requested a hearing about its renewal.

The school's 2004 accountability report shows that 18 percent of students passed the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Forty percent passed the writing test, and 3 percent passed the math test.

State officials said the school needs to repay $1.6 million for overreporting attendance. Crutch supporters say the state is out to get the predominantly African-American school.

"What (the TEA has) done with this school has been beyond imagination, beyond belief," said Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe, who is also representing the school.

Matter of controversy
Because charter schools are controversial and have so many high-profile advocates, from President Bush down, the state may be reluctant to shut its troubled charters, Boyle said. The drawn-out renewal process could be the state's way of keeping attention off these schools until the laws are strengthened to make their closure mandatory, she said.

Linda Johnson, founder of the Gulf Shores Academy schools that serve 1,047 children at five Houston campuses, said she's not worried about the state's attempt to deny her charter renewal.

The TEA says her school owes about $10.6 million for overreporting attendance. The TEA's letter of nonrenewal also cited numerous special education violations, compliance audit violations and unsatisfactory student academic performance every year since 2001.

"We still will be slated to open this fall," she said. "I tend to not focus on all that. ... My focus is always on the children."

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