Monday, December 18, 2006
Dec. 17, 2006, 1:46PM
Decade of change for charter schools
Experts say spotty success keeps them from competing with traditional system
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Texas lawmakers approved public charter schools in 1995 to increase options for parents, attract new teachers to public schools, create competition for public schools and encourage innovative learning methods.
• Admission must be open to all students — except in some cases, including those with documented criminal histories or discipline problems. Charters are not allowed to charge tuition.
• Today, 192 charter holders operate 358 campuses in Texas. Current legislation limits the number of charters that can be issued by the State Board of Education to 215.
Source: Texas Education Agency
When Texas opened its first charter schools a decade ago, some public school educators feared that the radical new option would lure away the best and brightest students from traditional public schools.
Ten years and 358 charter campuses later, that fear hasn't been realized. Rather, most of Texas' charters — free public schools that don't have to comply with some state regulations — are catering to poor and minority students at risk of dropping out.
The dramatic shift in the target audience hasn't been the only surprise in Texas' charter school experiment. Policy-makers have found it nearly impossible to close struggling campuses, including Houston's Gulf Shores Academy. On the other hand, even skeptics applaud the successes of some charters, such as the Houston-based Knowledge Is Power Program and YES Prep Public Schools.
For the movement to become a truly competitive force in public education, charter school reform must be a top issue in the legislative session that starts in January, experts said.
"We have to reward really good charters, and we need to close those schools that are not meeting the needs of the students," said Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.
A bill to be introduced this session would pull the plug on every Texas charter school in the fall and then instantly reopen the strong campuses with perpetual licenses, said Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. The move could close 20 to 30 underperforming schools, officials said.
"It kind of starts everything with a clean slate," Eissler said. "The debate will be interesting, and the results will be interesting."
Despite the political attention it garners, Texas' charter school movement is still in its infancy.
About 90,000 of Texas' 4.5 million public students attend state- or district-approved charter schools, just 2 percent of the student population.
Even with a state-mandated charter cap, enrollment is growing by a robust 10 percent a year. In the Houston area, charters may have a market share as high as 15 percent, said Todd Ziebarth, a researcher with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
HISD officials estimate that 12,000 to 13,000 children who live inside district boundaries attend state-approved charter schools. Another 10,000 or so attend HISD charter schools.
However, the disparity in the quality of education those children receive is wide. Texas charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to earn state ratings at the very top and the very bottom of the scale.
This August, nearly 16 percent of Texas charter systems were deemed "unacceptable," compared with just 3 percent of traditional districts. Just 1.3 percent of traditional districts earned "exemplary" ratings, compared with 3 percent of charter systems.
A handful of charters made headlines for serious financial and academic concerns. Three former employees of the defunct Prepared Table Charter School in Houston were sentenced to prison last year for helping defraud the government of $6 million. The Gulf Shores Academy and Alphonso Crutch charter schools have owed the state as much as $10.6 million and $1.6 million, respectively.
"The biggest problem that the high-performing charters have is perception, and the perception the citizens of Texas have is of low-performing charters," said John Pitts, a Houston lobbyist who represents two charter school coalitions.
Marquette University professor Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, told more than 650 people at a charter school conference in Houston last month that charter operators must be their own toughest critics. They can't make excuses for failing to educate their poor and minority students.
"That's why charter schools were created — because we said, 'It's hard, but we can do it,' " Fuller said. "Now that you are there, you can't be whining and crying about how hard it is. It's supposed to be hard."
Charter schools that aren't preparing students for college should be closed, he said. "You cannot be committed to charter schools," Fuller said. "You have to be committed to the students who come to charter schools."
More than 1,000 students are waiting for spots in KIPP's southwest Houston schools. The multischool campus houses KIPP Academy Middle School, one of Texas' oldest charters.
With 52 schools nationally, KIPP has produced results by extending the schoolday, holding Saturday classes, mandating parental involvement and fostering a culture of high expectations among its low-income students. College pennants line the walls, and the names of the former KIPP students who now attend those universities are proudly listed underneath.
The philosophical differences are not lost on students new to the school this year.
"At my old school, they didn't care if we went to college," said Guillermo Vizcardo, a 10-year-old who attended Petrosky Elementary in Alief last year.
Former HISD student Ivan Sepulveda, 10, added: "This school teaches more about life — how we can get a good job and what to expect."
Even with his school's popularity, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg said he knows the charter movement hasn't rattled traditional schools.
"We're not there yet. We're not even close," he said, adding the state must shut low-performing schools before the movement can really take root.
Three students are waiting for each seat at Harmony Science Academy, a charter system that consistently earns an "exemplary" state rating.
Still, Harmony Superintendent Soner Tarim acknowledges they're not big enough to scare traditional schools.
"In Houston, it's difficult to see the impact charter schools are having," he said.
Nearby, native-Spanish-speaking students at SER-Niños Charter School alternate weekly between English and Spanish lessons in the school's innovative dual-language program.
The little-publicized campus operated from a church before gaining the wherewithal to finance a $5 million building.
"We fly under the radar," said Charmaine Constantine, who runs the school.
Still, SER-Niños is wildly popular. Even though students are selected through a lottery, parents lined up at the crack of dawn to hand-deliver their applications this school year.
"We had like 50 applications in the first two hours," Constantine said, adding that the waiting list is 188 students long.
Putting reforms on radar
Though Constantine measures her campus' scores to those of neighboring schools, HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said he doesn't view charters as competition.
"You don't have enough success with charters yet," he said. "In the state of Texas, at least, there's been more failures than successes with the charters."
Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools, however, credits the state's strongest charters with putting reforms such as school uniforms, International Baccalaureate and a college-prep focus on the radar of traditional public schools.
Educators took notice, for instance, when YES College Prep started requiring students to earn college admission before receiving their high school diplomas. Just this year, the Houston Independent School District released a draft college-going plan that asks all high schoolers to fill out a Texas college application prior to graduation.
"The competition from YES and KIPP in Houston have probably made the HISD and other traditional districts in Houston look harder at academics," O'Neill said.
Others say that charters haven't lived up to their billing as innovative alternatives.
"That's been the problems with charter schools — very, very few of them have offered anything unique other than their privatized management. Most of them are structured like our neighborhood schools, they're just not doing as good of a job," said John O'Sullivan, secretary for the Texas Federation of Teachers.
Though he supports charters, he says they don't deserve credit for reforming traditional schools.
"It's a little bit irritating. Texas public schools have been on an upward curve in terms of improving student achievement for 20 years, well before the advent of charter schools," he said. "It's a little boisterous, I'd say, for charter schools to be claiming credit for our successes. I think they need to focus on their own success, or lack thereof."
Full steam ahead
Since Minnesota penned the nation's first charter school law in 1991, the movement has attracted 1.1 million children throughout the U.S.
While especially active in Washington D.C., Chicago and New Orleans, charters are just starting to gain steam in many areas.
It took California's movement — the second-oldest in the country — 10 years to get its footing. The state's 600 charter campuses serve nearly 220,000 students.
Good times predicted
"Between years 10 and 15, we've really seen a maturation in the movement," said Gary Larson, vice president of the California Charter Schools Association, who predicts that the Texas' movement will experience the same success in the next five years.
Finally, Larson said, public schools in Oakland and Los Angeles are starting to respond to the increased market pressure. Strong charters should not be seen as a threat, he said.
"We need to prioritize the real threats, like dropouts and illiteracy," Larson said.
San Antonio Express-News writer Gary Scharrer contributed to this report.