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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Charter school applicants face long odds

Only 5 of the 32 will get OK to start a school

By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE | Houston Chronicle
March 20, 2011

An arts school in downtown Houston, a dual-language academy in southwest Houston and a Center for Teaching and Learning in Montgomery County are among the 32 charter applications the State Board of Education will consider this fall.

Unless pending legislation lifts the state cap, only five of the charter applications submitted by last month's deadline will be approved.

"That gives you a lot of heartburn," said David Bradley, a State Board of Education member from Beaumont. "It makes it really difficult for the board in their decision-making."

Charter school advocates are hoping the cap of 215 will be lifted in time to allow more of these applicants to open schools in fall 2012. Several bills propose raising the cap by at least 10 schools a year. Currently, 120,000 Texas students, or about 2.5 percent of the state's public school population, attend a charter.

"We think the climate has shifted pro-charter and for that we're quite pleased," said David Dunn, the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association.

Some of the legislation is scheduled to be heard this week in the House Public Education Committee.
Grass-roots applicants

While a substantial percentage of charter students attend well-known chains like KIPP, YES Prep or Harmony Science, this group of applicants includes mostly grass-roots operations.

Even former charter school-skeptic Linda Ellis, a longtime educator, is among the applicants. She hopes to open a 120-student campus near The Woodlands that will feature small, multi-aged classes for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

"If we're going to have charter schools, we need to stop fighting it and have some really, really good ones," she said. "We educators have to get in there."
Hitting the cap

Texas first allowed charters — tax-supported campuses that aren't subject to the same regulations as traditional schools — in 1995. Red flags were raised a few years later when state officials approved nearly 120 applications at once. Many of those schools had serious academic and financial troubles, prompting the Legislature to limit the number.

Texas has been bumping up against the cap for several years, freeing up space only by enticing some charter chains to operate multiple schools under one charter. This year, Harmony Science returned four charters and Richard Milburn-Beaumont returned one.

Any new legislation would take affect Sept. 1. The state board is expected to approve charter applications later that month. If the cap isn't lifted, Bradley said, "Parents will be disappointed."
Filling a niche

Patrick Brooks, who hopes to open a performing and visual arts secondary school for downtown's theater district, shares the sentiment. He thinks his campus would fill a much-needed niche and reduce the dropout rate by giving students a reason to stay in school.

"This would be a school that every parent would want their child at," said Brooks, who would serve as superintendent of BlazinBrook Preparatory School of the Artz.

The campus would be a spinoff of a 10-year-old nonprofit that contracts to provide arts education to several Texas districts.

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