Charter school competition prompts Austin school board’s privacy push

The Austin school board is taking steps to restrict access to its student directories, which include students’ names and addresses, to make it harder for charter schools to recruit students.

Charter operators have routinely used the directories to market to prospective students and their families in a number of ways, such as sending postcards or targeting neighborhoods for door-to-door campaigns. And the Austin school district provided the same information to charters as it would to yearbook vendors, school photo agencies and other businesses that request it.

It’s unclear exactly how the district would word a new student privacy policy. The district has called together its policy committee — which was to be on hiatus until after the legislative session — to take up the matter this week.

The school board has increasingly seen charter schools as a threat over the past three years, as enrollment in charters nearly doubled, hitting 14,200 students.

Meanwhile, the district’s enrollment has dropped by 2,000 students over the past two years. Though much of that slip has been caused by families being priced out of Austin and moving to the suburbs, about 20 percent of the district’s departing students go to Austin-based charters.

“Unless we do something rapidly, we’ve already lost that war,” Trustee Robert Schneider said. “If we don’t do something in the next year, we’re going to see charter schools eat our lunch.”

Other Texas school districts, including Houston, Conroe and Pasadena, have adopted stricter student privacy policies, a step that is allowed by federal law. At the beginning of the school year, parents also have the opportunity to remove their children’s information from such lists.

A change to the policy can allow a district not to share the information, unless it is for school-related purposes, such as yearbooks, awards and athletic programs. Federal law would still allow the district to share information with colleges and military recruiters.

Austin school board President Gina Hinojosa said she doesn’t think most parents know their child’s contact information is being used for marketing purposes.

“When I filled out the form registering my son, I didn’t know it was going to be used for purposes of marketing, and I don’t appreciate it, quite frankly,” Hinojosa said. “Everyone gets bombarded enough from marketers.”

KIPP Austin Public Schools said it respects the right of the Austin district to tighten its privacy policy.

“We are grateful that the Austin Independent School District has historically made addresses of families attending their schools available to charter schools,” Executive Director Steven Epstein said. “This practice has been empowering for families, as it has allowed a wide variety of parents to be exposed to alternative public school options like KIPP Austin. Regardless of AISD’s policy in this area, we will continue to find ways to communicate with parents about KIPP.”

Charter schools also employ other strategies to get the word out about their schools. The best marketing is word of mouth, charter operators said. Their teachers, administrators and parents also set up booths at community events or go block walking in neighborhoods where they plan to operate. Some put up billboards or advertise on the radio.

John Armbrust, founder of Austin Achieve, which has nearly quadrupled to 415 students since opening three years ago, said now that word is spreading about the school, he believes it will continue to thrive.

But he said starting the school would have been more difficult without Austin’s student directory. He said he would be disappointed if Austin adopts such a policy because it “limits choice.”

Austin Achieve’s directory is made available upon request, and the charter was one of the few that agreed to provide reciprocal student information when the Austin district requested it this school year.

“Families deserve the right to hear what school options they have in their community,” Armbrust said. “I’m just a big believer in choice. I don’t think we’d consider adopting such a rigorous privacy policy. When families have options, it will drive competition in a positive direction.”

For the most part, Texas charter schools, which educate about 4 percent of the state’s students, don’t have as strong a foothold as such schools have in other states. They have about 6 to 8 percent of the market share in Austin, lower than in other Texas urban districts.

But as the number of students going to Austin charters rises each year, it directly affects the funding for the school district, which sees an estimated $7,400 leave with each student.

The district has been putting in place signature programs to make schools more attractive to parents, including dual language instruction, fine arts academies and early college high school programs. And this year, the district piloted a pre-kindergarten program for 3-year-olds at two campuses, helping boost enrollment at both. The district will expand the program in August to 14 schools.

“We’re playing catch-up,” said Edmund Oropez, interim chief schools officer. “We didn’t acknowledge we had competitors for years.”

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