The sign planted on a sprawling lot in North Austin is hopeful: “Future Home of NYOS Charter School,” it says in big, black block letters.
NYOS, which stands for Not Your Ordinary School, bought the vacant 10-acre lot adjacent to its main campus on North Lamar Boulevard nearly a year ago. While the grass is cut and the property well-maintained, there is no sign of construction — even though the school has outgrown two campuses.
That could change quickly if the Legislature passes either of two measures — one by Houston Democrat Harold Dutton or another by New Braunfels Republican Donna Campbell — that would provide more money for facilities to NYOS and other Texas charter schools.
Though Dutton’s House bill was replaced by a substitute, it still would provide Texas charter schools with $170 per student in additional funding at an estimated cost of about $100 million over the biennium. Campbell’s Senate measure would steer $700 per student to charter schools for an estimated cost of about $400 million over the biennium.
Either way, the money would help schools like NYOS expand. With more demand for seats than supply, it’s easy to see why the school needs more space. The politics of getting additional money from the state, however, is not so easy.
When the Legislature established charter schools in 1995, they were set up as independent school districts — but not with elected trustees or taxing authority like traditional public schools. So while charter schools, which are privately run, are public schools, they don’t have access to taxpayer-financed bonds – the typical way traditional school districts finance new construction and renovations.
Certainly the Legislature was wise to deny charter schools taxing authority as that would have created chaos. Consider that charter schools tend to have overlapping enrollment boundaries with public schools. NYOS, for instance, draws students from the Austin, Pflugerville, Round Rock and Hays districts.
Requiring charters and public schools to share tax bases certainly would have killed charters before they got off the ground. Hence, charter schools don’t receive local tax revenue, which is and should be reserved for traditional public schools.
Primary funding for charter schools comes from state general revenue and is based on average daily attendance. Because they don’t receive facilities funding from the state, NYOS and other charter schools must use their instruction money and private donations to finance classrooms, computer labs, libraries and gyms.
As they point out, that leaves less money to educate children.
That method of funding charter schools might have made sense 22 years ago, when the state first granted charter schools licenses to operate. Then, they largely were viewed as experiments with no record of academic success. Many critics — particularly in the public school world — eyed charter schools as opportunists ready to cherry-pick the best students from neighborhoods while leaving public schools with the toughest kids to educate.
Some of the worst predictions came true, with parents and children showing up at schools that had packed up and moved in the night. But for the most part, charters survived — and thrived. In the 2015-16 school year, 247,236 students were enrolled in 184 Texas charter school districts, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association. There are another 141,000 students on wait lists.
Austin’s NYOS is among that group. And 19 years later, its story of survival and success provides a compelling reason for Texas lawmakers to give money to charter schools for facilities.
“We need to remember that these are public school students in public schools,” said Kathleen Zimmermann, executive director of NYOS. “The state should be providing money for classrooms instead of charter schools having to take it out of our instructional budgets.”
She has a point.
NYOS opened its original North Lamar Boulevard campus with one building. Soon it took over a bakery and advertising building on the site and later acquired a transmission shop next door to form its 3 ½ acre campus that houses grades 4 through 12. Growth has meant renting space from Grant African Methodist Episcopal Worship Center on Kramer Lane, which houses prekindergarten through third grade in portables.
“NYOS was opened by a group of families who wanted better educational options for their children,” Zimmermann told me as she showed several people around the North Lamar campus recently.
The school has delivered that with classes that are no larger than 18 students for any grade. While students spend the same number of days in class as their peers in the Austin school district, they attend classes year-round and their school day is longer.
In all, the school has 955 students with another 3,000 waiting for seats. Even with a lottery enrollment system, NYOS students largely reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Austin and Travis County. It’s worth noting that NYOS “Met Standard” in the 2016 state accountability ratings and was awarded 10 of 12 possible distinctions.
With the financial pie flat or shrinking under Republican leadership, it’s no wonder that many public school districts see charter schools more as encroachers rather than partners.
But given political shifts toward publicly financed vouchers for private schools, there is a reason charters and public schools should bury the hatchet: The success of both goes a long way in slowing momentum for vouchers.