- By Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Austin-area charter school enrollment has reached an all-time high of 25,400 students, eight times more than a decade ago. Local charter schools now educate about 12 percent of Travis County public school students. Statewide charter school enrollment has nearly hit 273,000 students, about 5 percent of the students in Texas.
New charter-friendly Texas laws and programs will likely push those numbers even higher.
The Legislature in its most recent session decided for the first time to give charter operators money for building schools. Lawmakers also made way for charter operators to run traditional public schools with chronic low academic performance. And a new program by the Texas Education Agency offers money and resources to districts that work with an outside partner, including charter operators, to improve schools and stave off the possibility of future campus closures.
The surging charter enrollment in Austin is “a sign that a lot of charter schools are doing things right,” said Chris Busse, a vice president with the Texas Charter Schools Association. “Parents, as they learn more … as they hear about different models and successes, they learn about what options exist.”
“Now you see the state weighing in saying, ‘We want charters and traditional districts to innovate together and could the sum of these two parts be greater?’” Busse said. “I feel like it’s an active encouragement for districts to think about charters as one tool.”
But those wary of siphoning public dollars into charter schools, which are privately managed public schools, say any spending on them takes away from traditional public school districts that have already had their state funding chopped by the Legislature.
“It certainly opens the doors to charter takeovers, and we will be opposed to a corporate charter takeover of any of our schools,” said Ken Zarifis, president of labor group Education Austin. “This is their opportunity to charter-ize and privatize schools.”
Voting with their feet
The local charter school growth comes as the Austin district’s enrollment has plummeted, with declines in the last five years in a row. This year saw the biggest loss of students in a single year – 1,300 — since the district’s attendance peaked in 2012. In total, the district has lost about 4,200 students in five years, bringing this year’s enrollment to 81,939.
The biggest factor in declining enrollment at Austin district is students moving to neighboring communities where housing is cheaper. But about a quarter of students who leave the Austin district annually head for charter schools, and the district lost more than 8,000 students to charter schools since 2013.
All eight of Nicole Franklin’s children have attended KIPP Austin, which started with 49 kids in Austin in 2002. Now there are more than 5,100 students enrolled, with 1,500 more on a waiting list.
“It gave me a choice of another good education,” said Franklin, who lives in East Austin, and whose older children attended Austin district schools before she placed them at KIPP. “The message, the support, the rigor of education, the buy-in from the staff, the teachers and the administration, made me wish I had that.”
Students also have left for IDEA Public Schools, which is aggressively expanding its footprint in Austin. In 2016, the charter operator announced a $16 million donation for expansion. If IDEA follows through on its plan, the total number of Austin-area charter school students will grow to more than 35,000 in the next five years – not counting any growth by other local charter operators. That growth most likely will come from students transferring from the Austin district or other nearby districts.
IDEA first came to the state capital under a partnership with the Austin school district that was vigorously fought against by students and community members. In 2011, the district’s school board launched an in-district charter school with IDEA, but one semester into the agreement, a new school board terminated the relationship. IDEA the following year launched its own campus in Austin, and it has since grown rapidly.
While the Austin district’s overall enrollment has decreased, school leaders have been successful in recruiting some new students, including more than 4,000 from outside its boundaries. Last week, Austin officials announced the district will begin providing Austin middle-schoolers with transportation to its all-boys school in the fall, in hopes of boosting enrollment.
Artist Tyson, an eighth-grade student at the all-boys Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy, said he transferred from another school district to be a part of Garcia.
“Every child deserves an effective, challenging and motivating education,” Tyson said. “We receive all of these things. But something we get that you can’t obtain in other schools is brotherhood. … Gus Garcia helps me and my brothers become leaders.”
A $60 million jump-start
The Legislature in 2017 approved injecting $60 million starting next year to build new charter schools.
Of the Austin charter schools that will receive the most facilities money, Harmony Science Academy will get $896,000, KIPP Austin will get $943,000, and Wayside Schools will get $500,000.
The state also increased from $1 billion to $4 billion the backing for bonds to build charter schools, a move that will save charters money as they build and expand.
A new state law and the Texas Education Agency’s Transformation Zone program also offer resources for struggling schools to bring in outside partners such as charter schools to help turn them around.
The new law, Senate Bill 1882, led the San Antonio district this week to approve a contract with New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep to run Stewart Elementary, a low-performing school.
“The charters are going to be here,” said Seth Rau, the San Antonio district’s director of strategic and legislative affairs. “Let’s take the highest-quality ones and bring them into the district. … We’d love for the district to have more high-quality choices for parents.”
But in Austin, parents and students at Mendez Middle School, which has not met state standards for four consecutive years, said they are leery of opening the campus to a charter operator. The district has issued a request for proposals hoping other kinds of nonprofits or universities might partner with the school to improve it.
Sandy Kress, a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, said it makes sense to bring high-quality charter operators into schools where districts haven’t succeeded. Districts then have the choice to replicate that expertise in other district schools, and possibly retain or bring back students.
While working with outside partners could open the door to charter schools inside the district, Austin school board President Kendall Pace said she is “most interested in having successful programs” and replicating those that work.
But state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, one of four House members who voted against SB 1882, said she remains suspicious of the law’s intent, and on Friday she raised concerns during a public hearing on the issue.
“I suspected that it was a back door to further takeover of our public schools by private charters despite assurances from the bill author that my concerns were unfounded,” said Hinojosa, a former Austin school board member. “I testified today that they would be making ‘liars out of my colleagues’ if they continued to narrow the interpretation of the bill to essentially make any partnering organization act like a charter if it wasn’t already.”