Saturday, March 19, 2011

Charter school wait lists spark legislation

Important quotes from within:

"According to the Texas Charter Schools Association, about 120,000, or 2.5 percent, of Texas' 4.8 million public school students are enrolled in charter schools, which are public schools, usually run by nonprofits, that are subject to fewer state regulations.

A TEA report on 35 charters operational from 2006 to 2009 found that, because any nonprofit organization may submit an application to start a charter school, many "encountered substantial challenges resulting from founders' lack of experience in public education."

Fifty-five of the 289 charters granted since 1996 have ceased operation because of revocation or nonrenewal.

And at a time when a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall has made efficiency in education the mantra, charters typically have higher administrative costs. According to the Texas Association of School Business Officials, from 2004 to 2009, an average of 11 percent of operating costs went to administration at charter schools, compared with about 6.7 percent for public schools with enrollments of less than 1,000."

-Angela



Charter school wait lists spark legislation
With state oversight possibly stretched by layoffs, questions arise about increasing number of charters issued.

By Andrew Kaspar
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Published: 10:23 p.m. Friday, March 18, 2011


An estimated 56,000 Texas students are on waiting lists for charter schools the kind of demand that prompts discussion and legislative proposals.

State lawmakers will soon begin considering bills that would chip away at those lists by authorizing more charter schools. But given the need for stringent oversight of these occasionally failed education enterprises, some question whether expansion is appropriate at a time when the Texas Education Agency — public education's chief regulatory body — has laid off about 10 percent of its staff.

State law caps the number of charters the State Board of Education may grant at 215, and there are currently 210 active charters.

House and Senate committees will take up bills related to raising that cap as early as Tuesday. The most ambitious would allow up to 100 new charters per year, with no total limit. A more moderate proposal would allow 10 new charters annually.

The number of campuses would presumably multiply by a number greater than whatever new cap the Legislature might ultimately authorize: Because charter holders may run networks of schools, those 210 open-enrollment charters currently encompass 520 campuses.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands , said he believes some upward adjustment of the cap will pass this session.

"There's a market for them," Eissler said. "We've got charter schools that have long waiting lists, and it's a very market-driven mode of education, which is promising."

According to the Texas Charter Schools Association, about 120,000, or 2.5 percent, of Texas' 4.8 million public school students are enrolled in charter schools, which are public schools, usually run by nonprofits, that are subject to fewer state regulations. In a kind of trade-off, although charters receive some public funds, they are not eligible to receive money from local property taxes or most state money for facilities.

Advocates promote charter schools as educational innovators for students who find their local public school inadequate. Many charters are tailored to a specific demographic or specialized academic program.

Detractors point to the think-outside-the-box philosophy of charters, which can bring nontraditional players to the education table and occasionally results in a trial-and-error approach that subjects students to the consequences of those errors.

Founders' credentials

The TEA is charged with monitoring and intervention when any public school fails to meet expectations. But spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe has said more agency layoffs could come this summer, raising concerns about the agency's ability to effectively monitor a new generation of charters.

"If a law passes to increase (the cap), then we do what we can to make it happen," said Suzanne Marchman, another TEA representative.

Lindsay Gustafson, public affairs director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said her organization is not unequivocally against lifting the cap but opposes the proposition at this time, given the state's budget woes and TEA staff reductions.

"They're already strapped, in looking at charters — oversight of charters and any time that they take to close charters is pretty significant," Gustafson said. "It's not an easy thing to do."

A TEA report on 35 charters operational from 2006 to 2009 found that, because any nonprofit organization may submit an application to start a charter school, many "encountered substantial challenges resulting from founders' lack of experience in public education."

The Texas Charter Schools Association was founded in 2008 to be an advocate for the Texas charter movement and to serve as a resource for charter operators, from the application process through day-to-day school administration.

"We've launched the first-ever comprehensive set of model policies for charter schools in the state," said David Dunn, the organization's executive director. The goal is to give charter operators the blueprint they need to run schools that are both effective and in compliance with state and federal laws, Dunn said. Raising the cap is one of his association's "top priorities" this session.

Rankings compared

First introduced to Texas in 1995, charter schools have received significant attention in recent years; the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman" — highlighting wait-listed children's agonizing experiences with the lottery system by which students are admitted to many charters — featured the highly successful KIPP charter school network, founded in Houston. President Barack Obama's Race to the Top education initiative encourages pro-charter reform.

But compared with regular school districts, a higher proportion of charter schools ranks as "academically unacceptable" — the lowest rating possible — under the state's accountability measures. In 2010, 11.1 percent of charters received the designation, compared with 1.4 percent of regular public school districts. Schools or districts that receive this rating for multiple years are subject to various sanctions, including potential closure.

At the same time, nearly one-quarter of all charters have the state's top rating of exemplary, compared with 18.5 percent of regular districts.

The TEA's latest round of accreditation will result in the revocation of four charters, and 16 of the 22 districts newly designated as warned or on probation are charters. The annual accreditation process is based on a district's academic performance and financial health, among other criteria. All four charters slated for closure are appealing. Fifty-five of the 289 charters granted since 1996 have ceased operation because of revocation or nonrenewal.

And at a time when a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall has made efficiency in education the mantra, charters typically have higher administrative costs. According to the Texas Association of School Business Officials, from 2004 to 2009, an average of 11 percent of operating costs went to administration at charter schools, compared with about 6.7 percent for public schools with enrollments of less than 1,000.

In Austin, two charters illustrate the promise and pitfalls of such schools.

There is NYOS, a two-campus charter that has operated for 12 years and was ranked the fourth-best public high school in Austin last year by a Houston-based research group. And then there is SAILL, opened in 2007 and shuttered in 2009 as financial mismanagement led to one superintendent's ouster and the resignation of the entire board of directors.

Regardless of the challenges the state's charter movement has faced, students continue to migrate to the schools. Charters have made a net gain of more than 67,000 midyear transfers since 2000, according to TEA data.

As of the fall, 743 students were hoping their number might be called at NYOS, and at least 56,000 Texas children will watch the charter cap debate with a vested interest in the outcome.

akaspar@statesman.com

Find this article at:
http://www.statesman.com/news/texas-politics/charter-school-wait-lists-spark-legislation-1331708.html

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