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What we need is better choice

With all the talk about “school choice” floating around, it’s important to remember that in Houston at least we already have a lot of options from which to choose.

Houston’s urban school leaders vowed Wednesday to continue efforts to expand quality school choices, despite financial and regulatory challenges.

Top charters schools – including KIPP and YES Prep – receive less state funding than their traditional counterparts, and Houston ISD is sometimes handcuffed by state regulations, according to speakers at the seventh annual Children at Risk Children’s Summit.

Regardless of the challenges, Houston parents are hungry for quality choices, leaders said.

“It’s like Jerry Maguire. You have them at hello,” said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who went door-to-door to recruit families for his new campuses in the late 1990s.

Today, more than 36,000 Houston students are on waiting lists for top charter schools. And about 68,000 students transfer from their zoned HISD school to another campus, under the district’s school choice model that includes dozens of popular magnet schools. Another 10,000 students transfer to HISD schools from outside the district.

“We’re a pretty good choice option,” Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Both Grier and charter school leaders agreed that educating the overwhelmingly low-income, minority populations that they serve takes extra time, effort and money.

We all know about the money part of that equation, so I won’t belabor it here. To the extent that Sen. Dan Patrick is talking about letting other school districts have the kind of choice model that HISD has, I’m all fine with it. I don’t know how much of a panacea that will be in less populated areas, and let’s not kid ourselves about the increased costs associated with sending kids off to non-neighborhood schools, but as a matter of principle there’s no good reason why parents and kids shouldn’t have as many viable options open to them as possible.

But as we know, this is just a side dish, with vouchers as the entree. Again, I’m not going to belabor that here, but instead want to talk a bit more about charter schools.

Charter school leaders said they will continue to look for ways to expand, which is challenging without the ability to ask for school bonds like the $1.9 billion one that HISD voters passed in November. They launched a partnership with the neighboring Spring Branch ISD last year to operate schools inside existing campuses, further lowering costs.

“We’re not going to build a $25 million building when we can get great results with less than that,” said Jason Bernal, YES Prep Public Schools president.


“High-performing charters like YES Prep and KIPP are scalable,” Bernal said. “It just validates we can continue doing what we’re doing.”

I hope he’s right about that, because we’d all benefit if schools like YES and KIPP can extend their reach. As the chart above shows, there’s probably only so far that they can be extended. It’s important to remember, however, that most charter schools aren’t KIPP or YES. In fact, the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency is nearly double that of traditional public schools, and it’s very difficult to shut down a failing charter school. Somehow, that sort of thing never seems to be part of the discussion. If we’re going to expand access to charter schools by raising the state limit on charters, then we need to increase oversight and accountability on charter schools as well. I got a press release from Texans Deserve Great Schools, which is funded in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, whose report on school funding was the basis of this Chron story, that includes policy recommendations to address charter school oversight. I’m not sure I agree with everything they say – in particular, I remain skeptical of the cult of online learning and the belief that technology will solve all our problems; again, this is a separate issue – but aside from that they do make a number of good suggestions. You can read their release here and see for yourself. For extra credit, read the issue briefs and policy papers from Raise Your Hand Texas. There’s no shortage of education policy and reform out there. As with charter schools, the goal is to get as much of the good and as little of the bad as possible.

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  1. Rich F. says:

    We don’t have those kind of choices here in Madison, a supposedly progressive city (it has a big public university, after all.) Choices are MMSD for public schools, and inter-school transfer is very hard due to crowding at certain middle schools, which affects the elementary schools. Or expensive private schools for gifted (10K+/year) or alternative (open schooling) (10K+/year) or Country Day School, or parochial. And most of the parochial requires congregation membership, and isn’t cheap anyway. There are a couple of charter schools that lottery for entrance, and one that used to be a charter that is supposed to be a great middle school, that also lotteries for entrance, but it’s not as good as it once was.

  2. Ed Fuller says:

    Two points:

    One, greater choice has been shown to increase segregation, not improve overall school outcomes for a district or state, and create winners and losers rather than a “rising tide lifting all boats.”

    Second, charters are NOT scalable since a substantial proportion of their better results come from skimming/cherry-picking students (not necessarily intentionally) and losing/pushing out lower-performing kids. How could that be scalable? See

  3. Ross says:

    Ed, you may care about overall outcomes, but that’s a secondary measure for me. My main measure is the quality of education education my child receives. You cannot give me a rational reason why I would let my child remain in a school that underperforms, or where the rest of the students, and their parents, look at school as a babysitter with no ability to impose discipline. With HISD, parents have a chance of their child receiving a good education. Districts that don’t have school choice condemn all children zoned to low ranked schools to mediocrity.

  4. […] of public funds for private school “scholarships”, which is to say vouchers. As I have done before, I will once again point out that the percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable […]