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House approves charter expansion bill SB2

A big step forward for those who would like to see more charters.

Senate Bill 2 passed on a 105-34 vote on second reading. It now faces a third reading before it can be reconciled with a similar version the Senate passed last month.

“I think the bill supports quality charters, helping them to expand and grow but at the same time helping to shut down the poor performers,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

Its author, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has called SB2 the most comprehensive charter school legislation since the state introduced the publicly funded and privately run schools in the 1990s. Previous efforts to change the system made it through the Senate but failed to gain traction in the House.

The bill would update rules on the renewal, expansion and revocation of charters, raising the current cap of 215 charters that can be authorized at any one time by allowing an additional 10 per year up to a total of 275 by 2019. Charter holders may operate multiple schools under a single charter.

It would also tighten nepotism rules – an amendment exempts current employees – and give operators the right of first refusal on the lease or purchase of unused facilities in traditional public school districts.

[…]

The House adopted other amendments, including one requiring teachers at charter schools to hold bachelor’s degrees and another requiring the majority of a charter’s board members to be “qualified voters.”

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, introduced the latter amendment, saying it was not aimed at any particular charter operator. Critics of the Harmony Public Schools charter network have complained to lawmakers in the past about the presence of Turkish citizens among Harmony leadership.

Since the House adopted amendments that make the bill differ from the one that the Senate passed, it has to go through a conference committee and get re-passed by each chamber. I don’t expect that will cause any problems, but sometimes strange things happen in the last days of a session. Trail Blazers and the Observer have more.

TEA drops the hammer on North Forest again

Pretty much as expected.

North Forest ISD announced Monday that the Texas Education Agency had upheld the decision to close the school district and annex it to Houston ISD this summer.

The ruling, however, does not end the school district’s fight to remain open. North Forest attorney Chris Tritico pledged to once again appeal the closure order, taking his case to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, an Austin court.

“We at North Forest ISD are disappointed by the TEA’s decision to merge North Forest with HISD,” Tritico said in a statement.

He reiterated that the North Forest school board plans to fight for an alternative plan to let a nonprofit management board and some high-performing charter schools run the 7,000-student northeast Houston district.

Tritico refers to the charter school option for NFISD, which has the support of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee but which other elected officials have met with skepticism. The main problem with the charter plan besides the lack of enthusiasm from the electeds was that the plan was insufficiently developed for TEA Commissioner Michael Williams. According to Hair Balls, this was still the case as of Monday. I suppose they’ll have more time to fill in the blanks as NFISD pursues other avenues of appeal.

Whatever does happen, the main focus has to be on improving educational outcomes for NFISD’s 7,000 students. If nothing else, we need to track these students’ progress going forward. As this Chron story from Monday morning before the TEA’s ruling notes, this would be a new thing.

In 2010, the Texas Education Agency abolished the Kendleton Independent School District and its single campus for failing to meet academic benchmarks for four straight years. In northeast Houston, North Forest ISD is headed toward the same fate. On Monday, the TEA is expected to announce whether it is upholding Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ order to close the problem-plagued district and annex it to Houston ISD as of this summer.

The experiences of Kendleton and of Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, a long-troubled district forced into Dallas ISD in 2006, offer some insight into what North Forest may expect if closed: crushed community pride, followed by general acceptance over time.

How students have fared academically isn’t easily known. The TEA hasn’t tracked the former Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students in their new schools.

I don’t know why the progress of these students was not tracked, but it is unconscionable to me that this is the case. We know who these NFISD students are. There’s no reason they can’t be easily identified once they are merged into HISD, and there’s no reason why some reports can’t be generated to monitor their achievements as HISD students. Hell, I don’t see why this can’t be done retroactively for Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students, too. We absolutely need to know if shutting down these problematic ISDs is worthwhile, because if it turns out that it’s not then we need to figure out a better way forward, and soon. If it turns out that it is a good idea, then maybe we need to see if there are some other ISDs that should get the same treatment. Either way, we need to know, and there’s no excuse for not knowing.

Not so fast on the North Forest charter plan

Not everyone is convinced that the plan to allow a consortium of charter schools to take over North Forest ISD is a good idea.

In interviews Monday, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, all Democrats, voiced reservations about the last-ditch attempt to prevent the annexation of North Forest to Houston ISD.

“I’ve got issues with some of HISD’s performance, but it is such a step up from North Forest in terms of administration, accountability, and they’ve got the resources,” said Whitmire, who represented the northeast Houston district for years until recent redistricting. “There’s a real opportunity for HISD to show what they can do for North Forest. The charters are just speculating at this point.”

The charter schools involved are KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony.

Ellis said he feared the charter schools would try to kick out students who misbehave or perform poorly. Thompson, whose granddaughter attends school in North Forest ISD, said she was unwilling to support an undefined plan.

[…]

[KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg] said the elected North Forest school board would collect taxes, but a nonprofit created by KIPP would essentially run the district starting in 2013, with control over major decisions such as hiring, firing and spending.

By 2014, he said, the nonprofit would turn North Forest into a “portfolio district.” School operators – including KIPP, YES, Harmony and others that are interested – would apply to start and run campuses in North Forest ISD. Families would choose where to send their children.

Those who did not want the new options would remain in traditional public schools run by the nonprofit, called PHILO, Feinberg said.

A director or chief executive officer responsible for managing the school district would be appointed by the PHILO board. Feinberg said the board includes himself, [former HISD Superintendent and Education Secretary Rod] Paige; Jodie Jiles, a past chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership; Shawn Hurwitz, a founding KIPP board member; a KIPP mother who now works for the charter network; and two KIPP alumni – an accountant whose family lives in North Forest and the head of the KIPP alumni association.

See here for the background. The idea has been endorsed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sen. Dan Patrick, as odd a couple as you could find, but I’m a little worried that this may become more of a partisan issue than anything else. If there’s ever a situation where the details mattered, this is it, and so far all we have is a broad outline. I said before that I think this is a worthwhile idea to pursue, but now that we have seen what concerns people, let’s see how Feinberg et al respond to those concerns. So far, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams has maintained that they are moving forward with the HISD takeover, but he’s willing to consider the charter proposal. Let’s see a fully detailed plan, and then we can see if it’s a better idea than what is already on the table.

Charters apply to take over North Forest ISD

Fine by me.

In a potentially groundbreaking move, three of Houston’s top-performing charter schools are making a pitch to run the long-troubled North Forest school district.

The charter groups — KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony — are asking Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams to approve their plan, instead of having the Houston Independent School District take over North Forest ISD, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg confirmed Friday. The idea is still in the developmental stage, but the North Forest school board unanimously signed off on the concept Thursday night, said board president Charles Taylor Sr.

Williams ordered the annexation of North Forest into HISD last month after the former state education commissioner gave the district a one-year reprieve from closure. North Forest has long suffered academic and financial problems.

Under the plan, Feinberg said, the school board would collect taxes, but the charter schools and a nonprofit management group would run the district with power over spending, hiring and other decisions.

The partnership would be the first of its kind in Texas, marking unprecedented cooperation between the three popular charter schools. They typically start their own campuses from scratch, rather than try to turn around a struggling district.

“If I didn’t believe we could do it, we wouldn’t be trying to contribute as part of the solution,” Feinberg said. “At the same time, we recognize how difficult this work is and how very few examples we have of anywhere in the country of where it’s worked. But this is the work that ultimately needs to happen to convince our state leaders, our local leaders and society in general that not just all children can learn, but all children will learn.”

The Chron story adds a few more details.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has thrown her support behind the plan. State lawmakers who represent North Forest could not be reached for comment, though Feinberg acknowledged some weren’t warm to the idea.

[…]

If the TEA approves the charter deal, the goal is for the new model to fully take effect in 2014, said Chris Tritico, an attorney for North Forest.

Many issues would have to be resolved: Would teachers have to reapply for their jobs? Who would run which campuses? What if students did not want to attend the longer school hours KIPP and YES traditionally require? Who would coordinate the food service, the busing, the program for students with disabilities?

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said the district is moving forward with plans to annex North Forest “until we hear otherwise.”

Anna Eastman, the president of the HISD board, said she thinks the charter idea “merits consideration.”

“My only goal in this conversation is making sure the kids in North Forest end up on top,” she said. “A struggling, traditional ISD willing to relinquish management to three high-performing charters, with a good track record, could prove to be a model for other district and charter partnerships.”

One presumes that anything would be an improvement over the current status. KIPP, YES, and Harmony all have strong track records, so there’s plenty of reason to think they could do a good job. I think HISD would also do a good job of it, but they have a full plate already, and perhaps NFISD could benefit from more focused attention. If nothing else, this could help answer the question whether charters like these can produce the same kind of results as they have on their own with a student body that didn’t seek them out. The one thing I would insist on is that the teachers do not lose their collective bargaining ability. NFISD should still be a normal public school district under this plan. Assuming that is the case, I think this is a worthwhile thing to try, and if it goes through I will be eager to see what happens.

TREE lawsuit may proceed with the other school finance suits

We will have one big school finance lawsuit, not multiple separate suits.

State District Judge John Dietz ruled on Tuesday that the claims from Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a group of charter school supporters and parents, belong in the lawsuit. The decision ensures that case will proceed to trial on Oct. 22.

The group, referred to as TREE, argues that the current cap on new charter schools stifles competition and maintains that large swaths of the education code foster waste and inefficiency in traditional public schools.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing one of the six groups of plaintiffs, petitioned to remove TREE, asserting that its concerns are political issues that need to be addressed by the Legislature, not constitutional issues that must be decided by the courts.

MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa said on Tuesday that TREE had “cherry-picked” elements of the education code with which its leaders disagree politically, and it was asking the court to “redesign the system of education to suit their specific needs.” Those elements include minimum salary requirements and certain job protections for teachers.

Dietz, however, said TREE was not asking the court to impose its own judgment over that of the Legislature. Rather, TREE wants him to review components of the education system that it believes to be unconstitutional.

MALDEF was the only plaintiff to contest TREE’s presence in the lawsuit. Texas Politics notes that TREE still has some homework to do.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Enoch and his party “have not asked the court to dictate a particular course of action. (They) asked the court to review different aspects of the public school system to determine if they meet the constitution.”

Hinojosa argued that [TREE lawyer Craig] Enoch’s side, which includes parents and the Texas Association of Business, don’t have a legal standing in the case.

Dietz disagreed.

“The court can certainly concede that Texas parents and business owners are and will be injured by a public school system that fails to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge,” the judge said.

He did instruct Enoch to clean up his pleading to specifically explain how his clients could be injured in an unconstitutional school funding system.

Failure to fix that issue will allow the judge to dismiss them from the case, Hinojosa said later.

TREE has its own agenda and should not be trusted. The trial begins October 22. Mark your calendars.

One more thing, from the Statesman story:

Research released on Tuesday from Pennsylvania State University education professor Ed Fuller showed that fifth- and sixth-graders entering high-performing charter schools already had higher reading and math scores than their peers in traditional public schools. Fuller said that difference might explain why some charter schools register better achievement scores when compared with traditional public schools.

In addition, Fuller noted that charter schools also enrolled far fewer students with special needs, such as those learning English or who have disabilities.

“This simply makes it easier for a school to claim success as well as for a school to operate efficiently and effectively since students are more homogeneous and have fewer needs,” wrote Fuller, a former University of Texas researcher.

The study was commissioned by the Texas Business and Education Coalition in advance of a state Senate committee hearing Friday on the issue of charter schools and school choice.

That ought to add some fuel to the debate fires. As noted yesterday, the Harmony schools spend a lot less money than the traditional public schools do on such students. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of tomorrow’s hearing.

Some things are not easily replicated

I have three things to say about this.

Harmony Public Schools appears to have cracked the code.

The charter school system, with 38 campuses across Texas and more than 23,000 students, regularly produces students who excel at math, science and engineering. And they do it on a shoestring.

Harmony’s five schools in Austin spent $7,923 per student in 2010-11 on operating expenses, almost $1,600 less than the Austin school district and about $800 less than the statewide average.

Harmony’s schools have also consistently beat the rest of the state on standardized test scores even while educating about the same proportion of students considered at risk of dropping out.

Few other charter schools operate as efficiently and effectively as Harmony. But the ability of some charter schools to seemingly do more with less could become a key issue in the mammoth school finance lawsuit that is set for trial in October.

[…]

A 2011 study done for the Texas Education Agency found that charter schools spent 15 percent less on operations than did comparable schools in traditional districts. Most of that difference came from hiring less experienced teachers and paying them less.

Lindsay Gustafson of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association said paying teachers less and stripping them of job protections would drive good teachers out of the classroom. Teacher turnover was twice as high in charter schools as in traditional public schools, according to the 2011 TEA study.

“We’re interested in quality, not just what’s cheap,” Gustafson said.

[…]

Soner Tarim, Harmony’s chief executive officer, said his schools are methodical about getting the most out of every employee, giving each person multiple jobs to ensure a leaner administrative operation.

One key to Harmony’s low-budget education is hiring teachers — some of whom come from Turkey — with little experience and paying them far less. The pay difference was about $11,000 less than the state average of $48,600 in 2010, though Tarim said teachers have since received a pay raise. Although charter school teachers are not required to be certified by the state, more than 70 percent of Harmony’s teachers are certified.

Harmony’s hiring practices and its ties to Turkey have generated controversy, including an investigation by a committee in the Texas House. House General Investigating Committee Chairman Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, said the investigation has been concluded and its findings turned over to other agencies looking into charter schools.

Tarim said Harmony’s teachers are willing to work for less because of the innovative, safe and supportive environment that produces results. Other savings come from the schools’ minimal spending on athletics, transportation, guidance counseling and social work.

Harmony also must dedicate relatively little to serving students with disabilities and those learning English. Only 6 percent of its program budget went to educating students with disabilities last year compared to 21 percent for the Austin school district. Austin also committed about 17 percent of its dollars to bilingual students while Harmony spent just 1.6 percent.

1. The thought of being able to pay for his tax cuts by slashing teacher salaries is just ambrosia for Dan Patrick, isn’t it? If you listen carefully, you can actually hear him salivate.

2. On a more serious note, while the story doesn’t get into how or why Harmony is successful getting students to perform well, if the secret to their success at doing it efficiently is being able to convince teachers capable of achieving that performance to do so for 25% less than the industry average salary, I don’t know how well that model can be replicated. I can’t think of too many industries where getting above average results for below average pay is a successful long-term strategy. In an era of stagnant wages and a declining middle class, it’s indecent to be talking about it as a way to keep property taxes at artificially low rates.

3. It may be that there isn’t much of anything that can be learned from Harmony’s experience and applied to the public schools. Sometimes it’s just the right combination of people that makes a place special, and you just can’t make it happen the same way anywhere else. By all means, we should study them and the other high-performing charters and try to learn from their experiences, but what works for them may not work for any other school. There’s never just one right way to do something.

Dis-Harmony

Interesting story about the Harmony charter schools, which are right up there with KIPP and YES Prep among the top charters. They seem to attract a fair amount of criticism, more than their peers, for how they do their business, which is explored in the story. Based on what is detailed, I have to agree with SBOE member David Bradley (much as it pains me to do so) that a lot of the criticism seems misguided. The one thing that struck me as odd was this:

From 2008 to 2010, the Labor Department certified 1,197 H-1B visa requests from the Cosmos Foundation — more than double the number of visas certified nationwide for Texas-based computer company Dell USA and about 70 percent as many as were certified for tech giant Apple Inc.

Those certifications were forwarded to the Homeland Security Department for final approval.

The visas are intended to attract foreign workers with skills that are in short supply among American workers.

Harmony has about 290 employees working on H-1B visas, or 16 percent of its workforce, according to Superintendent Soner Tarim. Most are Turkish, said Tarim, who is also from Turkey.

Few other Texas school districts hire significant numbers of workers on H-1B visas.

“Staffing Northside schools has never really been a problem,” said Pascual Gonzalez, spokesman for Bexar County’s largest school district with 97,000 students, where Labor Department records show no H-1B visa certifications in recent years. “In the past there have been thousands of people applying for hundreds of jobs.”

At Harmony, Tarim said the charter network finds a shortage of qualified teachers in math, science and English as a second language sometimes prompts them to hire foreign workers.

He noted that Harmony’s focus on science and math means particularly high recruiting standards in those areas.

“It’s unacceptable for us to raise our kids to say, ‘I cannot do math,’” he said.

Nearly a third of the H-1B certifications received by Cosmos actually were for jobs outside those fields, however.

Labor Department data includes visa certifications for legal counsel, accountants, assistant principals, public relations coordinators and teachers of art, English and history.

“They may be on an H-1B visa and they already worked in our system and they changed positions,” Tarim said, noting the number of certifications includes renewals and applications for individuals who change jobs or locations. “Remember, we always promote from within in our organization.”

With all due respect, I find that explanation weak. I have a hard time believing they are unable to find sufficiently qualified teachers, and I rather doubt that math and science teachers are moving on to take positions in accounting, legal, or PR in significant numbers. I strongly suspect they do what they do because it’s their preference. Which is all fine as long as they can get the visas approved, but I do understand this line of argument against them. Given the results they get, if that’s the worst that can be said, it’s not too shabby.

Why the budget almost didn’t pass in the special session

You may recall that just before the House passed SB1, which was a must-pass bill for the special session and whose failure would have necessitated a second special session, the House voted it down before reconsidering and passing it on a second attempt. The reason for the near-failure weren’t deeply explored at the time, but this Statesman article sheds a little light on it.

Harmony Public Schools, a high-performing charter school network that focuses on math and science, has been the target of activists concerned that its leaders are non-U.S. citizens with ties to Turkey.

Led by the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative pro-family organization, Harmony’s critics have issued a flurry of legislative alerts in recent weeks that said the state’s $25 billion endowment for “our children’s textbooks” was imperiled by “Turkish men, of whom we know very little other than most are not American citizens.”

They gathered enough momentum that earlier this week some conservative legislators cited the concerns when they voted against a key budget bill — and almost killed it.

But one conservative protector of the endowment, the Permanent School Fund, says the criticism of Harmony is unfounded.

“There is a lot of misinformation, a certain level of fear and a small helping of bigotry that needs to go away,” said State Board of Education member David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

Bradley said he would be the “first to sound the alarm” if there were anything to be alarmed about. But the board has not received substantive complaints from parents of the 16,000 children that attend any of the 33 Harmony campuses across the state, he said.

“The only thing these guys are guilty of are high scores and being Turkish,” Bradley said.

When David Bradley is acting as a voice of reason, you can insert your own cliche about how we’ve gone around the bend, down the rabbit hole, and through the looking glass. The legislators who were cowed by the Eagle Forum will get their investigation, which will likely lead to nothing of substance, not that that’s any guarantee against a subsequent flare-up. Just file this away as another reason why this was the worst Legislature we’ve seen since the Sharpstown days.

Harmony Academy

Interesting story about another large charter school network in Texas.

With little fanfare, the Harmony Academy system has become the powerhouse of the Texas charter school scene — easily surpassing KIPP and Yes Prep as the largest charter network in the state.

The 10-year-old public school chain has 33 campuses in Texas – including 11 in Houston. By 2012, Harmony expects enrollment to reach 24,000 – nearing KIPP’s national enrollment.

[…]

Roughly 21,000 families signed up to be on Harmony’s waiting list prior to the start of this school year. Campuses are at capacity, academic performance remains strong and the charter system continues to be in good standing with the Texas Education Agency.

Students say they prefer Harmony’s small student-teacher ratio, usually 12-to-1.

“At my old school, they barely knew my name,” said eighth-grader Diana Acosta, who attended Welch Middle School in HISD before transferring last year to Harmony School of Art and Technology on Kirby.

Harmony students regularly earn top honors at science and robotics competitions. Collectively, the schools teach nine languages, including Vietnamese, Russian and Turkish, in addition to the typical offerings such as Spanish and French.

And even as charter schools statewide face funding and facilities hurdles, Harmony Academy has taken advantage of the lackluster economy. Its leaders secured bond funds and used stimulus money to build their first new campuses – which are polished, if not flashy, compared to their original schools in strip malls, former churches and abandoned big box stores.

Note the small class sizes. They’ll have an easier time marketing that after this legislative session. I don’t really have anything to add here, but as I had never heard of these guys a couple of months ago, I thought this was worth pointing out.

More charter school stuff

Now that you’ve listened to my interview with Chris Barbic, here are a couple more charter school-related articles of interest. First, from the Trib, a story about charter schools getting help for facilities from the Permanent School Fund.

Fledgling charter schools, like any other start-up business, have difficulty establishing credit. Because the schools must renew their charter with the state every five years, banks can view them as a risky investment, said Cinnamon Henley, executive director of the Austin Discovery School, a charter that opened in 2005.

Without access to financing for buying or building new facilities, charters are subject to the whims of the rental market, which can make budgetary planning difficult.

Some state lawmakers are pushing to change that with legislation allowing some charter schools to be eligible to access the Permanent School Fund.

Proceeds from several sources — including revenue from taxes and offshore oil-drilling leases — go into the $23 billion fund, which is managed by the State Board of Education. Interest from the fund feeds the Available School Fund, which helps pay for public school textbooks.

The proposal to expand access to the fund has prominent backers, including state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who introduced the legislation. Her House counterpart, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the Public Education Committee, filed a companion bill last week.

Not everyone is on board: Traditional school districts do not like the idea. The Texas Association of School Boards opposes opening the bond guarantee program to charters, said Dax Gonzalez, a spokesman for the association, adding that charter schools are generally deemed to be poor credit risks.

“We’ve had around 280 charters awarded over the last few years,” Gonzalez said. “Out of those, 71 are no longer operating anymore. That’s about a quarter of charters that have been abandoned or closed down. That doesn’t show that they are going to be around for the state to recoup their investment.”

I’ve discussed this before, and my feelings haven’t changed. I don’t think the PSF is the right vehicle for this, because I don’t think it’s a sufficiently sound investment on the state’s part. There should be a way for charter schools with a good business plan and/or a track record of success to get state resources for facilities, but it should be created and funded by the Legislature. If that gives some charter school supporters in the Lege heartburn because of the budget crunch, that’s just too bad. If you want this to happen, you can find or create a revenue stream for it.

We also have this op-ed from the Sunday Chron about why Houston is such a hotbed for quality charter schools. The three people referenced are Soner Tarim, founder of the Harmony schools, Mike Feinberg of KIPP, and Barbic.

Houston’s charter school sector, which accounts for a rapidly growing 16 percent of public school enrollment, is among the biggest in the nation, and almost certainly the best. So why does Houston host three great charter chains, along with what may be the best urban school system in the nation? I recently asked Tarim, Feinberg and Barbic, and got answers that would not surprise any student of entrepreneurship. Just like Silicon Valley, Houston’s education miracle shows the importance of entrepreneurs, capital, transparency and political leadership favorable to competition.

To start with, entrepreneurs see a need, and as Soner Tarim points out, with a rapidly growing and increasingly low-income student population, “there was such a need.” But there was also great talent. Houston has attracted entrepreneurial educators from across the globe, many, like Tarim, drawn by the University of Houston, Rice and nearby Texas A&M. Other educational entrepreneurs were not new to the country, but were new to Houston. Feinberg, Levin and Barbic were among an army of young, idealistic TFA corps members from out of state drawn to Houston to save urban schooling. Houston has the nation’s largest TFA chapter. Unlike many cities, Houston welcomed TFA rather than seeing corps members as taking jobs from locals.

So what makes Houston different? First, the Houston Federation of Teachers never had the power to keep out TFA or hamstring KIPP and other charters. But that still left a bureaucracy, which, as Jay Mathews writes, resented KIPP’s notoriety and success. Before KIPP became a charter, the Houston Independent School District central office investigated KIPP, and at one point reassigned its classrooms. Political leadership saved the day. HISD Superintendent Rod Paige publicly praised KIPP and intervened when bureaucrats attacked. Paige also had HISD serve as an incubator for YES Prep. As Barbic recalls, “A lot of superintendents would have seen that innovation and tried to kill it, but Paige did the exact opposite.” Paige’s successors have followed his lead, fashioning a public school system that can compete with the charters.

In many cities opponents manipulate zoning and building rules to keep charter schools from finding sites, but Houston has few regulations. Not coincidentally, it also has low construction costs and cheap land. As Mike Feinberg points out, “Fifteen acres in Houston is about the same cost as one acre in Los Angeles.” That meant that once school leaders like Feinberg, Barbic and Tarim refined their operations at one or two campuses, they could expand cheaply and rapidly.

This expands somewhat on what Barbic mentioned in the interview about how charters coexist with HISD and in an ideal world each would push the other to be better. I don’t think you can fully discuss this subject without noting that our entrepreneur-friendly environment here is also attractive to a range of hustlers and con men and that the charter school business has seen its share of each as well. That would make a good subject for a longer analytical piece, not a short op-ed. Greg has more.