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Soner Tarim

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.