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Why do we think more charters would help?

Patricia Kilday Hart discusses the political battle over charter schools, but in doing so reminds me that there’s a fundamental question that seems to be going largely unasked.

Now, a sweeping bill filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, could lead to an explosion in Texas charter operations. Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would require school districts to lease their under-used facilities to charter schools.

The first draft of his bill would have required the lease for $1 a year; he amended it to require schools be leased or sold at fair market value.

The proposal creates a new state agency with ability to approve an unlimited number of new charter schools, now capped by state law at 215. It also would allow traditional school districts to convert to charter operations. For the first time, charter schools – public schools freed from state regulations regarding such issues as teacher contracts and the school calendar – would be eligible for state funding for leasing or purchasing their own campuses.

Requiring school districts to lease or sell properties to charters, however, would be financially ruinous to many, local school officials say. For instance, when the Houston Independent School District asked voters to approve a record $1.9 billion bond package in November, its long-term school construction scheme hinged on the sale of some $100 million in real estate – under-populated campuses the cash value of which would help pay for modernized schools in high-demand neighborhoods.

To supporters of traditional public schools, Patrick’s bill rubs salt in the wound left by the $5.4 billion in cuts made by the Legislature last session. They also are livid that lawmakers would consider funneling precious education dollars to charter operations just as a state judge found that Texas has failed to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately fund its public schools.


Patrick’s ground-shaking proposal comes as the charter movement in Texas may have reached a tipping point. In the last two years, says David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter School Association, the waiting list for students seeking admission to charter schools has skyrocketed from 50,000 to some 100,000 children.

Meanwhile, politically knowledgeable groups are joining hands with philanthropic foundations committed to education reform. Houston’s Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Greater Houston Community Foundation are backing a new pro-charter group: Texans Deserve Great Schools.

They have been joined by key leaders in the state’s premier political juggernaut, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, who formed Texans for Education Reform to work on behalf of the same goals. The group is led by former Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas, Patrick’s predecessor as education chair until her retirement last year. Influential lobbyist Mike Toomey, a former top assistant to Gov. Rick Perry who fought for tort reform, has signed on as a lobbyist.


At a committee hearing Thursday, Patrick set an emotional tone for the debate. Critics of his proposal, he said, would be testifying, not just against his bill, but “against the 100,000 students who are on the wait list” for charter schools.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, quickly countered: “A lot of schools were mothballed because of the cuts we made to public education.” Lawmakers should restore that funding before creating a new call on taxpayer money, he argued.

I’ve already noted Patrick’s concern of convenience for Teh Childrenz, and needless to say anytime an army of lobbyists and other rent-seekers like those noted above get involved in the process one is well advised to keep both hands on one’s wallet. Be that as it may, I’m still wondering why there isn’t more discussion of the question I’ve raised in the title of this post. Why do we think that having more charter schools would necessarily lead to better educational outcomes in Texas? To be sure, having more charters would mean more choices, and that would likely be beneficial for the students who have the wherewithal to take advantage of those choices. But that assumes that charters are overall at least as good as the traditional public schools. Is that a fair assumption? Let’s take a look at the 2011 accountability rankings and see for ourselves:

Campus Ratings by Rating Category
(excluding Charter Campuses)











Academically Acceptable



    Standard Procedures



    AEA Procedures



Academically Unacceptable



    Standard Procedures



    AEA Procedures



Not Rated: Other






Charter Campus Ratings by Rating Category











Academically Acceptable



    Standard Procedures



    AEA Procedures



Academically Unacceptable



    Standard Procedures



    AEA Procedures



Not Rated: Other






In other words, 48.7% of all public school campuses were Exemplary or Recognized in 2011, compared to 31.1% of all charter campuses. On the other side, 5.9% of all pubic school campuses were Academically Unacceptable, compared to 11.2% of all charter campuses. If you knew nothing of the politics of this situation, would you conclude after looking at these tables that more charters would lead to better outcomes? I wouldn’t. Why isn’t this a bigger part of the discussion? Hell, why isn’t it a part of the discussion at all?

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not opposed to giving charter schools some more latitude. We’d certainly like to encourage the KIPPs and YESes and Harmonys to grow and do good, and we’d like to not needlessly block the creation of the next KIPP or YES or Harmony if someone has a plan to bring it about. But I do not accept the simple premise that “more charters” is better, because the numbers say otherwise. What is the mechanism by which we expect more charters to make things better? What’s our plan to enforce quality control? What are we doing to ensure that any public funds being diverted to “more charters” will actually wind up being used on education and not for the enrichment of the people currently lobbying for those dollars? Those of you who complain about the number of administrators in the public schools need to take a long look at that list above and ask yourself how much these actors are motivated by the greater good, and how much they’re motivated by their own bottom lines. Finally, what’s our contingency plan in case this doesn’t work out as well as we might hope? We’re jumping straight to a solution without having a serious conversation about the process. In the real world, that’s a recipe for failure. We need to be a lot more concerned about that here. The Statesman has more.

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  1. Tory says:

    The simple answer is competition. Most of those parents in substandard charters are there because they have little choice, or they don’t feel their child is safe in the public school. If better ones open near them, either the low performing ones will improve to compete, or they will close down. Take the cap off charters, and send every parent regular reports with fully transparent performance of every school in their area. The substandard charters problem will solve itself, just like bad restaurants don’t stay open long in this town.

  2. Greg Wythe says:

    A bad restaurant doesn’t last long because the criteria are generally easier to discern: food and/or service. But bad charter schools (and public schools) still exist because evaluations of a school vary much more significantly. For instance, parents and students sometimes place a high value on the proximity of the school rather than a school’s rating. I refer you to the 2007 HISD effort to shutter certain campuses as part of their bond proposal at the time for a host of examples.

    If the magic wand of competition were at work, then charters such as KIPP, Yes Prep and others would be seen adding significantly more campuses under their charter to meet demand. At least that’s what I picked up in economics. KIPP presently lists 38 campuses in Texas:

    20 – Houston
    9 – Austin
    5 – San Antonio
    2 – Galveston
    2 – Dallas (not DFW, not Metroplex … just Dallas)

    I think it would be a justifiable argument for lifting the cap if the state were seen as allowing a relative monopoly by capping charters and allowing those charters to keep out competition. But the cap isn’t what prevents KIPP from expanding into Tarrant County, which is wildly underserved by charter schools in general.

    The TEA could theoretically eliminate the worst charters in the state tomorrow and replace them with any of the number of terrific charters yet to enter Texas (Rocketship being a notable one). But that door isn’t being knocked on – and I would optimistically add a “yet” to that point. That suggests to me that competition isn’t the sole motivating force at work with charter schools – and possibly not even the primary force.

    The pro-charter group at put out a report that stated:

    Between 1998 and 2011, The Texas Education Agency closed down 52 charter schools for reasons ranging from lack of operational competency, to money woes, to mismanagement, to academic deficiencies.

    The source doc for the EdReform report lists 48 of these. Of those 48, only 15 were for Academic reasons. Contrast that with how TEA ranks the schools academically and I’m sure we’d both agree that there are probably more than 1 campus per year should be shut down for academic reasons. Of the 18 schools that were shut down for Financial reasons, 9 of them were for “Inadequate enrollment”. Another – YES Prep at Lee High School – basically did nothing more than move from Lee HS to a new facility that they purchased in my neighborhood. So that’s really not even a closed campus.

    These are school campuses, not entire charters. But I think it still supports the point that not enough of the bad charters are “solving themselves” since such a low number of campuses are even “solving themselves.” Especially when part of the education cuts from the previous session were at TEA, where school inspectors who would be the ones evaluating charters were laid off en masse. And to nobody’s surprise, I don’t see a pro-charter organization making a big deal of restoring those job cuts in their legislative agendas.

    I’ll shamefully plug the link of mine that Kuff included in this post to suggest one way for the bad charters to “solve themselves” in a more efficient way. It involves competition, but I don’t hear the idea being advocated by advocates of educational competition.

  3. Tory says:

    The successful charters like YES, KIPP, Harmony, etc. are not capped, but are limited in their growth by capital costs (not reimbursed, so that money has to be philanthropy) and management bandwidth + quality control. We need innovation too – we don’t say “Quiznos and Subway are good enough – no need for new sandwich shops”. I also think there are plenty of good people that would like to start quality charter schools, but are intimidated by the burdensome application process that ends with very low odds of approval because of the cap.

    As much as I’d like to see bad charters shut down, like you said, there will always be arguments about performance, and public pushback against any closures, and very long due process cycles. Just short circuit that whole nightmare by taking off the cap and letting the market naturally shut down the low performers. Or at least allow the market to do its job *in addition* to processes for shutting down low performers.

  4. Leesa monroe says:

    The writer of this blog makes an excellent point. The evidence does not show that more charters will benefit students. Charters are allowed to select students while traditional public schools must take all students who walk thru the door. Students who leave usually are the ones doing well in school thus creating more separation of strong and weak students. The best thing we could do four all of our children is to allow them to go to school together. Poor students need role models and wealthy students need a dose of reality. Most administrators and teachers prefer traditional schools. I do believe the best teachers and administrators are in the school districts.