The Cautionary Tale of Austin ISD’s Partnership with IDEA Charters

The end of Austin ISD's deal with a South Texas charter operator offers some lessons for the rest of the state.

IDEA Allan: Founded 2012. Ousted 2013.
Patrick Michels
IDEA Allan: Founded 2012. Ousted 2013.

At a charter school conference earlier this month, state Rep. Mark Strama leaned into his microphone and asked the room for a show of hands. Of all the charter school founders, officials, teachers or organizers in the room, he wanted to know how many were from “in-district” charter schools.

While most charter schools in Texas get state approval, there’s a limit on how many the state can approve. State law also lets school districts approve their own “in-district” charters, too—but Texas has just 74 of those. None, apparently, was represented in that particular conference room. No hands went up.

So Strama wondered why, when some charter schools have such long waiting lists, more charter school boosters aren’t trying to win over local school districts and partner with them. One guy in the audience piped up to answer. “It’s just institutional resistance,” he said. “They’re just different people. They are.”

That may sound a touch indelicate—but look at the drama around East Austin’s Allan Elementary over the last year, and the conflict is real.

A year ago, Austin ISD announced it would bring in IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas-based charter chain with just over two dozen campuses, to run Allan Elementary, a school where more than 95 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

New East Austin parents’ groups and an off-shoot of the Occupy Austin protest sprung up to oppose the deal. They wondered why IDEA was suddenly taking over a neighborhood school 300 miles from its home base in Weslaco. The groups said Allan was being used as a guinea pig in a school district reform experiment. Education researcher Ed Fuller became a well-known critic of IDEA before AISD signed the contract last year—he’s gone to great lengths to debunk IDEA’s claims that 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year universities, and that they’re well-prepared for college when they get there.

Many parents pulled their students from Allan before this year. To fill out its enrollment, IDEA marketed and recruited from around Austin, well outside the Allan neighborhood.

Last week, the drama ended when Austin ISD trustees voted to sever ties with IDEA once the school year ends, and return IDEA Allan back to the district. It’s been a nasty issue that dominated Austin’s school reform debate, spawned a handful of new education activist groups and got three school board members ousted—and now it’s over.

IDEA is one of the hottest charter chains in Texas today, based in the Rio Grande Valley, with a recent expansion into Central Texas. The chain just won a $29 million federal Race To the Top grant, an extremely competitive program that only one other Texas school won (another charter, Harmony Public Schools). The day after the board’s vote, IDEA leaders announced they’d find a way to stick around Austin next year by opening their own school, outside Austin ISD.

It marked the end of a particularly nasty charter school controversy, a cautionary tale about how not to create an in-district charter. It could also be something Texas sees a lot more of after next year.

The sprawling education reform plan that state Sen. Dan Patrick unveiled last week includes a stronger “parent trigger” law making it easier to turn neighborhood schools into charters, if pro-charter parents gather enough signatures. Parent trigger laws are typically sold as tools of community empowerment, a way to assert control in your child’s education in a district run by a clunky bureaucracy.

The nasty fight over Allan could easily happen at any school where parents pull the trigger to turn their neighborhood schools into in-district charters. IDEA is part of a preferred class of charters in Texas today, along with KIPP, Yes Prep and Harmony. They’re popular, well-marketed, growing brands with institutional management cultures of their own. They’re the ones most likely to take over in a parent-trigger situation.

That’s how it’s gone in California, in the one case where a parent-trigger effort has garnered enough signatures to make a change. Parents there have selected—after a vote of 53 people—an outside charter operator to run the school.

The same night the Austin ISD board severed the IDEA contract, though, they also approved a charter built on another model.

That plan creates a homegrown charter at Travis Heights Elementary, where the school would run as a partnership between school administrators, an Austin teachers’ union, a local nonprofit and parents in the historic neighborhood just south of downtown.

The Travis Heights plan is the product of years of work from local education groups. It’s a lot tougher to pull off than handing over a school to a charter network that’s already looking to expand (especially when someone’s willing to hand them a school building). And it’s in a wealthy, historic neighborhood that doesn’t look much at all like the area around Allan.

The Travis Heights model—homegrown, locally managed—is the sort of scenario lawmakers will use to help get a parent trigger law passed next session. But with a blunt instrument like a parent trigger law, what we’re most likely to get are more turf wars like the one over Allan.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 12:47 pm CST