Snake Oil

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 Elementary in East Austin
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.

State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington
State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington

It’s open season on Texas’ school accountability measures.

Yesterday’s big announcement from Texas Senate leaders is just the latest in a string of signs. Last week Bill Hammond from the Texas Association of Business—once a strong advocate for leaving STAAR and Texas’ school ratings alone—unveiled his plans to tweak the testing system. Before that, even Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress conceded that 2009′s House Bill 3, which created the testing system we use today, “somewhat overshot.” And that’s all after months of outcry from parents and teachers in a growing anti-testing movement.

If a change is coming, though, it won’t take effect till next school year. Last year, Texas suspended its school ratings to ease the transition from the TAKS to the STAAR testing regimes.

Now, state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, is asking the Texas Education Agency to do the same for the current school year.

In a letter to Education Commissioner Michael Williams last week, Patrick warned that if Texas uses the current ratings for just this year, “there will be more public confusion about what the ratings mean, uncertainty of their merit, and general distrust of the system.” (The Texas Association of School Administrators has posted her letter on its blog.)

Williams, too, has proposed new school ratings that could take effect after this school year.

“What I’m asking for is just an extension of the moratorium that has been in place,” Patrick told the Observer this week. “You can talk to almost any legislator and find they are very interested in making some change to the current accountability systems.”

Patrick, a leading House education figure who helped craft H.B. 3, said there’s still plenty worth saving from that system. The 15 end-of-course exams under STAAR, which students must pass to graduate, are an improvement over TAKS subject tests that may not necessarily coincide with the subjects students took in a given year—students in a geometry class, for instance, might have been required to take an algebra exam at the end of the semester.

As of Tuesday, Patrick said she hadn’t heard back from Williams or TEA about her request.

“All of these things, I think, are very positive steps, but I think we have to tap the brakes,” she said. Patrick, like many others in the Legislature lately, recommended building in multiple paths for students to graduate, and seeking more ways to get math and science credits from career-oriented courses.

That may sound pretty conservative, in a year of growing cries to end or seriously scale back the state test. But Patrick reads the atmosphere differently.

“There seems to be a concern, not so much with the test itself, as how it’s being used,” she said.

In Catholic Schoolroom, Patrick and Dewhurst Unveil Plans for a Reformation in Public Ed

Without naming vouchers, Patrick and Dewhurst announce plan for a "revolution" in Texas' school system built on school choice and career preparation.
Bishop Oscar Cantu, State Sen. Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Bishop Oscar Cantu, State Sen. Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst unveil a new plan for public education reform and school choice at Cathedral School of St. Mary's in Austin.

In a little Catholic school classroom a block from the Capitol, three wise guys heralded the birth of a new agenda to shake up Texas’ public schools.

Surrounded by festive decorations and Christmas prayers, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Bishop Oscar Cantu took turns this morning introducing a broad school reform plan they’ll push during the coming legislative session. The plan includes changes to Texas’ accountability system; school choice; more charter schools; more career education and more online learning in classrooms.

“Look, we don’t have time for evolution in public schools,” Patrick said, and he wasn’t talking about intelligent design either. “We need a revolution. … It is immoral to say to any student or any parent, ‘You must go to a poor-performing school.’”

Even before he was named the Senate Education Committee’s new chairman, school-watchers were buzzing about what sorts of reforms Patrick might push for next session. Today, Patrick finally showed his hand, and the result will keep his critics scrambling through the session. It’s an all-of-the-above approach full of ideas that would be controversial enough on their own, but taken together, could turn Texas into one of the country’s biggest laboratories for conservative school reform.

Patrick was clearly fired-up at the occasion. He got to headline today’s press conference, after a welcome from Bishop Cantu, and a somber introduction from Dewhurst, who recalled Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut before offering broad support for the plan Patrick was about to detail.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst helps unveil a new plan for public education reform and school choice at Cathedral School of St. Mary’s in Austin.

“We want to make sure public schools stay strong and viable,” Dewhurst said.

Over the last few months, Patrick has suggested he would introduce some kind of voucher program—giving parents public money to spend on their child’s private school tuition—but hasn’t offered any details. His announcement today didn’t exactly include a voucher scheme, though he said one still may be introduced during the session.

Instead, his plan includes a business tax scholarship, which would let companies divert a fraction of what they owe in taxes to a nonprofit that distributes need-based scholarships to private schools. While the details are still being worked out, he said public schools could even get in on the action and apply to receive scholarships for pre-K or afterschool programs.

“We’re creating a deduction. It is not going to impact school funding,” Patrick said. “This does not take money from public education. … If students leave and take these scholarships, that’s one less student [public schools] have to educate.”  He and Dewhurst took pains to reiterate that point—as if repeating it might make it more true—anticipating worries that their proposal is simply a voucher program by another name, drawing public money into private schools. There would be less money going to general revenue under the plan, they explained, but not necessarily less for schools. That’s for the folks writing the budget to decide, not the ones writing this bill.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Patrick said. “This is a moral issue … to give students an opportunity to have the American-Texas dream by giving them the best choices they can find for their education.”

Public support for private tuition will be the most contentious aspect of his plan, but Patrick’s school revolution reaches much further. He’ll also push for more charter schools as well as allowing studentsto transfer to any public school they like.

He also wants the state to count more career and technical classes toward graduation requirements, limit the number of STAAR tests students must pass to graduate, and to build in more opportunities for online learning. And he wants to revise the state’s accountability system for schools, with an A-to-F system of letter grades.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston
Patrick Michels
State Sen. Dan Patrick.

“If you’re an F-rated school after two years, you need to be closed down,” Patrick said at one point.

“Amen,” Dewhurst mumbled behind him, quietly overcome. In his remarks, Dewhurst said he planned to advocate a “trigger” bill that would let parents vote to restructure a “failing” neighborhood school.

This may be Patrick’s plan for the next session, but the trigger law, business tax credit scholarships, school choice and other pieces of the plan come straight from the playbook Republicans are pushing across the country, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as lead cheerleader. In Texas today, Patrick is doing it all in the name of poor parents—”very often a single working mom,” he said today.

In hushed tones, he served his plans with thick syrupy coatings of Christmas-card wisdom. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t dream for your children.”

Outside St. Mary’s, where anti-voucher protesters gathered this morning, Texas State Teachers Association Vice President Noel Candelaria said he didn’t buy the idea that public schools won’t be hurt if Texas puts public money toward private tuition. “The schools are still going to be left to educate these students, with less money,” he said.

Legislators have proposed vouchers, and seen them beaten back, for years. Candelaria said he figures Patrick is pushing hard for vouchers now because he sees the door of opportunity closing. “They’re trying to take one last stab, knowing the demographics in Texas schools are changing.”

After the announcement, teachers’ groups and advocates for public school funding promptly dismissed Patrick’s plans. The Texas Charter Schools Association and the Texas Association of Business wrote to offer their support.

Bill Hammond, president of the business group—which bills itself as “Texas’ leading employer organization”—compared school choice with the racist history of school segregation with a clunky attempt at populism.

“For 100 years the man stood in the door and said you cannot get in,” he said. “Today the man is standing in the door saying you cannot get out of a failed school.”

Great Hearts AcademiesCharter schools have historically been sold as places to try out innovative, low-cost education—a way to give poor kids a chance at a good education outside a failing local school. But some rich folks in San Antonio are trying out another idea.

All this one takes is a cool $50 million from wealthy donors to help a few charter school chains come to town and grow like crazy. The plan is named “Choose to Succeed,” which sounds agreeable enough. It’s a well-manicured proposal, a triumph of branding and public relations-speak, like the charter schools it supports.

Victoria Rico, chair of the San Antonio-based George W. Brackenridge Foundation, is leading this effort. With the money she raises, she imagines building 145 new charter schools with room for 80,000 students in San Antonio. That’s in addition to the charter schools in place today. More than a quarter of the students covered by the San Antonio Independent School District, for instance, are in charter schools already, the ninth-highest charter-school enrollment in the country. (SAISD is just one of 17 San Antonio school districts.)

The foundation’s pitch to donors advertises the opportunity as “for a very limited time” only and appeals to discriminating potential donors with the promise of results. “Billions of philanthropic dollars have disappeared into public school districts with no aggregate impact,” the pitch says, noting the “highly bureaucratic and politicized nature of districts run by elected boards.” Elections! What a drag.

Not to worry, though—Choose to Succeed has the answer. First, donations would help expand KIPP and IDEA, two Texas-based charter school chains that already have campuses in San Antonio. The money would also help lure four out-of-state charter chains with strong national buzz: Rocketship Education, BASIS Schools, Great Hearts Academies and Carpe Diem Schools.

Charter schools, you’ll recall, get public funding based on the number of students they enroll. So these private donations would pay for building construction and other costs of starting a new school. After that, the group says, student education is “sustained completely by public funds.”

Choose to Succeed says it has raised $18 million so far, and its first two recruits, Great Hearts and BASIS, recently won state approval to open their first schools in San Antonio next fall. It will be Great Hearts’ first foray outside of Arizona, where it operates a dozen schools. In its home state, anyway, Great Hearts schools in Arizona make it clear to parents that their donations are what keep the school running, as University of Texas education professor Julian Vazquez Heilig has pointed out.

At most charter schools, parents usually can’t afford to give a school $1,500 or more a year. Great Hearts is different. Most of its Arizona schools are in wealthier communities with mostly white and Asian students, and do very well on state tests. Great Hearts’ track record is less impressive in more diverse communities.

Great Hearts operates 15 schools in Arizona, built on a “Great Books” curriculum that will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with St. John’s College in New Mexico and Maryland. (Great Hearts Chief Academic Officer Peter Bezanson is a St. John’s grad.) Three of Great Hearts’ campuses are recent additions, but the Arizona Department of Education does have performance and demographic data for 12 of its campuses.

Seven of the Great Hearts schools earned an “A” rating from the state, the highest possible, in the 2011-2012 school year. Three earned “B” ratings and two got “C’s.” But of those dozen schools, only one had any students with limited English proficiency or from low-income families (measured by enrollment in free or reduced lunch programs). In all but one Great Hearts campus, the student body’s racial makeup is at least 70 percent white or Asian. The lone outlier is a school called Teleos Prep, with a vast majority of Hispanic, African American and low-income students, that earned a “C” rating from the state last year.

In Nashville, concerns that the schools foster segregation led school trustees to reject a Great Hearts expansion this year, over the strong objections and threats from state leaders.

By operating that inner-city campus, though, Great Hearts has been eligible for a windfall of private funding from the Charter School Growth Fund, a national philanthropic venture capital fund for underserved students in charters.

It’s not hard to imagine Great Hearts taking a similar tack in San Antonio, fueled by the generous funding from Choose To Succeed. Great Hearts’ application with the Texas State Board of Education requests five school campuses in San Antonio, a city full of opportunities to serve low-income, limited-English and minority students.

The application asks where, specifically, the campuses would be located, and Great Hearts is a little more specific: Alamo Heights and Monte Vista, wealthy enclaves home to just the sort of folks San Antonio’s enthusiastic school reformers are hope to hit up for cash.

Choose to succeed, then, by all means. But you’ll have to pay up first.

What Do Texas Business Leaders Say We Should Do About STAAR? Glad You Asked.

Until today, TAB president Bill Hammond has been a steadfast defender of STAAR. Today, though, he unveiled a plan to tweak it in response to critics.
Texas business leaders explain their plan for public school accountability reform.
Patrick Michels
From left, Justin Yancy of the Texas Business Leadership Council, Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, and Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham explain their plan for adjusting Texas' school testing and accountability system.

There is great unrest over testing in Texas schools, and a few Texas business leaders have some opinions about what we should do.

Until today, Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond has been the STAAR testing regimen’s staunchest defender, meeting every new round of criticism with calls to hold fast, to stay the course, to never surrender.

If you’re wondering why the business community is trying to call the shots about school testing, well, you must be new here. The business community wants its measurables, and it will have its measurables. Two years ago, Hammond wanted the Legislature to pass an accountability system for pre-K, because employers need to know their little pencil-pushers of the future will master pushing those crayons first.

So this morning at the Capitol, Hammond announced his group was doubling down on its commitment to tough school standards… by cutting two STAAR exams and creating new graduation paths requiring even fewer tests. “HB 3 quite honestly overdid it a little bit,” Hammond said, referring to the 2009 measure that created today’s testing program.

“We still believe that those core principles [behind the original STAAR program] are intact,” explained Jim Windham, who chairs the Texas Institute for Education Reform. “Some modifications that may assist with the implementation of this plan.”

The new plan would create four high school diploma tracks: humanities, business and industry, STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and a new, lighter “foundation” diploma. All but foundation would keep the “4 by 4″ requirement that graudates take four years of math, English, social studies and science. Depending on the pathway, a student would need to pass between eight and 10 end-of-course exams to graduate—way less than the 15 required of all students today. Their plan includes a scaled-back phase-in term when students would need to pass even fewer tests. The STAAR program for grades three to eight would remain as-is.

But Hammond said he’d tolerate no further whining about students being knocked off the graduation track by because they failed an end-of-course STAAR exam. “They’ve already been given a reprieve,” he said, because it takes as little as 37 percent to pass some of the tests.

Windham called this new plan the “post-secondary readiness gold standard.” He and Hammond said the plan was the result of months of travel and meetings with lawmakers, and it reflects lawmakers’ enthusiasm for new alternative graduation path that respects career, not college, readiness—an approach that’s sure to draw critics wary of creating a system that “tracks” some students with lower expectations than others.

“We simply are not improving quickly enough in the competitive world we live in,” said Justin Yancy of the Texas Business Leadership Council.

The new plan would also completely eliminate the new end-of-course exams in world history and geography.

“U.S. history is minimally acceptable, we believe, for a Texas graduate,” Windham explained.

“If we could get ‘em past the Civil War,” Hammond said, “we’d be doing pretty good.”

Education Commissioner Removes El Paso ISD Board for Poor Response to Cheating Scandal

Two years after state regulators cleared former Supt. Lorenzo Garcia of cheating accusations, new Education Commissioner Michael Williams has removed local trustees.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams

In El Paso yesterday, the reaper wore a dark bow tie.

Two months after Education Commissioner Michael Williams threatened drastic action against El Paso ISD if its leaders didn’t clean up former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia’s test-score-juking scheme, Williams returned to announce he was clearing out the entire school board.

The El Paso Times reported Williams’ plans Thursday morning, before his press conference, along with an exhaustive set of reactions from local officials. “If you cheat, we’ll eventually find out, and if we find out, we’re going to take strong action as a consequence of it,” Williams told the paper. The board, Williams has decided, will be replaced by five state-appointed managers, including outgoing state Rep. Dee Margo.

For months, EPISD board members have defended themselves against local critics. They’ve said they had no idea Garcia was cheating kids to boost test scores, and their hands were tied by an ongoing FBI investigation. “To take action at this point would result in interfering in their investigation,” board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Observer in October.

David Dodge, the only current board member who was around when Garcia was hired, has said that nobody could have known what Garcia would get up to. “Folks, I can tell you that [job posting] did not call for a liar and a crook,” he said a board meeting in September.

El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times

As Williams sees it, that’s not exactly the issue. “I gave the board time,” he told the Times, and though some mid-level administrators left the districtunder pressure from the board, Williams says that wasn’t enough. “It is my further judgment that there is not much more that they could do that’s big enough to restore a sense of confidence.”

Williams’ drastic action against the EPISD trustees now will also help some folks forget that, not so long ago, the state agency cleared Garcia of any wrongdoing at EPISD. That, predictably, is about how some of the ousted trustees put it to the Texas Tribune. “What happened at EPISD as far as how they held the students back, was all because TEA allowed that to happen,” trustee Alfredo Borrego told the Tribune. “TEA is using EPISD as a scapegoat.”

“While I commend [Williams] for taking strong action, the TEA must also review its own role in this tragedy,” state Sen. Jose Rodriguez said in a statement. Williams is apparently trying to do just that, and in the most mind-numbingly bureaucratic way possible: asking state auditors to put on their auditing hats and audit the way the Texas Education Agency conducts its audits. State auditors said they were swamped, and wouldn’t get to the job for another year or two.

But in El Paso yesterday, the reckoning for Garcia’s scheme just kept raining down. Thursday night, trustees in nearby Canutillo ISD voted to suspend Superintendent Damon Murphy—who had been one of Garcia’s top officials before leaving for Canutillo—on the way to firing him.

Former EPISD administrators have complained that Murphy was one of the enforcers behind Garcia’s plan to boost test scores. Many of them have said they expect to see him roped into the FBI’s investigation—but, incredibly, that isn’t even why Canutillo  trustees are forcing him out.

As the Times‘ Hayley Kappes reported last night, Murphy’s suspension was prompted by an internal audit at Canutillo ISD suggesting he’d been replicating Garcia’s scheme there: moving some 10th graders into other grades, and reclassifying special education students and students with limited English proficiency in order to avoid being counted under No Child Left Behind.

The Times has done an impressive job breaking news about this mess, but on a day like yesterday it’s a wonder they can keep up with it all.

Update at 8:54 p.m.: Here’s the audit summary presented to the Canutillo ISD board that led to Murphy’s suspension.

Triple D Security lot in Victoria
Patrick Michels
Trucks sit in the Triple D Security lot in Victoria.

Yesterday we posted our first feature from December’s Observer: the story of one tragic wreck outside Victoria in 2010, and worker safety in the oft-overlooked armored car industry.

The company involved in the wreck, Triple D Security, isn’t a big industry player—like better-known Brinks, Garda or Loomis—but it does have some serious Austin brass at the top of its organizational chart.

Ken Armbrister, Rick Perry’s director of legislative affairs, has been a general manager with Triple D since just after its founding in 1984. Armbrister made headlines most recently for spreading gossip that Perry was planning a run for another term in 2014. Before he was one of Perry’s top aides, though, Armbrister was a longtime state senator—Texas Monthly included him in its 1989 list of worst legislators, noting he’d won the nickname “TMT,” for “Too Much Testosterone.” The story noted his early attempt at passing  a concealed carry law—six years before Jerry Patterson got ‘er done—as well as a joke Armbrister told one female lobbyist at a dinner table: “Do you know why God created women? Because sheep can’t type.”

Armbrister was also a captain in the Victoria Police Department before he joined Triple D. He’s a general manager with Triple D today, the company’s top officer outside the Lack family (of Lack’s Furniture fame) that founded the outfit.

Ken Armbrister
Ken Armbrister

Armbrister never returned a call for our story, and Triple D’s lawyers at Haynes and Boone passed along a note that, because of a pending lawsuit surrounding the 2010 wreck, nobody at the company would be able to comment. The family of Ray Wauson, who was killed in the wreck, argues that his van wouldn’t have blown a tire and flipped if it hadn’t been loaded to almost twice the weight it was rated to carry. (The state trooper investigating the crash agreed: “I find the main causative factor in the single vehicle fatal crash to be the weight of the Triple D Security white Ford armored van,” he wrote.)

Armbrister handles security training for new Triple D officers—he signed Wauson’s paperwork personally—but he wasn’t part of the decision to send out Wauson’s van overloaded. Former workers I spoke with also raised general concerns about the company—practices the Wauson family blame founder Jay Lack, and Armbrister, for allowing to continue.

The company has faced a few lawsuits from employees complaining it refused to pay overtime. Former employees say vehicle maintenance was a constant concern. They told me about thick exhaust smells piping into the truck cab, and doors—on supposedly secure armored vehicles—that wouldn’t latch shut, and tires in lousy shape. One overworked mechanic, they said, handled all the Triple D vehicles in Victoria. (Triple D also has branches in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Austin—for the first time, we noticed one of their vans cruising past the Observer‘s offices yesterday, in fact.)

Read the whole story from the December issue here: “Too Heavy to Bear”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association's annual conference.

The Texas Charter Schools Association’s annual conference is wrapping up this afternoon in downtown Austin, with almost 1,200 in attendance (by the official count), covering topics as varied as competitive procurement laws and how to teach students to build airplanes. But more than anything else, convention-goers have been getting lessons in how to talk to lawmakers, community members and people in nearby school districts—in other words, to sell what they do.

Charter school enrollment is growing in Texas, but “the movement”—as charter promoters refer to it—would like to speed things up. And so they have a “wish list.” First they want the state to raise or lift its cap on charter operators, which stands at 215 today. They want money for facilities—which they don’t get today, per the initial bargain that first created charters in Texas in the mid-90s. They also want to the movement be known for the best of its schools, not the low-performing or fraud-plagued ones that tend to hog headlines—and spark protests.

For tips on selling the movement to lawmakers, the group invited a few state reps, and even new Education Commissioner Michael Williams, to offer their suggestions Tuesday.

Williams, just three months on the job, was deferential to a crowd he said knew details of school operations better than he did. “You can’t join a church on Wednesday and expect to preach on Sunday,” he said. He spoke in broad terms about running a regulatory agency (he’s the former chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry), and the need to be “customer-friendly.”

The most important thing charter schools can do, he said, was to tell lawmakers what they need for their schools. “The opposition has learned how to talk about what they believe about what you do and who you are, and how much money you take out of public schools,” Williams told the charter operators, “even though you’re a public school.”

Williams said charter operators need to police their own, to help prevent charters from failing, while the state starts cracking down harder to close charters that need to close. “Even though we’ve got to shut down poor-performing schools, the fact that we had to do it is a black mark against everybody,” Williams said.

To help develop a support network for charter schools, the Texas Education Agency announced earlier this year that it would contract with TCSA and a regional Education Service Center in Fort Worth. The two will split $500,000 a year from the state to answer questions from charter operators, run training sessions for new school officials and conduct site visits. As state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) noted later later in the day, it’s an important job TEA just couldn’t handle on its own. “We cut TEA’s funding every biennium, so they literally don’t have the capacity,” he said. “Which I think is why they outsourced to you guys.”

Strama was part of a panel of lawmakers asked to share tips on how charters can make their case to the Legislature, along with Paul Workman (R-Spicewood) and new state Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Round Rock), a former State Board of Education member. Don’t haul little kids into the Capitol like puppets, they suggested, and don’t mount a letter-writing campaign over the course of a couple days.

Workman said he planned to file a bill this session to raise the cap on charter schools—as he did in 2011—and both Farney and Strama said they’d support it if he did.

Strama said he hasn’t forgotten that one of the reasons charters were created was to spread lessons from the charter school movement into the larger public school system. “At some point, we have to translate the success of charter schools into schools that parents didn’t choose,” he said. He said he’d like to see folks running successful charters go back and try being principals and superintendents in neighborhood schools. “If you can solve those kids’ problems, solve it for all of them.”

Patrick Michels
Amanda Austin, middle, walks in an Occupy AISD protest outside the Texas Charter Schools Association's annual conference in Austin.

Hundreds of charter school leaders and teachers are in Austin today for the Texas Charter Schools Association’s annual conference, where they’ll share notes from the front lines of education reform. Many of the administrators here are school leaders convinced their ideas will help turn around a struggling school system. The teachers are smart folks who put in long hours for their students.

So imagine their surprise Monday afternoon when they arrived at the Austin Convention Center and were greeted by a couple dozen protestors. “No more Walmart schools,” their signs read, and “Keep public schools public.” The demonstration was organized by Occupy Austin ISD, an offshoot of the local Occupy group that’s kept the heat on the Austin school district for agreeing to hand over two neighborhood schools to the charter organization IDEA Public Schools.

Occupy AISD charter school protest
Patrick Michels
Occupy protesters wave signs outside the convention center.

Anger over the way the district handed those schools to IDEA helped unseat a handful of Austin school trustees last month. On Monday night, the new Austin ISD board considered reworking its agreement with IDEA. Mike Corwin, a veteran of the Occupy Austin camp who organized Monday’s protest, said that while charter schools continue to expand in Austin, he was encouraged by the local outrage over that deal.

Corwin and other Occupiers shared concerns with teachers and retired teachers at the protest, that charters are siphoning students away from neighborhood schools, drawing an unfair funding advantage from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and benefiting from misleading P.R. campaigns at the expense of traditional public schools. “There’s a lot of confusion about charters,” Corwin said, “and it’s not by accident.”

The conference-going crowd Monday was slim—just a few work sessions were scheduled for the first conference’s first day. While the Occupy crowd passed around protest signs at the convention center, the charter group’s all-day golf tournament was just wrapping up at southwest Austin’s Grey Rock Golf Club.

David Dunn and Occupy protesters
Patrick Michels
David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, chats with the protesters outside the convention center Monday.

Those who did run into the protest were generally amused by the prospect of their work being protested. Some agreed they didn’t like the sound of IDEA’s deal in Austin, at least the way the demonstrators described it. David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, stopped by to share a light-hearted chat with Corwin and other protesters—he wasn’t used to being the one protested against, he said.

But discussions broke down at the convention center just like they do in major policy debates and online comment threads—friendly as they were, the two sides were speaking different languages. The protesters complained charters hurt public schools; “But we are public schools,” charter teachers said. Protesters complained charters get a funding advantage—along with money from the state, they get millions from philanthropies. The charter school crowd said they get even less than traditional schools, because the state doesn’t fund their school buildings.

At one point a town car pulled alongside the protest, and a window rolled down. “What’s a ‘Walmart school’?” asked a confused woman in the passenger seat. It’s an out-of-state charter organization, someone explained, that comes into town and pulls students away from the local public schools. “Well, I don’t know any Walmart schools,” the woman said, and then let out a pretend cackle. “I work at a charter school!”

Michael L. Williams
Education Commissioner Michael Williams

One of the least popular bits in Texas’ new testing regime is the “15 percent rule,” which requires that part of a high school student’s grade in a class—15 percent of it, to be precise—be tied to their score on the STAAR end-of-course exam given by the state.

The rule was meant to raise the stakes for students taking the new standardized tests, but parents and school districts complained it would raise them too much—especially in the first year of an unproven test. So in February, even before ninth graders got their first taste of STAAR, then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott offered a one-year waiver from the rule. Since then, parents’ and districts’ calls for more fundamental testing reforms have only intensified, and the future of the 15 percent rule was one of the big looming education fights for the next Legislature.

In a matter of days, though, that looming fight has been defused.

Yesterday, Gov. Rick Perry said he wanted the Texas Education Agency to defer the 15 percent rule another year. Education Commissioner Michael Williams—who Perry appointed to the job in September—told the Austin American-Statesman that Perry’s request was “under review.”

It was a quick review. In a sign of how smoothly things run when everyone’s on the same team, Williams announced just this morning that he would, indeed, defer the rule another year.

“Deferring the 15 percent rule for this school year relieves some of the pressure being felt in Texas districts as we continue the transition to a more rigorous accountability system,” Williams said in a speech at the Texas Assessment Conference in Austin Friday.

As the Statesman‘s Kate Alexander detailed, state Sen. Dan Patrick has already filed a bill that would let school districts decide how much of a student’s grade should be tied to STAAR scores—in other words, a permanent waiver from the rule. Perry’s statement on Thursday included praise for Patrick’s plan.

The waiver Williams announced today is a win for testing reform advocates, but it leaves plenty more to fight about next session. For Perry, Patrick and Williams, the big issue here is the state dictating how districts handle their business. “While we must continue to adhere to our state’s accountability system, we must also recognize the importance of local control,” Perry said in his statement yesterday.

For now, anyway, that accountability system Perry’s talking about still includes the 15 percent rule. Now that’s up for negotiation. And reformers will try to strip away more of the testing system.

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