Test Tube Kids

Why is the University of Texas Pushing a Charter School in East Austin?


The University of Texas at Austin is crossing I-35 again. Last time UT made a foray into East Austin, in the 1980s, it tried to annex Blackland, a low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood just across the highway from the main campus. The university’s thwarted attempt to buy up all the homes in the area enraged a generation of East Austinites. This time around, the university is moving into a Hispanic neighborhood to combat, in the words of UT officials, “overcrowding” and “low performance” in area schools. This olive branch comes in the form of a new charter school, to be located at 6th Street and Robert Martinez, about a mile east of downtown. University officials have promised this won’t be another land grab, but not everyone is accepting UT’s claim of benevolence at face value. Aside from the university’s troubled history in East Austin, the move also puts UT squarely in the middle of the controversy over the state’s charter school program, which allows non-profits to start their own schools with public funds. The list of names associated with UT’s effort, moreover, ensures that this will be no ordinary charter school.

The plan came to life on May 9, 2002, when the University of Texas Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve the charter school proposal. In response to a report about the Austin Independent School District’s poor record with low-income students, the charter school would be placed in East Austin, the regents decided. “We can do it better,” Board of Regents Chairman Charles Miller triumphantly announced after the vote. The charter school is to be the centerpiece of a new system-wide initiative in UT’s college of education, known as Every Child, Every Advantage. The initiative closely follows the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s controversial education reform passed last year. That’s not surprising, since Bush’s education guru, Sandy Kress, was hired by UT as a consultant on the program. Bush’s favorite reading consultant, Sharon Vaughn, has also been brought on board, to develop the reading curriculum for the charter school.

The vote sent up red flags for AISD superintendent Pat Forgione, who says he found out about the proposal an hour and a half before the regents voted on it. At a public meeting about the charter school held by UT in September, some East Austin community leaders expressed optimism about an alternative to AISD, but others, including educators and parents, voiced their objections to UT officials. They were worried about the school’s location, the lack of community involvement in the process, and the potential drain on AISD’s funds. UT brushed off criticism and proceeded as planned. On November 15th, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the charter school. It is slated to open in the fall of 2003.

The story of the UT East Austin Elementary Charter School is actually two stories: one about a predominantly white university moving into a low-income community of color, and another about an activist Board of Regents appointed by former governor George W. Bush (and current Governor Rick Perry) promoting their right-wing “education reform” agenda through a public university.

Gabriel Estrada is a fifth grade teacher at Zavala Elementary School, located three blocks south of the charter school site. He attended public schools in San Antonio and Austin, received his degree and teaching certification at UT, and has taught at Zavala for 10 years. Estrada is not an opponent of charter schools; in fact, he even thought of starting one once. But one thing puzzles him about the university’s plan: If UT is out to help what they call “inner city” kids, why would they move into an area that has shown such marked improvements in recent years? Five of the seven elementary schools closest to the charter are rated as “recognized” or “exemplary” by the Texas Education Agency.

Zavala was not always on that list, but in recent years, administrators and teachers have confronted the school’s shortcomings and worked hard to overcome them. “We said to ourselves, ‘Why aren’t we sending our kids to the magnet schools?'” Estrada said. Within 10 years, Zavala went from being a school with a 25 percent TAAS passing rate to one with nearly 90 percent. The teacher turnover rate was once 80 percent; now Zavala routinely receives requests from teachers to transfer into the school. How did they do it? Part of Zavala’s success, says Estrada, is due to its long-term outlook. “We can give students time to grow and flourish. At charter schools the pressure is on to be successful, now.”

The University also had to back-pedal after finding out that Zavala and other neighborhood schools are not, in fact, overcrowded. This means that rather than alleviating AISD’s burden, the charter school will be undercutting the district’s efforts in the area. Because AISD gets approximately $5,000 per student enrolled in the district, these schools, already strapped for cash, will face a further loss of funds as children move into the charter. Pat Forgione estimates that his district will lose $1.5 million to the charter school over the next five years.

Forgione is not a bomb-thrower. He has been a reasonable and compromise-minded critic of the UT charter school. Nevertheless, he has been labeled an obstacle to reform by Regent Charles Miller. In the Austin American Statesman, Miller dismissed Forgione’s fiscal concerns. “If the student leaves, they don’t have to educate them. They don’t have to spend the money,” he said. “The school district doesn’t own those kids.”

Miller’s dream world, in which students and educators are brought together according to purely free-market forces, clashes with reality. “If two kids leave [from an AISD school], the class goes from 20 to 18, but I still have to keep the teacher,” Forgione said. “I can’t reduce my cost. So the way the charter will work, it’ll pull kids out–one, two or three in a grade–but I still have to keep all my costs.”

When Forgione found out that UT planned to locate the charter school at 6th and Robert Martinez, he made it clear that, while not opposed to the school or to the charter movement, the UT project should be located elsewhere. He sent Ed Sharpe, Vice-Chancellor of Educational System Alignment, a list of alternatives to the proposal as it stood: locate the school in an overcrowded area of the district, seek a charter through AISD, or use several existing classrooms in AISD for UT purposes. To date the university has shown no inclination to consider an alternative location.

At the same time, the university has shied from making a long term commitment to the site they insist upon using. The regents have designated the current location as a temporary site to be filled with portable buildings, with only a three year lease. The university is saying, in effect, that there will be a long term commitment to a charter school, somewhere, but not necessarily in the current location. They’re not even including a community member on the school’s management board until 2004, at which point UT President Larry Faulkner will appoint one. By contrast, say many parents opposed to the charter school, Zavala has become a model of community participation. To be sure, the charter school will be demanding on parents, requiring, for example, that they sign a contract regarding student behavior. But this is not what parents like Sandra García mean by participation. García arrived from Monterrey, Mexico six years ago, and sends her children to Zavala. On top of the bilingual education program and speech therapy her youngest child receives, García gets help from Zavala staff with her own efforts to learn English. In return, she helps teachers, spends time in the parents’ room, and refers to the school as “our school.” María Luisa Gonzales, a parent of three children at Zavala, drives her kids to the school every day from South Austin. She heard about the school when she came to Austin from Peru, and transferred her children there.

Sandra Cantu has three students at Zavala. She and her mother also attended the school. She is opposed to the charter school, she says, because it could cut the bond between the school and neighborhood families. None of these parents, interviewed at a recent meeting at the school, say they plan to apply to the charter school. But they worry that another school in a “heavily-schooled” neighborhood might detract from Zavala’s programming. UT should work with Zavala instead of against it, they say.

UT officials have defended their chosen location in part on the grounds that the area provides the ethnic diversity they need for their model school. (UT speaks often of the importance of ethnic diversity, even as it continually under-represents Latinos and African-Americans in its student body and faculty, especially post-Hopwood.) In the case of the charter school, diversity is taking on a new meaning. “When I say diverse, I’m really meaning African-American and Hispanic,” said Sandy Kress, architect of Bush’s education plan and consultant to the UT System for Every Child, Every Advantage. But even by that paradoxical definition (in which a school can be both ethnically diverse and segregated) the current location for the charter school is a poor choice. “If you want to have a school with African-Americans, you’re not going to get them in that area,” Forgione says. “That area is now a Hispanic area. You [would] need to send a bus up to Berkman, or down to the Oak Springs area.” UT Vice Chancellor Ed Sharpe could only offer a vague promise that he would look into transportation for students outside the immediate area.

Advocates of charter schools often point to the high enrollment of minority students, claiming that charters benefit those who are most often failed by public education. What they don’t emphasize is the corollary: when charter schools go wrong, it is often minority children who suffer the effects. To date, 24 charter schools have been forced to shut down in Texas–either due to financial mismanagement or abysmal performance. East Austin is no stranger to this here-today, gone-tomorrow pattern. Gabriel Estrada remembers when a group of students from Zavala left to attend the Academy of Austin Charter School in East Austin (a few miles from Zavala) in 1999, only to return to Zavala mid-semester because the charter school had shut down, in the middle of the night. Parents described bringing their kids to school one morning in November only to find computers, desks and chalkboards removed. Neither they nor the teachers had been given any notice.

A charter school backed by UT will never lack for funding. Still, UT is jumping into a controversial movement at a time when many are calling for a reconsideration of the experiment as a whole. Given these concerns and the chilly reception they have received in East Austin, why is UT proceeding as if it were a sunny day?

“It boils down to politics,” Estrada says–in this case, the politics of the UT Board of Regents. In the search for the impetus for UT’s dive into the charter school movement, all roads lead back to the regents. Although Vice-Chancellor Ed Sharpe emphasizes the involvement of the College of Edu-cation in the planning of the charter school, Education Dean Manny Justiz is keeping a low profile in the matter. His secretary had orders to refer all media questions concerning the initiative to Ed Sharpe. In a humorous bit of UT-style “pass-the-buck,” Sharpe lobbed unanswered matters back to Justiz, who was out of town for almost a week. When he finally returned, he was too busy to comment on the charter school even though, according to Ed Sharpe, “the College of Education ultimately is responsible for the operation of the school.”

At UT, the regents do as they please and everyone else has to simply follow orders. All nine regents were appointed by either former Governor Bush or Governor Perry. Education credentials don’t count for much in these appointments; campaign contributions, political philosophy, and business connections, on the other hand, are paramount. The regents have made no secret of their enthusiasm for President Bush’s education reforms. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, testing, “accountability,” charters, and market-driven reforms come as a package deal. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because then-governor Bush pushed most of the same agenda through the Texas legislature.) Bush’s sweeping reform utilizes the age-old carrot and stick approach to education –light on the carrot and heavy on the stick. In return for a small increase in federal funding, schools are forced into a regime of standardized tests. If they fail to perform, their funding is cut. If they still can’t pass muster, the school can be restructured or even turned into a charter.

The regents, and many UT officials, see themselves as educational reform experts charged with implementing the Bush Plan. Speaking of Every Child, Every Advantage at a Regents meeting in May, Charles Miller said: “The initiative tracks very closely a number of key provisions of the new federal education act, and it promises to keep the University of Texas at the forefront of national education reform and advancement.” It is a bold, 30-year plan to push forward the reforms Bush has in mind for the country.

While the regents’ allegiance to the Republican education agenda isn’t in question, their commitment to public education is. The charter school movement is the pet project of the right, attracting everyone from Enron’s Ken Lay to Exxon. While it has grassroots support from some parents, teachers, and others concerned about poor public schooling, the movement is heavily supported and well-funded by the business sector. Charters fit in with notions of freedom from government regulation and individual initiative and infuse education with the rhetoric of privatization; “competition” and “choice” are mainstays of charter school rhetoric. Few have done more than UT Regent Charles Miller on behalf of the charter school movement in Texas. Miller helped found the Charter School Resource Center of Texas, which gives assistance and logistical support to charter schools around the state. He is a tireless cheerleader for pro-privatization efforts.

Miller has long been the Daddy Warbucks of the education reform movement in Texas. He first became involved in education reform in the 1980s, when he helped found the Texas Business and Education Council, which encourages CEOs to get involved in education. Many credit the Council as the original source of the “accountability” rhetoric eventually adopted by then-Governor Bush, which led in time to Texas’ current program of standardized testing and school ratings. Later, Miller helped found Just For the Kids, a non-profit devoted to standardized testing and curriculum development. As a UT Regent, Miller tied Just For the Kids to UT-Austin in 1999 via a joint initiative called the National Center for Education Accountability, which is focused on standardized testing–one of the hottest business and research areas since the passage of No Child Left Behind. He recently pushed for standardized testing at UT-Austin itself, to the dismay of many faculty members and students.

Regent Woody Hunt is also a player in the charter school movement. Through his non-profit Cimarron Foundation, Hunt has made contributions to charter school start-ups in Texas. Like Miller, his idea of education reform goes far beyond starting a few charter schools, however. He told a Daily Texan reporter that he was, “especially interested in privatizing higher education.” This is rapidly becoming a fait accompli at many major state schools, which increasingly rely on corporate funding for “applied” research tailored to i
dustry needs.

Pressed for an example of a successful ch
rter school in Texas during debate over his education reform package, Bush cited the KIPP Academy in Houston. By this time next year, look for Bush to be referring reporters to the University of Texas East Austin Elementary Charter School, which is shaping up to be a handy laboratory for his ideas. That’s how Bush’s education guru Sandy Kress seems to view the project. Kress, who is collecting $15,000 a month for his work on UT’s education initiative, said, “I think one of the advantages of the charter school is that the research that is being done at the University will find its way into teaching and instruction at the school…[that is] to have a school that can model the results of research.” Kress is in very friendly territory at UT, where he can expect carte blanche to experiment with the new Republican education agenda. In the words of Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, “there’s no daylight” between the UT regents and Bush.

Bush’s reading guru Sharon Vaughn will get a chance to fine tune her research in East Austin as well. She will take time out from developing a national policy on reading instruction for Bush to put together a reading curriculum for the charter school, using what she calls the “best research” available. How children are taught to read, as those who follow educational politics know, can be a very tendentious subject, and Vaughn’s work is generating buzz on both the left and the right. Parents and students at the new charter may be distressed to learn, however, that she has no experience whatsoever in bilingual education.

The stakes involved in UT’s foray into elementary education are higher than they may seem. As the architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, Kress has a considerable stake in proving the effectiveness of standardized testing and charter schools. The presence of Kress in Austin has attracted the attention of Washington notables, including Under Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, another advocate of school “accountability” and charters. He told the Board of Regents that they were “really making educational history in this country.” In recent letters of support to UT, the heads of various Texas charter schools congratulated the university on joining “the Movement.” UT officials have made it clear they’re signing up for the revolution in education. Is East Austin ready to be on the front lines?

David Peterson is a UT alumnus. Forrest Wilder is a UT English Senior. Both are co-founders of UT Watch, a University watchdog organization. www.utwatch.org