Education Policy

Texas’ Charter School Movement Shows Growing Pains


Charter schools are quickly becoming an important piece of both national and state-level education reform efforts. They’ve been praised in movies like “Waiting For Superman” as one of the few hopes for improving inner-city education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made boosting charter school enrollment on criteria for the Race to the Top grant program.

And Texas is right in the thick of it. KIPP, a poster child for this movement, started in Houston, and has since expanded to a network of over 100 schools. Harmony, another popular charter organization, educates more than 16,000 students at 36 campuses across the state. In 2010, Texas ranked 4th in the number of students enrolled in charter schools, and another 56,000 students are currently on waiting lists.

Though Texas may be a leader in charter expansion, the narrative of charters’ exceptionalism is beginning to be undermined by the most recent generations of charter schools. A recently released report conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research (TCER) found some alarming things about the most recent rounds of charter schools authorized by the Texas Education Agency (full disclosure: I was employed at TCER for several months while this study was being conducted, though I only had a very minor role in this project).

They concluded that, of the open-enrollment charter schools (i.e. not district-affiliated) that launched over the past four school years, many students fared no better – and some even were worse off – than their peers in public schools. For example, new charter students in 4th through 8th grades experienced reduced scores on the 2009 math TAKS than similar students who remained in district schools.

This reduced achievement has real consequences for students. TCER researchers found that 5th grade charter students were held back more often than their peers in district schools, which they attributed largely to the lower math scores (5th grade is the first year TAKS scores could influence students’ promotion to the next grade).

Also, these charter schools seem to be following a national trend of enrolling fewer students from populations that have traditionally be underserved by the public education system.  As a result, they’re no longer the last hope for the ambitious, inner-city student who wants to escape his or her struggling school.

For example, black enrollment in new open-enrollment charter schools is down to 14.9 percent, compared to 25.4 percent in charter schools that opened before the 2006-07 school year. The percentage of economically disadvantaged students also decreased substantially in newer charter schools compared to older ones – 53.6 percent compared to 72.4 percent, respectively. Researchers also found that how long a charter school existed had little impact on student demographics, so it seems this is unlikely to change as these new campuses mature.

The fact that this is also occurring at the same time charter achievement outcomes are falling is cause for serious concern. Not only is their performance poorer, but they are also taking fewer of the kids who are often the most difficult to educate.

Researchers aren’t the only ones noticing these problems with new Texas charters. The teacher turnover rate at charters opening between the 2006-07 school year and the 2008-09 school year is 38 percent ­ that’s more than double the state average for public schools.

To be clear, charter schools should have a role in educating public schoolchildren. Some students excel in the types of learning environments charters can create, and this option should be available to them. Also, there is some truth to the argument that charters provide a useful space for innovation that is free from many of the requirements and regulations traditional public schools must deal with.

However, state agencies must do a better job evaluating each new charter proposal and become more selective in giving these organizations the legal standing to educate Texas’ children.

Texas legislators must do more to ensure high-quality charter schools, and stellar leadership is an important part of that. Currently, open-enrollment charter school CEOs and Chief Academic Officers are only required to attend a series of training sessions totaling 30 hours. By comparison, very few principals of traditional public schools are hired without having extensive teaching experience, a Master’s degree in education and principal certification. District superintendents – which are a better comparison to charter CEOs – have even higher levels of education and experience in school administration.

Charter associations themselves must also become less concerned about expanding their networks of schools and focus more on quality over quantity. Instead, charter advocacy organizations spent the last legislative session successfully lobbying for the ability to have their construction bonds backed by the Permanent School Fund, a $24 billion endowment fund for Texas public schools.

Such efforts may help them build new schools, but it won’t do anything to reverse the declining trend in academic performance. If this trend continues, these innovators in education may become victims of their own ambitious growth.

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