Flunking Out

Charter school scandals are teaching Texas a tough lesson -- one the state should have known four years and $77 million ago.

Mike Shepherd, a board member of the Texas Language Charter School in Dallas, wrote a May 30 editorial in The Dallas Morning News headlined "Failing charter schools are the exception." He cited two examples of quality charter schools. One is the Dallas Can! Academy. But TEA's audit division is investigating that charter school and its sister school in Houston for undisclosed transgressions. Shepherd's other example of quality is Renaissance -- also under investigation.

State officials also considered Renaissance to be a model school until they learned of the situation in Arlington. Alma Allen, a State Board of Education member from Houston, was aghast at the conditions there.

"I held Renaissance up as a beacon light," she said at the board's meeting in May. "I'm very, very disappointed today. It really tarnishes charter schools for me even more, not just Renaissance but charter schools [in general]."

Students at the Renaissance school in Arlington opted to walk to a nearby public toilet rather than use this one on campus.
Mark Graham
Students at the Renaissance school in Arlington opted to walk to a nearby public toilet rather than use this one on campus.
Students at the Renaissance school in Arlington didn't even have folding chairs to sit on when the school opened.
Mark Graham
Students at the Renaissance school in Arlington didn't even have folding chairs to sit on when the school opened.

During his first few months as governor in 1995, Bush helped persuade the Legislature to allow nonprofits, colleges, and some government entities to create special public schools that would operate independently of local school districts. Called "charter schools" because the Board of Education issues what effectively is a charter for them to open, they would operate relatively free from many state regulations.

Charter schools are given more latitude in creating a curriculum and do not have to adhere to a minimum seven-hour school day for students. They can hire just about anyone they want as teachers and pay them whatever they want. The goal is to give charter school operators enough flexibility to create a learning environment that best serves a student niche, whether it is high achievers or dropouts.

Critics complain, however, that for each public school student who attends a charter school, taxpayer money is transferred from the local school district to the charter school. The Houston Independent School District estimates that it lost about $17.6 million last school year because 4,400 students left the district to attend charter schools. (The Dallas Independent School District does not keep such records.) The state pays charter schools about $4,000 to $5,000 per student. Since September 1996, when the first checks were sent, the state has paid $77 million to charter schools, $50.8 million of it since September 1998.

The 15-member Board of Education issued the first 20 charters in spring 1996 -- Renaissance owns the distinction of obtaining the first -- and has granted another 150 since then. The Legislature gave the board a maximum number of charters to hand out to schools with open enrollment and set no limit on those predominantly serving at-risk students. The board has filled every available slot and then some.

Allen, a critic of the charter school movement, is nevertheless unwilling to blame the board for the failures. She says Bush and certain legislators pressured the board to dole out charters without the proper safeguards and screening in place. At the same time board members were hashing out rules for issuing charters, Allen says, "People from the governor's office were standing over us saying, 'Let the charters go -- it's OK.' And, 'You better approve all those charters.'"

Edwards takes issue with that.

"These were independent decisions by independently elected officials who could have approved as many charters as they chose," she says. "Governor Bush would not pressure anyone to support bad schools." (Bush, who is spending four or five days a week out of state in his quest for the presidency, could not fit an interview for this story into his schedule, a campaign official said.)

During this past legislative session, lawmakers debated whether to issue a moratorium on the granting of charters or expand the program. They opted to do neither. Rep. Dora Olivo of Rosenberg in Fort Bend County pushed the moratorium.

"The argument you hear is that public schools are so bad because they have so many rules," Olivo says. "Charter schools say, 'Don't give us regulations, and we'll do a great job.' Well, who holds them accountable? The children are at the mercy of these people. I thought it was a disservice to the children to not step back and take a long, hard look at charter schools before we open any more."

Before the session, the Board of Education voted 8-7 in favor of a resolution supporting the moratorium but reversed itself in March by the same 8-7 vote. Allen says Bush pulled the strings to persuade the board to switch gears -- something Edwards denies.

Under state law, the board may issue an unlimited number of charters to schools that specifically serve students at risk of dropping out. The next batch, however, probably won't be granted until late 2000 or early 2001. In September, the board is to consider a more stringent, albeit still imperfect, screening process for charter school applicants -- a process the board wishes it would have started using four years ago.

Bush says he would never pressure the Board of Education about charter schools, although his actions on the presidential campaign suggest otherwise. Bush led an embarrassingly large entourage of reporters and photographers inside a Massachusetts charter school last month. And two weeks later, he visited a Los Angeles charter campus to extol the virtues of those schools.

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