Flunking Out

No bell rang to mark the beginning of class. It was just one of many things missing from this high school.

For two months, as winter segued into spring, about 40 students who had either dropped out or been kicked out of Arlington public high schools attended class inside a decrepit, two-story gray stucco office building that sat woefully along a busy commercial street. The city of Arlington had declared the second level of the vacant building unsuitable for habitation, so the school set up shop in two large rooms on the ground floor.

The building had no heat. Plate-glass windows ran the length of the east wall, intensifying the chill inside.

The classrooms had no desks, no chairs. The few students lucky enough to call shotgun would sardine themselves onto the only piece of usable furniture, an aged white velveteen sofa stained curious shades of beige. The rest would sit on the cold cement floor or stand throughout their lessons.

One day in March, irritated teachers gave the students an assignment: Write a short letter to the Texas Education Agency and describe the conditions.

"This place is a dump," wrote one student. Another suggested, "The board of health should shut it down."

"We don't even have a dictionary," another student wrote. "And the bathroom you would not even think about looking at."

The school had a single toilet that barely flushed and no tap water. Students opted to walk a couple of blocks to the public library to use the bathroom.

Lights inside the building were dim. "This school is like learning inside a garage," one student wrote.

There were no textbooks, no chalkboards, no overhead projectors, no trash cans. Supplies like paper were limited to what the students and teachers paid for and brought themselves. The principal and teachers had no phones, no filing cabinets, no desks, no offices.

No gymnasium, no lunchroom, no vending machines. Certainly no computers. "If you name it," wrote one student, "we don't have it." The school did have holes in the ceiling, stains on the walls, and bugs that seemed to get a rise out of both. "I don't know about anyone else," a student wrote, "but I can't learn in here."

The operator of this Arlington "campus" was Irving-based Renaissance Charter School -- named to suggest a great revival in Texas public education.

When the Legislature created charter schools in 1995, it did so with the belief that they would bring academic innovation and give parents a fresh choice in educating their children. But evidence is mounting that taxpayer money spent on charter schools may not be well spent and, what's more, that children who attend them may not be well served.

Many of the problems could have been prevented had state officials applied rudimentary forethought before allowing charter schools. With Gov. George W. Bush leading the charge, charter schools opened hastily across Texas. The result: Taxpayer money has been squandered by a handful of schools that by all rights should never have been granted the right to open.

As of last spring, 88 independent charter schools (those not affiliated with local school districts) were open in Texas, serving about 17,600 students. Another 79 are to open during the next school year.

Charter school students represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the state's public school student population. More than three-quarters of the students are minority, and two-thirds have been deemed dropout risks. For many high school students, such as those at the Renaissance Arlington campus, a charter school provides their last chance to get an education and a diploma. When charter schools fail, the students and parents hurt the most are those least able to withstand another setback.

As the number of charter schools increases, the state embarks on a clean-up cycle. A handful of campuses are under investigation for financial failures, student abuses, fund misappropriation, and forgery. Each investigation leaves the Texas Education Agency with less time and fewer resources for its other job -- overseeing the 1,042 school districts that educate more than 99.5 percent of the state's public school students.

"We are expending a disproportionate amount of resources on oversight of charter schools," says Tom Canby, senior director of TEA's financial audit division.

A TEA investigation uncovered widespread financial problems at the Emma L. Harrison Charter School in Waco, which was $300,000 in debt even though it opened just last fall. Recently, the State Board of Education shut the school down -- the first time a charter was pulled from an operating school. It was headed by a woman with a history of financial troubles, of which the state was unaware when it granted the charter.

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Stuart Eskenazi