Using Crooked City Zoning to Punish Charter Schools Is a Truly Terrible Idea

When the state's new letter-grade ranking system for schools arrives next year, we will see where the charter schools rank with the independent school districts.
When the state's new letter-grade ranking system for schools arrives next year, we will see where the charter schools rank with the independent school districts.
Daniel Fishel

Dallas school trustee Joyce Foreman urged the Dallas City Council last week to begin using its power over real estate zoning as a sword to chop off new charter schools at the knees by denying zoning for new campuses. She accused the charters of bleeding the public school system of funds and students, especially black students, especially in her trustee district.

This is like asking the grounds committee to turn off the lights in the last three minutes of the last quarter of your high school’s big football grudge match before the final score can go up on the board. And you were about to win.

With what I take for totally unintended candor, Foreman said at the June 18 meeting of the City Council's Human and Social Needs Committee that her biggest gripe with charter schools is the effects they are having on her school trustee district within the Dallas Independent School District.

Showing the committee a map with dots for all the charter schools within DISD’s territory, Foreman urged the members to look at a particular cluster of dots in one corner of the map:

“If you look in the lower left-hand corner,” she said, “that’s my concern. The overproliferation of charters in that area, guess whose district they’re in? It’s mine.”

So the City Council is supposed to jack up the zoning laws to inflict a penalty on charter schools in order to help Foreman defend her electoral turf. Wow.

In her plea to the council to jam up the charters by denying them zoning, Foreman was right on some specifics, just terribly wrong in where she wound up. There is no question charter schools suck students and money out of public school systems.

Charter schools are public schools funded by the taxpayers, operating under state law, independent of the big public school systems. Their main funding comes from state funds that “follow the student,” meaning the state sends a sum of money to whatever school system the student attends.

Every kid who opts out of DISD to go to a charter represents a sum of state money diverted from DISD to the charter. The amount is figured on a sliding scale based on school system size, but we’re talking about something in the range of $9,000 per year per kid.

What the detractors never mention is that charters don’t get any of the money collected by school districts as property tax. That money stays with the school district even after a student leaves for a charter. In DISD, where local revenue is more than $1.1 billion a year and the student body is just over 157,000, the local revenue per student comes out to just over $7,000 a year. The kid goes. The seven grand a year stays.

Charter enrollment in Dallas has increased from about 25,000 students five years ago to more like 35,000 today. So we can look at 35,000 students who have left for charters and figure that DISD loses about $315 million a year from the state to cover those departures.

But DISD hangs on to $250 million in local revenue for kids it doesn’t have to teach any more. I don’t think you’ve heard DISD telling you, “Here’s $250 million back for kids who aren’t here anymore.” No, that money goes into the SIP account (straight in the pocket).

But here is a much more important issue — one for which Foreman almost could get traction if she were able to frame the problem more acutely. Critics of charters complain that the charter schools “skim the students,” meaning they seduce away the smartest, most motivated kids.

Defenders of charters are hyperdefensive on that accusation and will absolutely bore your socks off with canned, mind-numbingly detailed speeches about how charter schools are forbidden by law to cherry-pick students for performance. But if you can get a charter school defender to calm down a little (wine helps), most will more or less agree with what a Dallas school board member told me in an off-the-record whisper last week: “The charters don’t skim students. They skim parents.”

The simple act of dis-enrollment — taking your kid out of the neighborhood public school, trotting him or her down to enroll in the nearest charter — is an exercise in intentional behavior. It means you woke up this morning and remembered you had a kid. It means you want your kid to have a better life than you did. And it means you believe that choice of school will have a lot to do with that.

Yes, the parents who make that kind of decision are the kind of people who fall under that new buzzword everyone seems to like so well now — agency. They have agency. They are doers. They take action. They disrupt their status quo at the expense of their comfort in order to make things happen for their kids.

And, look, in a free society where people have any kind of viable option, there is only one way to attract or hang on to that kind of parent. It’s called competition. Convince them you’ve got something better.

DISD has been hammering hard to improve neighborhood schools where performance has been historically low.
DISD has been hammering hard to improve neighborhood schools where performance has been historically low.
Eric Nicholson

You’re not going to be able to imprison the agency parents within the public school system by pulling cheesy zoning tricks on the charter schools. Eventually somebody will invent a charter school suspended entirely from hot air balloons that doesn’t need any zoning, and next thing you know, the agency parents will all be climbing up there on rope ladders with their kids in their teeth by the collars. That’s America.

Back to what I said at the top. Foreman is proposing this cheap-trick end-run to shut down the whole game in the last quarter, just when many observers believe the public school system in Dallas may be on the verge of carrying off a surprise win. Since charters first began marching in from the far horizon a decade ago, DISD has exploded in a virtual firestorm of creativity to compete with them.

The innovations that have garnered the most media attention, perhaps because they seem counterintuitive, are the new specialized schools designed to win back the middle class. Solar Prep for girls, for example, has a parent base controlled for income, half economically disadvantaged, half not. Soon after opening, its biggest challenge was dealing with the press of affluent and suburban families trying to wedge their daughters into the school.

But DISD also has been hammering hard on the very poorest neighborhood schools where academic performance was always heartbreakingly bad. In barely four years, from 2013-17, the district took down its number of schools deemed failing by the state from 43 to 13.

I do have to offer a caution, however, about any kind of crowing over improvements in educational outcomes in Texas in the last seven years. For that, I would refer you to the blog of Sandy Kress. Kress, who was president of the Dallas school board in the early 1990s, was a chief architect of Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and subsequently was senior advisor to President Bush on education issues.

His main point now is that educational achievement in Texas took a decided downward turn for all ethnic groups in 2011 and has been headed downhill ever since. That was when the Texas Legislature began gutting the more rigorous accountability requirements put in place during the Bush gubernatorial years.

Kress doesn’t say this, so I will. A lot of the pressure to dumb down the state’s requirements came from a strange-bedfellows cabal of loyal-Democrat teachers-union types and white suburban tea party anarcho-primitivists, the latest iteration in a long Texas tradition of political marriages made in hell.

So the larger reality here is two things. One is a generally depressing context in which the entire state seems to be coasting downhill into idiocracy. But the other is a very exciting push for excellence and for market share, coming out of the Dallas public schools — just the kind of big urban school district everybody was ready 10 years ago to shove off the edge into the landfill of history. Including maybe … ah … me.

Next year — not that far away, just around the corner, really — the Texas Education Agency will begin publishing its “A" through "F” letter-grade rankings for every individual school campus in Texas, including the charters. And everybody who watches these things, including Foreman, according to her remarks before the council committee last week, knows this about charter schools: some of them really suck. Others are stunningly good.

There is a lot of breath-holding and nail-biting going on over this, but there also is a solid groundswell of expectation out there among people who are confident that Dallas public schools will seriously outrank the bad charters in most cases. So let’s think about that for a moment.

The competition between public school districts and charter schools is a competition for parents more than for students, for those parents whose imaginary business cards might say, “Have Agency, Will Travel.” If DISD beats the bad charters when the grades come out, those parents with agency are the ones who will notice and who will know what to do about it. They’ll come home.

If you’ve ever had a kid in a school — public, private, religious, whatever — or taught in one or even been forced at threat of firing to cover a PTA meeting as a reporter, you know that bossy, demanding parents are the gas in the tank, the thing that makes the motor run.

Just when DISD may be on the verge of beginning to win those parents through competition, Foreman shows up at City Hall and asks the council to use influence and dirty tricks to throw the game. It’s the wrong idea at a terrible moment. This is Texas. Let’s play to the end of the clock.

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