Senator Dan Patrick's Charter School Love Bill Leaves Public Schools Holding the Empty Bag

Tale of two dailies today, I guess. Our own Dallas daily, the Morning News, takes a kind of hey-why-not approach to a bill introduced by Houston GOP state Senator Dan Patrick that would divert more money from state funding for public schools to charters. The Austin American Statesman, meanwhile, gives its readers a story explaining maybe why not.

Patrick has been flogging his charter school ideas in Austin beneath the flags of liberty and choice for all, which might seem like tough ideas to argue with. He says 100,000 families are lined up waiting to get their kids out of lousy public schools and into charters, and he wants the state to help them out by creating more charters.

Ah, but as always with the charter school idea, here's the catch: they take their money straight out of the purse of public education at a time when Texas lawmakers are already doing everything they can to pick that pocket.

The Statesman tells that story: Advocates and defenders of public schools are rushing to Austin to plead with the Legislature not to wound public schools even more deeply than they already have by diverting even more scarce resources to privately operated, publicly funded charter schools.

Bur even from the mouths of public schools champions, I worry that they shy from telling the real story on why charters can become such a pernicious problem for public schools. I'm talking about the problem of cherry-picking and dumping. Maybe in Tea Party Texas any mention of that issue sounds too much like the dreaded "class warfare," but it's what the public school people worry about most when they know they won't be quoted.

This is a simple idea. I dare somebody to weigh in here right now and argue with it. The most challenged students are far and away the most expensive to teach. We are talking about special ed, of course. But we are also talking about all those kids who through no fault of their own are born into all of those bad circumstances that the Tea Party Taliban loves to sneer at.

Their parents are not merely "uninvolved." They're on crack or meth. Their families move every whip-stitch, one jump ahead of the unpaid rent. These are the kids who saddle schools with all kinds of expensive security and instructional problems.

There is not one chance in hell that anybody is going to try to get them into a charter school, and there is less than not one chance any charter school would ever take them. But they are kids. They did nothing to deserve their dismal fate. And the public schools must deal with them.

The argument I hear quietly from public school advocates -- who are way too shy about saying this louder -- is that the cost of educating those expensively challenged and challenging students is heavily subsidized by the per-pupil funding that school districts get from state and local sources. And this may be another reason why the public school people are so chary on this topic: They may sense political bonfires ahead if the parents of the easy kids ever get wind of the amount of money diverted every year from their own children to the high-cost special cases.

But this is the underlying big reality about charters. People like Senator Patrick want to cut an even bigger hole in the public school purse to drain money into charters. The charters will always find one way or another to cherry pick their students, even if it's only by the fake-fair system of waiting for families to apply, which excludes kids from crap families.

The cherry picking makes things worse and worse for the publics, which get left with a tougher and tougher demographic to serve. And then there is this question: How can we look ourselves in the face morally when we are deliberately if gradually engineering an abandonment of the very children who needs us most, the ones who will never get a helping hand in life if not from our hand?

Here's a notion to toss around. If all these people want private schools but they don't want to pay for them privately, how about this as a workaround? Let's take a chapter from the oilfield wildcatters in the way they split up a jointly explored oilfield. One company draws a line across the field. The other one picks the side it wants.

Let's be like the Morning News and say, sure why not have more charters. Why not divvy up the money and make the public schools pay for the private ones? Sure. But after we divvy up the funding, allow the public schools to chose the students who will be sent to charters.

Hmm? I think I am not hearing enthusiasm for that from the charteronians. I think maybe we can all guess why.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze