People Issue

Yasmin Bhatia and April Allen: The Alternatives

In this week's Dallas Observer, we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

You guys are competitive, I say to Yasmin Bhatia and April Allen, and I watch the muscles in their thin, bright faces dance like I just fed them tequila. And I immediately wish there was some tequila handy, because maybe then they would admit that, yes, they are competitive. But they're too smart, and too sober, for that.

Bhatia (left) and Allen (right) are executives for growing charter-school operations, publicly funded, privately run school systems designed, the theory goes, to foster innovation and help close the achievement gap between rich kids and poor. Allen, a Harvard MBA and former consultant for Neiman Marcus, runs the DFW office of KIPP, which started in Houston and plans to build 10 schools here in the next decade. Bhatia, a Stanford MBA and former McKinsey consultant, runs Uplift Education, a well-funded chain that will have 26 schools in DFW by this fall -- including a high school in Deep Ellum, of all places, with plans already forming to strategically tag up some walls.

In the virtually unregulated world of Texas charter schools, theirs are among the biggest success stories. And in a city whose school district has been besieged for decades by incompetence and corruption, they offer a needed alternative, not to mention a bunch of ideas and talent to steal.

Despite their success, they know the score. They know that a not-small fraction of the population thinks they are out to shut down neighborhood schools, to privatize education, to carry out some vague plot by Rich People to decimate public education and dismantle teachers unions. That's not the case (except maybe the union thing), but these women are too smart to let a reporter saddle them as "competitive" while his recorder runs.

We prefer "choice," they say. And they do offer that. But they're saying this on the campus of Greenhill, the Addison prep school, because in arranging their photo shoot it was clear neither wanted to shoot at the other's school. And as they talk, there's a sense that each wants to make sure she gets her share of the sound bites.

Why? Because they're competitive. They want their schools to be the best. They want to grow. They want your kids in their classrooms, besieged not with corruption but with the colors of their teachers' alma maters. They compete because it's in their DNA, and because, whether your kids go to their schools or not, they want it in your kids' DNA, too.

But sure, guys. "Choice," not "compete." Your secret's safe with us.

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone