AUSTIN, Texas — Millions in new federal funding is adding major firepower to the charter school invasion sweeping through Texas, and now some traditional public school districts are looking to partner with the independent educators they once saw as their sworn enemy.

Charter growth has been booming across Texas since the Legislature first authorized the use of state funds for them two decades ago.

Enrollment is skyrocketing. In 2010, there were 119,600 students in charter schools. Last year, there were 272,700.

Just this week, International Leadership of Texas, one of the state’s largest operators, held a ribbon-cutting for its eighth campus in Tarrant County. And it plans to open 10 more campuses across the state next year.

Last week, IDEA Public Schools won $67 million in federal grant money for charter expansion that will help it build numerous campuses across Tarrant County over the next five years.

The state also was awarded about $60 million in federal grants for charter school expansion — including for those run out of traditional districts.

The Texas Charter Schools Association estimates about 130,000 students are on waiting lists for such campuses. IDEA founder Tom Torkelson said at his schools, there were 50,000 applications this year for 10,000 open seats.

“We’re not able to build schools fast enough,” Torkelson told The Dallas Morning News .

The political environment to boost charters is ripe.

The Trump administration made school choice options a top education priority. And this year, Texas lawmakers gave charters extra help to expand by passing legislation providing incentives to traditional districts that collaborate with charters. And, for the first time, they gave charters access to state funds for operating school facilities. This means millions more in taxpayer dollars will be funneled into charter schools.

Urban districts long battled against charter expansion, saying they’re bleeding students. They tend to have more campuses with poor academic ratings and more competition with charter schools than other areas. District leaders often complain that charters steal the most involved families from neighborhood campuses, leaving behind struggling students.

In the area covered by Fort Worth ISD there are about 6,800 students living in the district but attending charters. The public school district may lose thousands more students amid the charter boom. But FWISD Superintendent Kent Scribner not only welcomes high-quality charters into the area, he wants to partner with them, too.

“I don’t think the charter expansion is something we should fear, but learn more about,” Scribner said. “I view this as an opportunity to change, build a handful of district-charter hybrids to grow our own portfolio of offerings.”

Charter schools are public schools that operate free from the bureaucracy of traditional districts. They don’t have to adhere to as many state regulations, which advocates say frees them up to do things differently. Many brag about stellar academic performance compared to neighborhood schools.

For example, International Leadership of Texas’ big draw for many parents is its focus on getting students to speak both Spanish and Chinese.

That’s what enticed high school junior Devonte Jones to leave Keller this year to attend IL Texas’ new Fort Worth campus.

“If you put on your resume that you speak Chinese, that just opens doors for you,” Devonte said. “And it’s a small school, so you really get more of a connection with your teachers.”

IL Texas, founded by former Dallas principal Eddie Conger, is quickly making its mark with 15 campuses across the state. Next year, it will open another 10 schools and add about 34,000 more students to its rolls.

Conger said he’s been “naive” and surprised by the aggressive push-back charters have gotten from many traditional school districts which have fought their expansion.

He isn’t concerned as other charters move into the area and traditional districts amp up their choice programs to attract families back to their schools. IL Texas looks for ways to partner with others, he said. For example, Conger uses half the money donated for his students’ annual trip to China to take along students from Dallas’ Thomas Jefferson High School, where he was once principal.

“I’m not worried about the competition,” Conger said. “Any time it becomes about adults and adult issues, the kids lose.”

Since Texas approved charters in 1995, the state has chipped away at caps set up to limit their reach. Operators routinely amend their charters to open more campuses. Since last December, for example, existing operators were allowed to open or expand more than 100 campuses.

IDEA Public Schools started out as one small campus in the border town of Donna. It’s repeatedly won federal grants to grow and now is largest operator in the state with 61 schools and more than 36,000 students.

Torkelson said IDEA has no plans yet to reach into Dallas County. It is focusing its expansion into North Texas to the west, with the first area campus set to open in Fort Worth in 2019. IDEA will have 10 campuses in Tarrant County.

“The charter school market is about five times higher in Dallas County than Tarrant where there has been lower access to charters,” Torkelson said. “And quite frankly, we’ve seen a lot of financial support from Tarrant County donors ready to welcome us in.”

Much of the charter growth in North Texas had long been focused on Dallas County, where nearly 80 charter school campuses operate. Some trustees for Dallas ISD, which has lost about 34,000 students to charters, have been vocal in pushing back against their reach.

Tarrant County only had about a dozen or so charter campuses for many years. But now it has almost 30.

Breaking down exact enrollment by county can be tricky because some schools are chartered by operators based in other counties, meaning enrollment data is reported in places where the students aren’t actually based.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said expansions come at a dramatic cost to traditional public schools.

For example, he said Dallas ISD is soon expected to join Houston ISD in sending millions back to the state under the Texas school finance system that sends “recaptured” money from wealthier districts to property-poor districts. Much of that formula is determined by enrollment.

“The charter system was designed to be a place to try things differently and bring them back into the system, not replace the system,” Exter said. “If you put all the students back from charter schools into Houston — and I bet in Dallas — they wouldn’t be at recapture. This (expansion) has real consequences to our school finance system.”

Fort Worth ISD board president Tobi Jackson admits she’s watched the Tarrant County boom with a lot of concern — mostly because she’s seen a poorly run charter school up close.

Jackson was asked to join Prime Prep Academy during a new leadership team’s last-ditch effort to save the school.

Started by former Dallas Cowboys Deion Sanders, the charter is now defunct. At Prime Prep, Jackson says she saw just how deep the academy’s academic, financial and leadership struggles were. She eventually resigned as principal of the Fort Worth campus.

And the eastside area of FWISD that she represents has seen other notable charter failures. The Theresa B. Lee Academy, for example, was ordered closed by the state mid-year in 2008 after the school’s long struggle with finances and academics.

The number of failed charters is significant. Of the 325 charters awarded over the years, 149 have closed. About 15 of those were in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

But Prime Prep did teach Jackson about why families choose charters: They are unhappy with their traditional public schools, they want their children to attend smaller schools, and, because attending charter schools doesn’t require students to live in certain areas, families that move a lot because of financial struggles can find stability in a charter school.

The Prime Prep experience piqued Jackson’s interest in seeing what a FWISD-charter partnership could mean with a high-quality operator.

“Overall, the charter movement is something interesting, and there’s certainly a lot of money behind it,” she said. “I don’t know that charters are the right schools for everyone or that public ISDs are right for everyone. It really has to be about what’s right for an individual’s education.”

This spring, lawmakers gave public school districts an incentive to seek partnerships with charters. Those who share school facilities with charters — similar to what Grand Prairie has been doing — can receive a boost in funding for the campus being shared. They can also get a reprieve from sanctions for poor state academic accountability ratings for the first two years of a partnership.

Fort Worth has 14 campuses that failed to meet state standards. Scribner, who as superintendent in Phoenix had a similar district-charter partnership at a Montessori campus, will seek proposals from charters later this year.

He said some low-performing campuses could be considered for partnership with a charter, but mostly he’s interested in bringing unique programs to schools.

Each comprehensive Fort Worth high school already offers a specialized program of choice — they range from aviation and agriculture to robotics and fine arts — and the district has a handful of specialty campuses too, all of which the district wants to revamp in its proposed bond program going to voters fall.

“We’re one of the fastest growing cities in America, so I think there’s room for us all,” Scribner said. “I’m really a proponent of good charters.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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