Image a political movement born of the witches brew of  free market ideology, uninformed idealism and political opportunism.  No, its not the Tea Party, its not Texas’ scammy Free Market Energy initiative, it is the Charter School Reform Movement.

But let Dan Patrick explain:

Key Legislator Says Stars aligned for voucher push in Texas

Patrick, R-Houston, and other school choice advocates in Texas are looking to create a tax credit program similar to the one in Florida that allows corporations to redirect a portion of state taxes to a scholarship fund in return for a tax credit. Low-income families who qualify can use the scholarship to help pay tuition at private schools.

Patrick has included the measure in an ambitious education plan that also calls for doing away with the 215-school cap on charter schools; incorporating a school rating system modeled after Florida’s A-F grades; and giving students the ability to enroll in any school within their district or in another district that has space.

He compared this fight to one in which he supported a bill that requires a woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure. The contentious legislation passed and became law in May 2011.

Public Education is in crisis. No one doubts that, the question is both why and what should be done. As I have tried to demonstrate in my previous post (here, and here)  the cure of more and more testing has been part of the problem. I will leave the discussion of  the crack dream that is the “corporate reform”  model for next time. This time we consider Patrick’s little scheme.

The vouchers Patrick is pushing would allow parents to take state education monies to a school of their own choosing. So public , private , charter, all schools would be “in competition” for education monies. Wow, we have the magic trifecta of all Republican solutions to all problems:choice, freedom, free markets! Except , surprise the model does not fit and the solution does not solve.

First, the average tuition paid for private schools is $8,549 per year, which means a total of $47 billion is spent each year on opting out of the public education system. Patrick has said he anticipates the vouchers to be between Florida’s 2012-13 allotment of $4,335, Patrick said, but less than the annual per-pupil cost for public school students in Texas. Texas public schools spend more than $8,000 per student.


Even if Patrick goes for the upper figure, (unlikely given the states’ history of starving public education funding) he would still not provide enough of a subsidy for the majority of middle to lower class kids to get into a good private school. As is proven by the  tidal wave of rip-off charters that have sprouted under the current regime, there would not a shortage of folks to take the inadequate funding . The loser would be the families and kids who would believe that they were getting a leg up by buying to this scheme.

For example:

Funds misuse, nepotism feared at Texas charter schools

Sherwin Allen’s family, including two brothers, his wife and their two children, earned nearly $700,000 last year working for Children First Academy campuses in Dallas and Houston, according to Texas Education Agency records. The campuses enrolled a total of 750 students.

TEA oversees charter schools and all traditional public schools with a limited staff, budget and authority. In 2003, state budget cuts forced TEA to downsize its staff and curtailed campus visits.

The agency looks into complaints of fraud and financial mismanagment and has taken action against some troubled charter schools, including shutting some down. But those cases can drag on for years if charter schools fight back in court.

And try to find out about the quality of the charter school you are thinking of attending, not easy. Charters closed down or voluntarily shuttered can just re-open under a new name and “new management” (wink, wink). There is no database you can search to become informed about this.

Let’s give him a free jump on these vexing issues, I mean public charter schools modeled on the very successful KIPP formula could use a lottery system so that everyone, rich, poor, and middle class would have a chance to get in, right?

Not quite. If you live a rural area, there are ,in Texas, you are in all likelihood plum out of luck.

Vouchers and School Finance: Saving the Statehouse $?

In Texas a voucher program clearly would not address a complete lack of a local public option, like in Maine and Vermont. That leaves the question of how many Texas rural students could reasonably access private schools. There are 254 Texas counties (77 in metropolitan statistical areas and 167 in rural areas), and of those 254 counties, 129 have private schools within them (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Out of those 129 counties, 63 are within a metropolitan statistical area (MSA). According to U.S. Office of Management and Budget 66 are outside an MSA, making it seem like private schools do penetrate rural Texas (2009). If one counts grades Pre-K through 8th as one school and grades 9 through 12 as another, as does the website Private School Review, then of 2,643 Texas private schools, 2,451 are in those counties that also are within an MSA. However, 192 are in those 66 counties outside an MSA. That leaves a mere 7% of private schools in rural Texas counties, a fraction small enough to suggest that rural students would not receive the suggested benefits of any state-wide voucher program. Furthermore, of those 66 rural counties with private schools, 25 only have one option for grades Pre-K through 8th and grades 9 through 12. That leaves a meager 41 rural Texas counties with only a single choice when deciding between private schools. In sum, of the 167 rural counties, 108 have no private schools and 25 only have a single private school to serve the county effectively nullifying any school choice argument in favor of vouchers for rural students.

Use of virtual [online ] private schools has grown in some states and therefore it could be argued that they would permit rural school choice. More than any other state, Ohio has implemented virtual private schools.  However, privately operated virtual schools in Ohio face criticism regarding quality, with student to teacher ratios reaching as high as 250-1. School student to teacher ratios are indicative of other structural quality issues such as the lack of rigorous curriculum, organizational oversight, and high student turnover (Saul, 2011).



As for KIPP style choice in urban areas, the data is sadly clear. If you can get in, and stay in , you will be well served. That , of course , presumes that KIPP can continue finding teachers who will put I 54 hour work weeks, be available by phone outside of school hours . KIPP promises on its Houston website that its salaries are above those of local districts. That is impossible to verify one way or the other. The evidence I saw says otherwise, but the problem is I am interested in teacher salaries and the sites I found are not so granular.

I attended a public brag session for KIPP and RICE Education collaboration. I asked a simple question of the presenter – is KIPP the solution for public education? What about the kids who aren’t as dedicated. Who won’t go on Saturdays and for 2 weeks in the summer- who educates them? The answer given was that they make every effort to keep students who enter KIPP. Beyond that there was no reply, this form the gold standard of charter schools.

In fact creaming ( taking the best , most motivated students ) and cropping ( washing out those not motivated, not blessed with super-supportive parents) are the rule, not the exception in the competition between public and private/charter  schools.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

As currently configured, charter schools are havens for the motivated. As more charter schools open, the dilemma of educating all students will grow sharper. The resolution of this dilemma will determine the fate of public education.

The question for the future is whether the continued growth of charter schools in urban districts will leave regular public schools with the most difficult students to educate, thus creating a two-tier system of widening inequality. If so, we can safely predict that future studies will prove the success of charter schools and the failure of regular schools, because the public schools will have disproportionate numbers of less motivated parents and needier students. As charter schools increase in number and able students enrolled, the right of public school in the nation’s cities be locked into a downward trajectory. This would be an ominous development of education and for our nation.

That the advocates of charter schools and some of their most ardent and idealistic supporters are not aware or willing to confront this reality is also not a bug but a feature of this model:

Educational Reform and Our Common Peril !

A consultant at the same lecture [ a public brag session at Rice University] button-holed me afterward and pointed out that all the Young Turks favored by right wing education reformers are of a mold: white, under 30 , experience in Teach for America or some such and corporate training.  NONE have backgrounds or training in education. In fact such training seems to be a DISQUALIFICATION for being taken seriously as a reformer.

They share something else with the whole herd of New Reformers – angling for ways to capture education reform money, lots of it! 2014 is coming and by the NCLB act failing schools must be upgraded, closed , taken over or replaced.

I admire the enthusiasm of the Young Turks of KIPP and like-minded charter school efforts, but as always good intentions and passion is no substitute for knowledge and context.

It might almost be worth it to take the plunge and hold our noses and pay that charters are the magic answer, if only the average results from charters were routinely and dependably better than public schools . The research on this is mixed at best and totally unconvincing at worst.

Ravitch, Diane (2010-02-04). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (p. 138)

Some are excellent, some are dreadful, and most are somewhere in between. It is in the nature of markets that some succeed, some are middling, and others fail. In 2004, a furious controversy erupted between advocates and opponents of charter schools when it turned out that the federal government had tested a national sample of charter schools in 2003 but had not released its findings. The federal government did not release the data on charter school performance when it announced the results for states and the nation in November 2003. The charter scores went unnoticed until the results were discovered on the federal testing agency’s Web site by staff members of the American Federation of Teachers. They learned that NAEP showed no measurable differences on tests of reading and mathematics between fourth-grade students from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and in regular public schools. Among poor students, fourth graders in regular public schools outperformed those in charter schools in both subjects. Overall, charter and public students performed similarly in reading, but public school students performed better in mathematics.

A final note , Patrick and his allies are being very aggressive about the destruction of public schools . Fully 50% of the Texas schools as measured by the now defunct and little lamented No Child Left Behind  are failing .  Patrick expressed a desire to accelerate the use of its successor, the STARR testing .

Can We Stop Senator Patrick’s Education Agenda?

Perhaps the biggest surprise, and most dangerous proposal, was closing schools that miss state standards for just TWO years. Current law allows for a maximum six-year improvement timeline, with the feds allowing seven. Under a two-year proposal, 40 schools would be closed immediately, including five Dallas high schools and a number of rural schools with no nearby alternative. Over 500 other schools are lined up to follow shortly after. This is an insane proposal and needs to be fought HARD. The only possible logic behind it is in the TEA code. When a school is closed, it can either be repurposed as something different (a high school used as an elementary school) or the TEA Commissioner may turn the school over to “alternative management,” which in most cases means a charter school. We may be looking at a wholesale takeover attempt.

Make no mistake the present voucher effort is serious . The mix of idealism, ideology and cynical self-interest is potent.