Whose choice is school choice?

Photo by Tiffany Szerpicki

Lawmakers have come together this session determined to support our schools and provide the best education for all Texas children. Among many efforts to influence our work are rallies and events at the Capitol advocating for charter schools, like "School Choice Week." However, as policymakers, we are determined to advance equitable educational opportunities for all Texas students. Charter schools may not actually be a choice for Texas children with the highest needs and challenges.

Current law, as well as the Texas Education Agency's (TEA’s) latest “snapshot” data, reveals that charter schools are permitted to exclude students. As a result, many charters are educating a different demographic than our neighborhood public schools. In too many instances, charters are choosing the students they want rather than allowing families to choose the charter.

For example, a recent job announcement for a director of student recruitment and enrollment at IDEA Public Schools included a job responsibility to: “Manage to [sic] both quality and quantity of applicants ensuring that an applicant is a family who is prepared to persist with IDEA.” One of the largest “high performing” charter schools in the state is turning the notion of school choice on its head, choosing not just the student applicant but that student’s family as well.

Many charter schools take advantage of state law that allows them to exclude students from enrollment because of any disciplinary history — even visits to the principal’s office. As a result, unlike our public schools, which are required to educate all kids, charter schools can exclude students. Many of the largest charter schools, such as Harmony, Uplift Education, Southwest Key (Promesa) and International Leadership, ask about student disciplinary history on their admission applications. Not only does this practice allow these charters to screen out students, it has a chilling effect on those who might apply.

Children of color and children with disabilities in Texas are over-represented in many school- based discipline actions, according to a 2016 Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children report, “Dangerous Discipline.” Disciplinary exclusion policies limit educational opportunities for groups of students who are over-represented in the school disciplinary system.

Even charter schools that do not ask about disciplinary history are educating a different population. For example, in Austin, students in special education account for 8.3 percent of KIPP College Prep Charter's population. Just down the road at Webb Middle School, the special education population is 19.2 percent — more than double the KIPP number. In Houston, Worthing High, a school that has received media attention for overcoming state testing challenges, is located just six minutes from KIPP Sunnyside. Yet, Worthing's special education population is almost double that at KIPP Sunnyside.

These figures are troubling because they demonstrate that not all children have access to these educational opportunities — ultimately resulting in additional costs to neighborhood public schools.

When charters cherry-pick students, neighborhood schools are left to educate a disproportionate percentage of more challenging children. Neighborhood schools are required by law to enroll all kids, regardless of disciplinary history, special needs or family challenges. Educating children who face more challenges in life is more expensive; the cost falls disproportionately on local public school districts.

Yet, charters receive more funding from the state per student than 95 percent of all students in Texas. In El Paso, charters receive $1,619 more per student than El Paso ISD. In Austin, charters receive $1,740 more per student than AISD. This funding disparity holds true for many of the largest school districts.

This lopsided funding model results in increasing funding for charter schools and decreasing it for traditional public schools. In the 2018-2019 biennium, charter schools received $1.46 billion more than the prior biennium, and traditional public schools received $2.68 billion less.

Ultimately, this parallel system of exclusive schools, funded with increasingly more public money, is often a false promise that results in less access and less funding for many of our kids. Given the state’s constitutional responsibility to educate all kids, it is clear that the only meaningful “choice” to be made is for the Texas Legislature to “choose” to adequately fund all of our public schools and to stop exclusionary policies and practices that disadvantage Texas school children.

Gina Hinojosa

State representative, HD-49

@GinaForAustin

Mary González

State representative, HD-75

Shawn Thierry

State representative, HD-146

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