Charter schools are supposed to be different

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

Several Texas lawmakers have decided it’s a problem that public charter schools don’t operate exactly like traditional schools. But isn’t that the point?

The charter school bargain — the very foundation of charter schools — is that they have the autonomy and freedom to do things differently in exchange for results.

Texas charter schools are keeping their end of this bargain and are a valuable addition to the public education landscape. Though they serve only 6 percent of Texas students, charter school districts make up 20 percent of the state’s A-rated districts. They send more low-income students to college by a wide margin. And Hispanic students attending Texas charter schools did better in 8th grade math than any Hispanic students nationwide on the most recent Nation’s Report Card.

Getting lost in numbers makes it easy to forget we are talking about children. There are thousands of stories of kids whose lives have been changed by the opportunity to attend public charter schools. Their success is not an indictment of traditional schools, but a testimony to the fact that not every school is right for every kid.

Rather than celebrate these remarkable results and the fact that charter schools contribute to our duty to educate all Texas children, a few lawmakers have decided we should endeavor to make charter schools exactly like district schools.

Doing so would be a mistake. It would make Texas public education one-size-fits-all and leave thousands of kids behind.

In making this argument, the lawmakers claimed that charter schools are “educating a different population” than traditional schools. They are correct. Charter schools in Texas teach a higher percentage of all of these types of students: African American (16 percent more), Hispanic (11 percent more), economically disadvantaged (7 percent more), and English Language Learners (10 percent more). For students with special needs, district schools and charter schools serve roughly the same percentage (9 percent vs. 8 percent). Cherry-picking two examples where districts happen to have more students with special needs ignores the facts.

Economically disadvantaged and non-white populations sometimes require additional resources and can be more expensive to teach, but charter schools receive less money — on average, $1,700 less per student than public schools Claims to the contrary are disingenuous because they only report state funding and ignore the fact that local funding makes up the bulk of education funding in many school districts.

Charter opponents have also begun to complain about the ways charter schools handle students with disciplinary challenges. Not all charter schools are equipped to serve students with severe discipline issues. Serving these students often requires a separate physical building or program, which many charters simply cannot afford because of the funding gap. Despite this, some charter schools are making Herculean efforts to create innovative solutions to help accommodate students who are unable to be in a traditional classroom with their peers.

YES Prep Public Schools in Houston has a new alternative program this year focused on supporting students with behavioral skill needs through one-on-one counseling and group sessions while students continue their academic studies online. Through a similar program, Austin Achieve bends over backwards to ensure that none of its students are suspended or expelled. Their restorative justice program provides students with social and emotional support, and has improved relationships among students, teachers and even parents. Though the costs have been high, they have suspended only one student in the past three years (because the family was unwilling to participate), a remarkable success. 

Charter schools across the state are doing what they can with limited resources to teach students who need this extra support. Unfortunately, many charters do not have the funding to create these special programs; and no charters have the legal authority to pool resources for facilities that would allow them to collaborate with one another to serve these students. If lawmakers are worried about charter schools being able to adequately serve these students, then we should talk about how we could give them the resources and legal authority to do it.

Despite our disagreement, the lawmakers got one important thing right: The state has a responsibility to educate all Texas students. Charter schools take seriously our piece of that responsibility. We are proud to be part of the menu of public education options available to families; and are excited about the increased collaboration between traditional and charter school leaders that is happening from Beaumont to Midland. We look forward to partnering with policymakers this session on a fact-based discussion about the direction of public education funding.

Starlee Coleman

CEO, Texas Charter Schools Association