Charter Schools

Charter vs. Public Schools: Not a Zero Sum Game

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San Antonio already has a champion basketball team, a River Walk that draws thousands of tourists and a star mayor about to hit the political big time. Yes, a city on the rise.

Soon, it may experience something just as positive: an injection of high performing charter schools. I know you weren’t expecting that last “positive.” What’s wrong with our schools just as they are?

True, the city does have pockets of education excellence. The Young Women’s Leadership Academy in SAISD was ranked the #1 middle school in the state and Hawthorne Academy, SAISD’s first in-district charter school, was designated as a “gold ribbon” campus, given to high-performing, high-poverty schools.

YWLA students (from left) Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: a sisterhood of support. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

But still, there are significant problems. Only one in 10 San Antonio students entering 9th grade will graduate from high school prepared for college work.

San Antonio can do better, and there are plans in the works to give thousands of students school opportunities to turn that around. Your city is in a unique position. Although you have some very good charters already, the numbers they serve are small. That’s about to change, and San Antonio, being fairly new to the game, can choose its own fate.

Based on how this has played out in other cities, the options are clear.

Option 1: San Antonio can choose acrimony, following the path of New York, Boston and Los Angeles. You’ve probably read news stories about the fighting between New York’s new mayor and the leader of the city’s top performing charter group. The mayor doesn’t believe in charter schools; the charter leader doesn’t believe in city schools.

Option 2: San Antonio can go the way of Denver and Washington, D.C., where relations between the two worlds are relatively smooth and all students benefit, not just the charter students.

In Denver there’s a compact agreement that mixes the charter world and district worlds. Top charters are invited into district buildings to share space.  In exchange, the charters take on more of the special education burden.  Under the city’s “Compact Blue” arrangement, charter and district teachers and administrators gather together on professional development days to share lessons-learned.

Denver is not alone. Here in Texas, Houston’s Spring Branch district set up a cutting edge compact where the charters share space and the students intermingle for electives. The superintendent used the compact agreement there to reset the district goals: Within five years, Spring Branch plans to double the number of students who successfully complete some form of higher education, ranging from a technical certificate to a four-year degree, taking it from the 36 percent to 72 percent. The charter compact will help them get there.

In Washington D.C., there’s little official mingling but relations are smooth (charter students make up 45 percent of the population) and there’s friendly competition, probably the reason D.C. students show the fastest improvements on federal tests.

Option 2 is clearly better for students in San Antonio, but there are no guarantees things will play out that way. Already parents in San Antonio have heard warnings of  “corporate charter chains” poised to invade your city. That rhetoric is borrowed from the toxic national fights over charters and borders on the silly. Would everyone who became millionaires working for KIPP charters please stand up?

KIPP, which is already in San Antonio, is part of the expansion plans. That’s a good thing. The typical 5th grader enters KIPP San Antonio a year or more behind, but by the end of 8th grade the average student is reading and doing math on a 10th grade level. Another charter group already in San Antonio, and scheduled for rapid expansion, is IDEA Public Schools, which were just nominated for the prestigious Broad Prize for their record educating poor Latino and African American students.

Carlos Sanchez shows off his physics roller coaster at KIPP Aspire. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Also part of the expansion plans are some newcomers, such as Rocketship, a California-based charter I spent a year following for my new book. If Rocketship’s K-5 schools come to San Antonio, I predict immediate wait lists of Latino parents trying to get their children enrolled.

In the coming months, some will tell you that allowing charters to grow is a zero-sum game, with the district schools losing every time a new charter opens. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not like that in either Washington or Denver, a city where student academic scores are rising every year because of the decision to wrap charters into district schools.

Washington and Denver are win-win models — and choices San Antonio should make.

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