Patti Everitt: she’s really paying attention to the importance of teachers
Claire: Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip Ex-wives Edition on Bravo and Peacock
Nichole: Fair Play, a documentary on Apple+
Go behind the ballot with us for this information-packed episode with Patti Everitt who knows all things charter schools. She has dedicated so much of her time to asking questions about how charter schools function in Texas so we can all have more clear information. She talks about the challenges that charter schools create for local ISDs and the different expectations and accountability for each. Patti gives us a tutorial on how charter schools are funded in Texas and how that affects all Texas families. She also informs us on important questions families should ask when making decisions about charter schools versus their local ISD. Buckle up for a very informative episode.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Education: Patti Everitt Sheds Light On The Rise Of Charter Schools In Texas, Their Impact On The Public Education Budget, And What Parents Need To Know
We have an awesome episode. We spoke with Patti Everitt. She knows so much about charter schools in Texas. I was happy to have this chat. I personally know Patti. I’m going to share a little bit of the background. I live in a neighborhood, and there is this piece of land that was sold to a charter school. A lot of us were like, “How is that possible?” We had another school down the road that had just opened and another 1.5 miles away.
We were hoping in this commercial space that we were going to get a grocery store, restaurants, a doctor’s office, or anything but a school because we already had schools. That led me on this deep dive down the rabbit hole to figure out what had happened. That’s how I found Patti. I was like, “She has to share this with everyone.” That’s how this episode came together. With all that, I still learned some new things because Patti is a wealth of knowledge. Nichole, what were your thoughts?
Mind blown. I have not taken this many notes on any episodes so far because I was completely surprised by the next new bit of information. I kept thinking, “This is a bombshell.” Here’s the truth of the matter, and this is why I appreciated Patti’s point of view is that this isn’t about trying to determine whether charter schools are good or bad. That’s not our mission here. The mission that we have begun and what Patti outlines well is trying to make the information about charter schools more transparent so that we can have a conversation about how they affect communities and the public school system in general.
There is so much information that we do not know. Thank goodness people like Patti are on the front lines of investigating, sharing and disclosing because we need to have this kind of conversation. I was truly gobsmacked many times and grateful for her willingness to seek out this information to be constantly researching and asking questions. One thing I’d love to ask her if we ever sat down again, which we could probably do an eight-episode series just with her, is how many freedom of information acts she has filed to get some of this information.
There are many. I’m sure of it. It’s another conversation to assess the advantages and disadvantages of charter schools. We can’t even have that conversation because first, we have to have the conversation of, “What are charter schools? How are they different from local public schools?” That information is very hard to find. Patti has gathered a lot of this through filing information acts to acquire those numbers and meeting minutes, but it’s not readily available. That’s why I’m grateful to someone like her because she’s done the hard work, most of it in our free time to put it together. She’s making that picture clear, which I appreciate. This is very enlightening if you want to understand charters in Texas.
It’s one for the books. That’s for sure.
Let’s check it out.
Patti, thank you for joining us. To kick off, could you tell us a little about you, your story and how you got into public education advocacy? That would help us to set the stage for where you come from.
Thank you so much. It’s a great opportunity. What you’re doing is great to go in-depth on some of these issues because I find it even for me, and I spend lots of time trying to understand processes and systems in education. It can be very complicated, particularly for a parent who is trying to make the best choice for their kid. I always want to say that, even though I now understand and believe that charter schools are big risks for the continuation of true public education, I respect parents trying to do the best for their children. Part of the problem is they don’t have the information. They need to make valid choices. It’s hard to find.
Part of my mission is to make things more transparent for parents. In fact, we had a bill in the legislature that charter schools oppose, which would make information practical things like, “Does a charter provide transportation for my kid?” I also respect charter school teachers. Many of them are very dedicated to the kids, as most teachers are. Often they don’t see the bigger picture. I talked to a lot of them, both current and former charter parents. It’s the charter system that is the problem and there are charters that take advantage of them. That’s my mission.
I came up through public schools. My son went to public school. I was involved in all the things you are involved in CAC, PTA, events, Halloween parties, and all that stuff. I only began to think about the system of public schools. I worked at a big foundation and we implemented a college readiness program at all the high schools in Austin. I worked with principals, etc., on behalf of the foundation to ensure we kids had college access.
That got me into working actually for AISD to do a lot of innovation. As a result of that, we traveled around the country. I had no particular bias towards charter schools. I knew nothing about them. This is in the mid-2000s, but we were able to work with some of the same foundations that are big supporters of charter schools to look at options around the country.
We went to a lot of charter schools both in Texas, New York and other places. My colleagues and I were fairly stunned at some of the practices, which would never be allowed at AISD. It made me curious about charters. They were not then as prolific as they are now. When we had a new superintendent in Austin who gave one of our elementary schools to idea public schools, parents were furious. There was no parent outreach until the very end.
IDEA took over this elementary school in East Austin without parental approval or anything. One of the first things they did was get rid of the library, which nobody could understand. It was crazy. The community elected a new board based largely on no parent engagement around these big education decisions. The first thing the board did was cancel the contract with IDEA.
IDEA said, “That’s okay. We’ll open our own campus,” which they did, their first campus in Austin. I started asking, “How do charters get to do that?” You have a community that was outraged by this action, but the charter school can do that. That got me into the whole process, which is a crazy process, especially for an existing charter school, like IDEA. Parents don’t get asked. They don’t know about it. There’s no public notice or public meeting. That got me involved in it. It was many years ago. That got me on this pathway of trying to understand how charter schools operate and what the impact is on public education.
I appreciate all the research you’ve done because I was sharing with Nichole how we initially connected. That was when IDEA Charter School bought some land in my neighborhood. I didn’t understand, similarly to the parents from the Austin community, how this was allowed to happen because there was no input. I was like, “Aren’t charter schools public schools? If they’re public schools, where was the public’s opportunity?” I wanted to understand how this happened. It was difficult. I couldn’t find an article that laid out the way charter has worked with public schools. I would like to try to find anything that connects charter schools to transparency and public accountability.
It was through finding articles where a superintendent made some offhanded remark or a school board member. I would find them on Twitter, send them a message and was like, “Can you explain this to me?” A lot of people pointed me back to you. It’s great that, but why is this abstruse? It was in the dark. That made me feel crazy that I wanted to know. That’s what this show is to help people who are like, “How is this the way it is? I want to understand.”
I want to highlight that you said there were already two schools within a 2-mile radius.Democracy can be messy because parents care very deeply about the education and the schools in their community. Click To Tweet
There would’ve been three in a 2-mile radius had IDEA been allowed.
You also mention that those schools were under-enrolled already. The other thing that is baffling to me is that this isn’t addressing a problem. This IDEA is coming into your neighborhood. There’s not a problem that they’re solving. The problem is actually under-enrollment and this isn’t going to help. It’s wild that they’re getting to come in without any clear oversight from the public not to solve a problem that exists.
Patti, can you take us back to the beginning? When I was in school, I didn’t think there were any charters. Now, as my son is starting pre-K, they’re everywhere. How did we get to where we are, where they feel like they’re on every corner, at least in Texas?
There are a couple of things charters were approved. They’d been around for many years. For about 25 years, the way I got involved is I found these big gaps in public policy understanding of charter schools. I couldn’t find its permission either. That is partly the issue with all the educational organizations. There are so many big issues with salary, safety and funding that those things take the front seat. Charter schools had about 20 to 25 years of being out there. Nobody knew much about them.
It’s under the radar.
That’s a good way to describe it. Certainly, no one understood very well how they operated. That’s what I found. Another reason I got involved is to understand it. It’s been the last few years and largely because of the efforts by State Rep. Donna Howard, for example, who began to disaggregate the data on the budget. We didn’t even know how much charter schools cost, then great work by other organizations that have been able to look at the data and figure out charter schools get more money per student than our public schools. I hope we can talk about that.
Back in the mid-2000s, you didn’t see many charter schools. KIPP was one of the first charter schools in Austin. Probably there were a couple of other smaller schools that were here and some were created by parents who didn’t like testing. Around 2008 or 2010 ish, they began this big expansion. Charters began to understand how easy it was to expand in Texas. That’s a big item.
The other thing we talked about one time was the documentary Waiting for Superman, which is an old hat now because people like to call it still Waiting for Superman. That came out in 2010, so it’s very old, but it got the attention of Wall Street, hedge funds and reformers. I do think it galvanized and led to a lot more expansion back then.
Many things have been disproven. There were so many things omitted from that discussion of charters, the things like the impact of poverty on children and education and underfunding of public schools. We don’t need to talk too much about that. Charters began to see the easiness of expanding the financial benefit, etc. Maybe we should talk very briefly about the expansion process at this point in the conversation. We can loop back into some of the other questions. IDEA was approved for one campus. It was around 2000 in Texas, and this is very unusual in some ways. Once a charter gets approved, and at this point in the process, it is a new charter that is voted on by our elected state board of education.
There is a public process there. It could be improved, but it’s strenuous. There’s a long application. Parents have an opportunity. Years ago, we were pushed for this. There’s now a public hearing before the state board, but there aren’t many new charters. TEA staff does a pretty good job of vetting the charters. There’ll be 28 who apply and between maybe 5 and 8 make it to the state board.
This is the important thing. Once you get a charter and meet certain TEA criteria, a charter can expand anywhere in Texas with an unlimited number of new charter campuses. IDEA starts out. It’s approved by one from the Rio Grande Valley. There is never another public hearing, an elected body that has anything to say and general notice to the public. They now have 98 campuses. The 97 of those campuses across Texas have been approved with virtually no public process. That is my problem. It’s Solely by the commissioner of education, whoever that commissioner is.
Do we even know what he’s assessing to vet these?
New applications have very clear criteria. They’re laid out and you can see what they are, not so with amendments, although we do know they check with each department to determine, “Are there financial reports in order? Are there any legal problems?” In my research, here’s an amazing number. Since 2010, 946 new campuses have been approved through the amendment process. No public process and no elected body involved. That then becomes a huge problem in terms of the budget because that is also an unlimited draw on public funds solely for charter schools. That’s a big deal.
To reiterate, the process is if me and Nichole want to start our new charter, we have this great idea, the Claire and Nichole School, we would have to apply to TEA. TEA would vet it and say, “You can do this. No, you can’t.” If they said yes, then we go before the SBOE. SBOE’s elected members would ask us questions about our school, “What’s your transportation look like? What’s your focus?” All that. At that point, can there be public testimony?
That’s not true. There is a public hearing. Charters have to do at least one public meeting before they submit their application. We’ve now done meetings that used to not be public because all they have to do is put a little notice in the newspaper in the advertisement no more than eighteen months before they submit the application. That was crazy because that meant this charter could be applying for a charter in the Dallas-Fort Worth County area. They have to do one meeting. We don’t know where it’s going to go. One notice and it could be any time in eighteen months. You got to look at The Morning News, the Star-Telegram, The Grapevine paper for eighteen months every day to find out about that. That has changed. We worked hard.
Charters now have to let state board members know. TEA now does a good job of posting the public meetings. There’s a public meeting. At least there’s an opportunity. Then TEA goes through an internal and external review. The commissioner then makes his recommendations to the state board, and then there’s a real public hearing and lots of discussions. There is a pretty robust process. You can go, testify and tell the state board what you think. They vote to either uphold the commissioner, which is a yes or to veto.
I worked on the very first veto the state board did, which was in 2013. They’ve only done about maybe ten vetoes since 2013. They’re very supportive of charters. They get a lot of criticism from charter schools for vetoing a new charter. 2021 was pretty incredible. There were lots of problems with the charter schools and they each had 4 out of 5, but that is a very outlier year.
It sounds like it’s pretty rigorous for a new charter. If me and Nichole go through this whole process and somehow we make it through and we set up the Claire and Nichole Charter School, then if we want to open our subsequent school, all we have to do is apply for a charter amendment, which goes before TEA. The educational commissioner looks at it and says yes or no, but the whole other process is already done. We never have to go through that again.
I always want to be thorough. You do have to meet some requirements. I won’t go into those, but you have to be in operation for a certain number of years. You can’t have over a certain percentage of low-performing campuses. The key to that is the commissioner can also waive those particular requirements that he does all the time to allow a charter. That’s one of the issues we have. It is like, “Why do we have rules if he all waived them?” A notice is sent to the school district about the charter. The charter board will have already approved the charter, but there is a notice sent to the school district. There is a notice sent to legislators who represent that district.
The problem with that is that legislators don’t know what to do with it. The public is dependent on either the right person in the district getting the notice often. It disappears because hundreds of things come into a district every day. The same with the legislator. They don’t know what to do with it. Maybe charter friendly. There’s no public notice. In 2021, there was no list of the amendments posted on the TEA website. I’ve done hundreds of public information requests just to get the darn. TEA is now posting it.They are our public schools and they belong to our community. That's why we have to have communities involved. Click To Tweet
The average parent is not going to look at that list every day to determine what’s been filed. I do that and try to alert several other people, but there is no public notice or meeting. You’ll not know unless I call you. You probably won’t know about it unless you happen to see the site plan that you discover in Del Valle It’s not a public process at all. Even if you find it, you’re not much to do about it. In Austin, parents got concerned about a BASIS Charter School going in the middle of several high-performing campuses and dozens of letters were written to the commissioner, but it was approved.
Nichole, what questions do you have at this point?
You are dropping bombshells right and left. I am stunned. The things that blew my mind were when you talked about the proliferation of campuses. That idea went from 1 campus to now has 98 is wild to me. Did you say that there are 946 new charter campuses?
That was approved. Some of those we had open. That many have been approved since 2010 solely by the commissioner.
That blows my mind. The other bombshell piece for me was when you said that there is more money allocated per student at charter schools than in public schools.
Maybe we can transition into the finance side of it and how different it is for the public. What’s a good way to distinguish between charters? Is it low local ISD and charters?
You can’t say they’re not public. We’ve been talking about how the language is confusing.
To look back at one point, and we’ll talk about the differences in charters. One of the big issues to me about this expansion is the idea of the democratic process. In some ways, if a community has a voice and there are lots of input and they decide they want to charter, I may disagree, but it’s a valid process. Democracy can be messy. What I’ve found is, in legislation, charters have a reluctance to get involved in the public process, whether it’s a bond, charter approval, etc. They don’t like that. Democracy can be messy because parents care very deeply about the education and the schools in their community.
That’s a big issue. Charter boards are self-selected. They’re not elected. That’s a very important point because you all know your school board members. If you have a problem, school board members publish their number. Parents know where to find them. If you don’t like their policies, you vote them out. That happens a lot. That’s happening, but not so with the charter boards. Charter IDEA, let’s use that as an example, wants to locate in Del Valle. Usually, there’s one member from a region.
Several years ago, there wasn’t, but now there’s one member from Austin on the IDEA. They call it a national board. That board meets in the Rio Grande valley. I’ve listened to many meetings. There rarely is any parent there at all. Occasionally, a parent will show up with some announcement. That board that is not from our community makes a decision about what’s going to happen in our community. In many charters, they have out-of-state board members. They’re not engaged. They don’t have a stake in our community, but they are determining that millions of dollars in revenue will get drained from our public schools without having any stake in no board members from our community.
That’s a subversion of the democratic process. If we turn to budget, important for the reason that, when I say we, it is a coalition of education organizations, parents, school districts very loose, but we have a legislative agenda each year. We’ve been pushing for integrating information in an evaluation of how new charter schools impact our public school system. How’s it going to impact Del Valle ISD, Austin ISD, or other ISDs when new charters are located? We didn’t really know much about this for a long time because the data wasn’t disaggregated for charter schools, and now we know a lot more.
It’s particularly important now because of the proliferation and the concentration of charter schools. Texas Parent PAC has a quote, which I like, and it is important that communities and parents, whether you’re a taxpayer, a parent, a grandparent, or some in interest in your community, understand that this is having a huge impact on your community. When you begin to lose your public schools, when you are spending taxpayer dollars to basically create a dual system, in Austin, there are probably 20, 30 or 40 charter schools, each one having a superintendent. You need those costs to pay a superintendent.
IDEA paid their superintendent $500,000 a year. That’s insane. You have no control over that. It’s boards that are self-selected. Texas Parent PAC has a quote, “We’re witnessing the most serious throughout Texas public education space in our lifetimes. How should we fight back and stand up for neighborhood schools?” My theme is they are our public schools and they belong to our community. That’s why we have to have communities involved. You can see it on the finance in. One important thing to remember, the legislative budget board has projected for this next biennium, charter schools will be 8% of the student population in Texas, but they’ll get almost 20% of all state funds. That is disproportionate and not sustainable.
That statewide, when you look at what’s happening in the primary districts where charter schools operate, it isn’t even more intensive. In Austin, about 20% of students transfer to charter schools. That’s over $100 million a year of revenue loss. Why is that important? If the student doesn’t go to AISD, the money follows the student, so it goes to a charter school. What’s the problem? AISD cuts its costs, and everybody’s happy. That is not the way it works is the problem. It’s much more complicated. The way charter schools work, and we can show this in the data, they serve larger areas. Let’s say they’re pre-K through five, for example.
That may be seven grade levels and the elementary school has three classes. Maybe a charter takes two kids from each class, but from ten elementary schools around the area. What that means is that elementary school, let’s say, has 22 kids. Public school districts have limits on class size. Charters don’t. Let’s say all their classes lose two kids. They go from 22 to 20. You can’t combine classes and get rid of a teacher because you don’t want to have 40 kids and by law, you can’t cut any teacher. That happens in all ten elementary schools. That school still has to operate for the majority of kids who remain there.
You’ve got fixed costs, utilities, janitorial, and maintenance, and you still got to run your bus transportation. Yet you have less revenue to pay the same cost. We call that stranded costs. What happens, and this is why we’re in a crisis. You reach a tipping point. When you’re losing $100 million a year, you got to start looking. If your costs are largely the same, you have to cut something.
Where do you start cutting? You start cutting enrichment programs, extracurriculars, elective classes, more counselors and social workers because you have to do the core things that are mandated by law safety teachers and teach all the main core classes. Austin is cutting back on Art and Music. Why? Revenues.
Years ago, mostly in East Austin was trying to close ten schools. Why? Primarily charter schools. There’s an impact. It doesn’t matter where you live if you’re a taxpayer, a parent or grandparent. You may live in west Austin and never see a charter school, although they are coming and expanding into the more suburban areas now in Georgetown, Leander, and Cedar Park because they’ve saturated the urban core. You may not see them very much, but they’re affecting you because when the district has to start making those hard budget decisions, it affects every student in the district.
What I understand is that the strain then right on those schools. They cut Art and Music, so those schools become less attractive. Where are those families going to turn? They’re going to want to go to that charter school down the road that can offer those things. It completely exacerbates the issue.
Charter schools spend millions of dollars on advertising. Public school districts don’t, partly because parents want the money to go to the kids.Underfunding leads to cutting things that make schools attractive—extracurriculars, theater, art, etcetera—and then privatization sounds like a really good thing. That's why it's a real crisis right now. It's important for parents to understand it. Click To Tweet
I watched a video because I saw a neighbor in the back of Claire’s car. She had for valor public schools and I’d never heard of it. I came home and did a little research. That video that they have on their website is super compelling. I can imagine if I had a little three-year-old and I’m starting to think about where to send them. It tugs at your heart. I know the Austin ISD probably can’t produce a video that’s that slick in that attractive.
Austin had an ad campaign, and parents were upset about it. Also, interestingly enough, the Texas Charter School Association has criticized ISD for advertising. I don’t have the dollars in front of me, but I believed in 2021, IDEA will spend $14 million on advertising. It’s a lot of money. They advertised during the last game of the World Series and the Super Bowl. Those are taxpayer dollars. That’s the problem. How do you compete with that? One thing I want to tell you, which is there’s this whole thing that we’ve put together, was, “How do you privatize public education and make it okay?”
First of all, you are in different schools. Texas is still in the bottom quarter. You limit transparency and accountability. You don’t know what’s going on. You allow charters to exclude high-needs students. They self-select students. You over-test and punish districts with the star test, which we know happens. You create an A through F accountability and underfunding leads to cutting things that make schools attractive, extracurriculars, theater, art, etc., and then privatization sounds like a good thing.
That’s why it’s a real crisis. It’s important for parents to understand it. Let me briefly say how charters get more money. Charters get, on average, about $1,150 more per student in our maintenance and operation. Those are the dollars to pay teachers and operate schools. That’s because of a quirk in the school finance system. Charters get the average of an allotment that is intended to help school districts under 5,000 with economies of scale.
If you’re in Marathon, Texas, out in Big Bend, they have 70 students or something like that. It’s a little bitty town. They have a great little school system, but they still have to have a superintendent. They have to meet mandates. They have to have a PM coordinator for data. That fund is intended to help these small school districts. They meet state mandates and all that kind of stuff. The crazy thing is regardless of charter schools’ size or enrollment. They get the average of that fund.
I’m picking on IDEA because I had the data handy. IDEA has about 68,000 students. That’s a lot more than 5,000. IDEA will get $68 million from the small to mid-size allotment in 2022. Austin with 70,000 plus gets zero. Del Valle, with 11,000, gets zero. IDEA with 68,000 students get $68 million. That’s a problem. Small charters, if they’re under 5,000, would be fair. They have economies of scale too. That’s why charters get more money.
It’s the court and the law that allows this?
We call it the charter allotment. We know it’s there. You can see it on the TEA documents on budget. Everything I do is public data. I always try to, in detail, note all my data because I want people to go look at it and know that it’s accurate and I’m not playing with the numbers. You can see that. A couple of years ago, State Representative Gina Hinojosa asked the legislative budget board the simple question. “If charters were funded the same as the district where they’re located, meaning they’d get the same per student as Austin ISD, what would it be the savings to the state?”
It’s different now because of HB3, but at that time, the state would have saved $882 million, almost $1 billion, if charters were funded the same. That’s an issue. If you think about an elementary classroom of 22 kids, a student leaves Del Valle and they go to a charter school. In Del Valle, that student gets $1,170 more. In Austin. It was $1,182. It varies a little by the district because of the way school finance works. The average is $1,150. A charter gets $20,000 to $25,000 for a typical elementary classroom between two kids. That’s a lot of money. A school with 500 kids is somewhere around $600,000 more.
That’s an Arts program.
Think about the whole charter enrollment. It’s not a level playing field in terms of funding, and we’ve had several bills introduced to level the playing field.
With charter schools, are they getting money from the state or are they also getting outside private money?
The only thing that’s reported is our state funds and federal funds. The state funds are a huge part of it. Many charter schools spend a lot on fundraising. IDEA, partly because they’re the largest charter school in the state. They’re a good example. They have a big budget for fundraising. They get tens of millions of dollars a year from the private sector.
That’s generally not reported on anything that we get in terms of a public document. Districts get some private money, but nothing compared to some of the larger charter schools. I look at the Walton Foundation and some of these big foundations. The money going to charter schools, to charter organizations just in Texas, is tens of millions of dollars.
When you say $14 million that spend on ads by IDEA, is that our money?
That’s taxpayer money. At some point, we ought to do a smaller thing on finding data, but you can go to a charter school’s annual financial report. That’s what I go to and the numbers there. Those are taxpayer dollars.
Even though I get what you’re pointing out, this is all public information. You’re just being transparent. For me, it feels like bombshells because there is so much murkiness around this and so much, I don’t want to say, misinformation, but there’s no information.
I’ll be honest here. There are some things I’m still trying to research because it’s all issue in time. It seems to me I’m getting this great letter. I know parents who were happy at this particular charter school or many charter schools. It is important to ask what some of the differences are. That is, in some ways, the most important thing because there are some charter schools that may have higher performance than a nearby neighborhood school. Although not always, overall, charters don’t perform better than when you look at district ratings. Public school districts have higher A and B ratings than charter schools.
It’s a valid question to ask that question. You have to know how charter schools select students in order to understand some of the issues. I was putting together some information about BASIS Charter Schools in San Antonio that I’ll weave into this conversation because it is a poster child for how charters can self-select students. Technically they have to accept all students. They have a lot to parents apply. There’s a lottery. The first thing that’s important to understand is that by law, Representative Hinojosa has introduced a bill every year of last recessions to eliminate this exclusion. A charter school in Texas does not have to enroll a student. They used to not even have to admit a student.
We got that changed, which I won’t go into detail, but they do not have to enroll a student who’s selected through the lottery if that student has any disciplinary history. That can be for minor offenses and sit into the principal office when a child is younger. Charter schools have denied that for a long time. They don’t accept all children. They have many narratives.Teachers matter. Click To Tweet
As we have begun to understand how this works, their argument is, “We don’t want a student in our charter school who would be dangerous to our students or teachers. We don’t have the same capacity of a public school district to deal with these kinds of students.” That’s an issue for public schools as well, but the irony of all that is that it is not what the law says, and that is not what charter schools do.
Some do and some don’t. Most do. We know it because we used to look at their applications. They say, “We reserve the right to exclude a student that has any discipline problems.” Very broad. The issue is that charter schools, ironically, must expel students for certain things the way public schools must do, but they have an easier time doing it. They can expel a student for any reason in the student code of conduct.
They are not limited to the expulsion reasons districts are limited to. If they have a student who is a problem, they can expel them quickly. It’s not a very good argument. That exclusion discriminates against children with special needs. We know that from research because special education students have higher rates of discipline infractions than other populations.
It also discriminates against kids of color, and that’s the national research and research that’s been done by Texas, Appleseed here in Texas. You can see that in the data. What’s important is charters don’t take all kids. The second thing is you can see it in the data because charters serve about 33% fewer children with special needs. They not only serve you or they spend less money in public school districts. I was looking at BASIS Charter School. They have a campus called Shavano, which is in the Shavano neighborhood in San Antonio. They are listed as one of the top high schools in Texas in US News & World Report. The devil’s always in the detail.
First of all, they lose 65% of their students between 8th and 12th grade. This is all data from TEA because they call students and you can see it in retention rates, etc. They only serve 1.1% of children with special needs. In North Side ISD, the two closest campuses serve up to 13% of kids with special needs, which is about right. Those are examples of the differences in charter schools. They don’t take all kids. Across the board, they serve fewer special needs kids and spend less money on them. When you look at specific campuses, it can be extraordinary like this one.
Nichole, what does this make you think of because you’re a former teacher?
I keep projecting out and seeing the stratification of these campuses. It’s clear that there’s this hierarchy being built of who is at which schools and which kids are getting served. We’re talking about local ISD because those public schools become the safety net and the catchall for those not wanted by the charters.
That’s the danger of having this eventual two-tier system. There are a lot of false promises. Another difference is parents don’t know charter school teachers do not have to be certified, and most are not. I had a parent come up to me and said, “You won’t believe this. Charter schools don’t have to have certified teachers.” I’m laughing because I know that. How would they know that? IDEA has big billboards that say, “We have highly qualified teachers.”
If you look at the data, they have far less experience than ISDs. They’re paid less. Most of them are not certified. Special Ed and Bilingual must be certified even at charter schools. Less experience and less time in the classroom. That’s a problem as well because we know for a highly qualified teacher, that 1st or 2nd year, you’re getting your feet on the ground. Teachers matter. Charters have much higher teacher attrition rates partly because they hire younger teachers, and they leave, etc.
How are they allowed to have teachers that aren’t certified?
They’re allowed by state law. Going back to waiting for Superman, that is the kind of this idea that, “We remove lots of these pesky rules and accountability, and we create this big innovation, we’re going to have to see this incredible change in student performance.” That hasn’t happened because of some of these pesky things like parent rights, which are now in the Vogue because of the governor, but charter parents lose a lot of rights under the law that public school teachers have pesky things like electing your board so that they’re accountable.
I did a public information request to try to get the board minutes for Harmony Public Schools several years ago. It took eighteen months and a ruling by the attorney general that they had to give me the minutes of the board. IDEA bought a boutique hotel back in 2019 in the Rio Grande valley. This was reported by one of the newspapers in the valley. The newspaper is asked for information about the purchase and IDEA refuses the public information request. The attorney general ordered IDEA to provide the information and IDEA is suing the attorney general because they didn’t want to turn the records over. That’s a problem.
Another theme here is this controlling of information so that people don’t even know what questions to ask. What I am baffled by is that you are anticipating our questions. Thank you so much so that you can give us the answers that we need. The recurring theme here is that with this withholding of information and standards typical public schools must follow, nobody knows what questions to ask or where to begin.
I have been a parent. It’s important for you to be involved, but it’s hard to figure things out, and yet you’ve got the benefit in a public school. I am not an apologist for public school districts. As the board knows in Austin and superintendents, I’ve gone head to head several times with them on things like closing schools, but you have the ability to influence it and have meetings. Public school districts do that, at least. The board has to vote and they’re accountable to you, not so charters.
It sounds like there’s an interesting attention point with this IDEA of privatization being pushed and also parental involvement and how they do not go together, at least in the current form these charters are operating. I don’t think people see that for what it is.
I think because there’s so much that is unknown, that easy to try to fit that idea of parental choice and parental involvement into the box of charters. It seems it’s a match. What we’re learning here is that it is not. If you don’t know what questions to ask and you make assumptions. Here’s an assumption I had. I thought charter school teachers were certified. I had no idea that they weren’t. I wouldn’t think to ask it because that would be an assumption that I would make.
A lot of parents think a charter school will operate much in the same way. They may have had kids in public school and think there will be transported. Most charter schools provide transportation. That is also a way to limit children who come. When you think about it, if a parent has to have reliable transportation, a car that works most of the time and the flexibility to take their kid to the charter and pick them up every day, that’s going to eliminate a lot of kids who can’t get there whose parents are working two jobs or don’t have a car. This IDEA or not providing transportation is a real way to basically self-select your students.
I will give the charter some credit. I’ve been surprised to see in the last couple of years, some of the bigger charters are now spending more on transportation. That’s a good thing. I mentioned libraries, but not all. Some have counselors, many don’t, but every school district has a school nurse. I forget that. For parents, if you’re thinking about going to valor and you want to know what they’re spending on school nurses, you can look. It’s very easy to find this information if you know where to look. BASIS, who I was talking about, they don’t have the food service, so they don’t provide free and reduced lunch.
Counselors and extracurriculars often spend far less on that. Don’t take all kids. We have self-selected governance that’s not accountable and often doesn’t live in your community more and more. Fifty-five percent of charter students are in nine big charter schools. There are lots of small charters, but most of the majority of students are in these very small numbers. Those boards do not live in Austin.
It sounds like for the big charters, it’s easier for them to grow and for the newer charters, there are more barriers. It’s harder for them to even come up if they wanted to, which is the system we have now.There are a lot of things that are just so questionable, but they're not illegal. Click To Tweet
For the new ones who have not even applied, they do have to go through a pretty strenuous application, which is good because that process has been criticized by charter advocates. When you’re approving a charter, it’s going to educate our kids. I’ve seen some charter applications. I read them. They’re about 1,000 pages long. It’s a pain, but you want to be sure they’ve got the capacity and the experience, and many of the new applicants don’t. TEA staff has ramped up their game and they asked good questions. It doesn’t always work out the way I might want it with the state board, but I think you do. Texas Charter School Association will say, “We’re not approving enough new charters to the process.”
They never talk about the amendments. Remember, even though a limited number of new charters may get approved every year, which is a good thing because you don’t want a charter that is not going to have the experience and capacity for kids, but that’s not for charter expansion. It is all with charter amendments. I believe 80 new charter campuses will be approved in 2021. That’s huge. That’s a lot. Eighty school district is a very large school district that gets approved basically every year, another in terms of numbers, etc.
I assume they’re going to have a restroom. It’s weird to be like, “You don’t have a restroom. “ It’s the same with these charter schools and them not having a library, nurses or the things we typically associate with schools because that’s probably what we had in our schools. What do you think are some good questions for parents to ask when they are evaluating where to send their child?
Some of the ones you just raised will be about the kinds of services and extracurriculars if you’re in middle or high school electives. If you’re in a high school, what are the career and technical education programs? Those are very popular. They keep kids engaged. Charter spend half of what school districts spend on career and technical education. The videos look good. It’s sometimes hard. Parents need to know if the school is certified as an alternative campus or a regular campus. That’s a whole other topic. I won’t get into it very much. I’ve looked at a charter in Dallas that is certified as an alternative campus, even though it has elementary students.
Their standards are much lower. Even though they may be A-rated, it is a totally different scoring system. I’ve never found anything on their website that tells parents, “We have lower standards than all the other schools in Dallas.” You need to know that. They also need to look at where the board meets. If you have a problem with the board, what is the process to talk to a board member so they understand the governance?
I doubt parents who go to IDEA know that if you want to talk to the board, you have to go to the Rio Grande valley. I suppose you can do it by phone. Parents don’t. You can’t go in person. We had a bill called Informed Choice, which I hope will get filed. It had a whole list of things that would, as charters require charters to list on their websites. You could have the answers to these questions.
Sometimes I try to find out which cities’ charters are providing transportation. I can look at what they’re spending on transportation, but trying to get through to the right person in the charter. I have a hard time getting through. No one calls me back, or you can’t find the right person. It’s hard to find on your own.
What’s this make you think about, Nichole?
Mind blown. I have such a basic question that I realized, “Let’s not operate on assumptions. Let me ask the question. Are charter schools for-profit?
I still get that question from legislators. In Texas, they can be, and they are in other states. Every state is different. In Texas, a charter has a sponsoring organization that is a nonprofit. Charters in Texas are nonprofit. That gets a little fuzzy sometimes because a charter school can hire a charter management organization or an education management organization, usually for-profit.
Charter management is usually nonprofit do most of the management of the charter. That can be for-profit or nonprofit. Usually, it can be anywhere from 8% to 18% of all state funds that go to that organization. It’s a lot of money. Once they go there, it’s hard to be accountable because they are a separate organization. You can’t always determine how they’re spending that money. It can be a for-profit that manages the charter. IDEA itself is a charter management organization. There are other charter management organizations that are entities from out of state or whatever that manage charters around the country.
It’s very confusing. Would this doesn’t exclude whether they’re for-profit or not, does it mean they can pay at incredibly high levels that you’re not going to see a local ISD superintendent pay that? You were saying that the CEO of IDEA was paid $500,000 a year. Even though it might be “nonprofit,” that doesn’t mean that people aren’t paid exorbitant amounts of money and that they don’t have huge budgets. I think sometimes I can maybe conflate nonprofits with low administrative costs and charitable type of activities, but I need to not conflate those things.
Charters in Texas are our nonprofit. There are two issues related to this whole money thing. We get back to accountability and the whole issue we talked about. If you tune into a charter meeting on video, usually, you can not always lie, but you can tune in. There are rarely parents or people from the public school districts in meetings. I’ve never been to a meeting where there aren’t a lot of parents and teachers there. That has its own lack of accountability that nobody knows. I never tuned into board meetings when I was a parent. I certainly wouldn’t go find them and nowhere to go
You don’t have time. You’re taking care of your kids and working. You don’t have this accountability from the public and districts can screw up too and have, but usually, parents ask questions they tend to comply with public information requests better. There are so many instances where charters spend public dollars on things that may not be illegal but should not be so public funds. For example, a charter out of Houston in a Dallas campus bought two luxury condos, one in Houston and one in Dallas, for record storage. The Houston Chronicle reported on this. These condos are advertised as luxury condos with marble table tops and a swimming pool.
TEA was saying, “There’s no prohibition against buying a residential property.” They can do that. There are a lot of things like that that are questionable, but they’re not illegal, but a school district can’t get away with that. Getting back to IDEA, one of the things that the Houston Chronicle disclosed is that idea was trying to lease a $15 million private jet for the convenience of the senior staff and the board. They have schools in different states. It’s not illegal. They made this decision in about six minutes in the board meeting, but I give one board member credit who said, “Maybe we should develop some talking points on this because people may want to know.” I’m like, “I think you better.”
Can you imagine if a local ISD wanted to lease a private jet?
It’s such a disparity. I think about my local school. My neighbor, her daughter, went there last year and she was like, “You won’t believe it. Their laminator went out. They can’t laminate stuff anymore. The laminator is $4,000. We have to go fundraise.” I’m like, “Let’s fundraise.” Buying luxury condos and having jets? We can’t get a laminator for the very basic functions of an elementary school. It gets my hair on fire.
What you want to have are some red flags to flag these things. The other thing that happens is charter schools will create an independent entity, which can be a for-profit or a nonprofit. We call this a related party transaction. They can have board members or the superintendent on that independent entity. That entity then buys the charter building and the charter leases from that entity. They do have to disclose that on their annual financial report, which you can usually find there, but you have to look for it on page 39 down at the bottom.
What’s that price per square foot that they’re charging? It’s insane.
They say we charge market value rates. No one is on top of that. TEA does not even know which of those organizations are doing that. The important thing about that is, in the end, public dollars pay for that facility. In the end, they are owned by a third party, not by the charter. If the charter goes out of business or whatever, where if they sell it, that money goes to that entity, even though public funds have paid for it. That’s a huge one.We're advocating for more transparency and accountability because it's public funds. Click To Tweet
We don’t want public schools to have insider trading or related party transactions. When they do, that’s a problem. In charter schools, it is very hard. It takes a lot of research to find it because you don’t have that other layer of accountability. What we’re advocating for is more transparency and accountability because it’s public funds.
There is so much amazing information. Parents are busy. Sometimes it’s hard to look at their folders and see what’s going on in their classroom life. What’s one thing that you do recommend parents pay attention to if that’s all they have time for?
I’d like to address that in a little roundabout. The work you all are doing is important for school districts to get more engaged. It’s tricky for districts. It’s important for parents to begin to come together and ask for information like this. You all were good in Del Valle at bringing parents together around this idea. In some ways, we have to throw it back a little bit on parents. There was a group of parents who, right before COVID, were organizing to let parents know in East Austin the basic things. Teachers aren’t certified. They have less experience. AISD has college counselors. It’s up to parents to engage in that.
Districts have to talk more about the opportunities they provide. I get frustrated with districts that, every time Harmony has a student that goes to an Ivy league, it’s all over their newsletter. Districts have lots of those kids, but you never know about it. Scholarship opportunities, charters, we’ll get that number out. This $10 million, Del Valle itself probably has ten times that. Districts need to talk more about opportunities that are there that they take for granted.
I found out a new program at an elementary school in Austin that is absolutely phenomenal, but I didn’t know about it. Sometimes, it’s hard to know. Those two things are very important that parents themselves, both districts, groups like you guys, and even some of the groups I work with need to reach out more to parents so that they know because they don’t know. Charters are going to be there. There probably are some options for many parents. It’s important to understand what the impact is of this unlimited expansion.
That’s the big key. Do we want to close more neighborhood schools in East Austin and replace them with charter schools when neighborhood schools are a hub of our community? Charter schools can close. They don’t have to give much notice. All the things we talked about don’t have to take all kids and serve fewer special needs kids. What do we want in our community? Those are the important questions that parents need to be asking.
Talking about how are schools local ISD not as good about bragging about themselves is what I understand. It’s because they’re like, “We do this and then we move on to educating kids. We have afterschool care. We have meals and transportation.” It’s such a mind shift. I would imagine for them to be like, “No, we have to mark it now too.”
We wouldn’t think you need to brag about it. That’s just what they do.
You wouldn’t brag about your school nurse and how involved your librarian is in the whole fabric of the school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a librarian as a staff person on a charter. There probably are some. You may hear now that I’ve said there aren’t many. Routinely, they don’t have librarians. I think about the importance of the librarian in my son’s elementary school, organizing book fairs, and getting kids engaged. The janitor was a very important part of the fabric of the community charter school. They have contracts with janitorial. Districts don’t think about a school nurse or the librarian is being real asset.
As they’re putting the whole tapestry of their campus and our district together, and the services they provide on Saturdays for parents and afterschool care. There’s a new report out by the Texas charter school that charter “competition” improves the public schools. Every narrative, we’ve begun to break those narratives down. These charter narratives that charters would say, “We get less money.” We’ve proven that’s not true. “We take our kids,” they don’t take our kids. Now, this idea of every school improves, I’ve got data to show. You can see that, in fact, nearby neighborhood schools, as charters create higher-performing students, the neighborhood schools begin to struggle.
If you have to begin to start cutting, it’s this downward spiral or vortex. I don’t think that narrative works. A lot of the innovations that many districts started were way before charters were proliferating. Early college and high schools came out of public schools, global studies, young women’s leadership, all the career and technology education, which is exploding with P-TECH and Culinary Arts. Those have nothing to do with charter schools locating next door. That’s one of the things I’m working on now. You want to know the truth. There may be some things that came out of that.
That’s what I appreciate the most about this discussion is that it’s not about demonizing charter schools at all. It’s about transparent information and being honest about how these systems work and how the charter system affects the public school system. It’s about transparency and being real about the effects.
The one thing I’d leave is that we must look at the impact, both the physical impact, which then has everything to do with programs and services and staffing. If we don’t do that, that’s when we’re going to lose the real essence of our public schools. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a community where there are a few charter schools. It’s going to affect the entire district and the entire geographic area. It’s not like coming. It’s here. It’s a question of, “What happens next ten years?
We’re going to try to end on a silly note. We like to do this thing called attention mentions, where you mention something that has your attention. It can be a movie you enjoyed, a book, or an article, not necessarily something that you love, but like, “I can’t get this out of my head.” I’ll do a silly one. This is going to show you who I am before I fall asleep. I’ve been watching The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip: Ex-Wives edition. It’s ridiculous. All these women on the different franchises come together to this house for eight days, have fun and fight. It’s like I don’t have to think. It’s a nice palate cleanser for my brain.
I will try to get you guys. I believe I have a copy of it. The state board always awards a Teacher of the Year award. It’s an H-E-B Award, but they’re announced at the state board meeting. There were two teachers who spoke. It was a packed audience because it was also the day they were doing the charter vote. Lots of people were there. These teachers, one from the valley, it was incredible in terms of it was not one of those kinds of trite speeches, “We love kids. We’re committed to our job.” It was anecdotal. It talked about the difficulty, need for more support, and funding. People were stunned.
I had a very sweet thing that happened. Literally, I walked out of that meeting and the state board had vetoed four charters. I couldn’t get out of the parking garage at UT because all the kids were getting out of orientation. It was totally backed up. “I’ll run into the little chapel that’s there. I’ve been meaning to go into it.” We went in there for a few minutes. It was beautiful. I was going to run into the Blanton Museum because I figured I was still backed up. I’m going out. I didn’t stay long because I decided, “I need to get back to work.” Out of the blue, in the hallway, someone says, “Is that Patti Everitt?” I turned around and it was my son’s first-grade teacher.
I heard this teacher of the year, Ms. Graham, at Pease Elementary. Her husband was there. I had never met him and she’s retired now. These are how important teachers are. Immediately she said to him, “Do you remember me telling you about Patti’s son? He was a little boy who wore the white shrimp boots all the time.” My family in Louisiana, my sister had given him these white shrimp boots, rubber. They’re very hot, but he wore them constantly when he was in first grade. She remembered all that 25 years later. I was touched by that. That’s what I’ll end with the importance of teachers.
Maybe I won’t be as silly this time. I’ll share a documentary that I watched called Fair Play. I had to pay to rent it. It’s about the tasks, especially that exist in homes and how women take those on often without even thinking about it, so that mental load. They followed couples where they were trying to address that within their home. It was good. It was Reese Witherspoon’s production company that produced it. I rented it on iTunes.
Has it changed your life yet?
When I ask my husband to do things, I don’t quite set him up the way I used to. They talk a lot in there about handing over the task and letting them take it from the beginning to the end. That’s something that I tried to take on board and own. If I’m asking him to do something, then I’m going to give it to him. I’m not going to manage it or babysit him through it.
“Let me do it my way.”
That’s a little takeaway I have, but it hasn’t revolutionized my life quite yet. We’re working on it.
Thank you, Patti. We appreciate having you.
Your level of expertise is unbelievable. Thank you.
Every time I talked to Patti, I learned twenty-plus new things. That’s great.
One caveat. Everything I do is public data. I hope I haven’t misstated anything here. I may have got one of the billion dollars wrong, but a speaker of the house many years ago, when he was talking about the federal budget, used to say, “Billions of dollars. Now we’re talking real money.” With charter schools and things like that, when you start getting into the billions, it’s like $20 billion, $22 billion or somewhere there.
Thanks. We appreciate it.
About Patti Everitt
Patti Everitt is a consultant on state education policy with a focus on the impact of charter schools on public education in Texas. She works with parents and organizations to develop strategies that will increase the transparency and accountability of charter schools and stop their unlimited expansion. Patti has led efforts for local, state, and national organizations to design and implement innovative education, employment, and health initiatives for youth.