Whitmire: 7 Ways Charter Schools & Districts Are Remaking Education in Texas


Texans maintain they’ve been on a roll ever since 1901, when oil was discovered at Spindletop Hill. Perhaps. But when it comes to charter schools, there’s a more recent roll taking place that may rival Spindletop.

Dramatic changes are happening after a decade when Texas charters “lost their swagger and went on autopilot,” as one charter network founder put it. Now, the swagger appears to have returned.

Skeptical? Consider these developments:

On Wednesday, Valero Energy Foundation announced a $8.4 million gift to pay for 14 KIPP-trained college guidance counselors for San Antonio ISD.

Why is this big? Because this is the tip of what could spread nationally: deep-pocket funders who have long been wary of giving to traditional school districts eager to jump in when the cause is a college success collaboration between charter networks that have pioneered these programs and traditional districts just sticking their toes into that water.

In August, the Texas legislature passed a bill that for the first time would give charters facilities money. The amount, $60 million, isn’t enough to cover more than some modest repairs, but the principle is important and may have national impact: Shouldn’t legislatures fund schools, including facility expenses, based on their effectiveness rather than on whether they are traditional or charter?

That’s not the only pro-charter legislation to emerge recently. In the spring, lawmakers offered traditional districts a huge incentive to partner with charters. Not only do they get a boost in funding, but they also get a two-year reprieve from state sanctions if the schools are low-performing.

That action, the two-year reprieve, hasn’t drawn a lot of attention, even within Texas. But the odds that the reprieve could blossom into a major player in the coming years are significant. What district isn’t looking for a breather on schools they can’t turn around?

Behind much of this is the Texas District Charter Alliance, a group of charters and districts that agreed on common goals.

Rio Grande Valley–based IDEA Public Schools is poised to make a dramatic statement on expanding with quality.

Fueled by a recently announced $85 million federal grant, IDEA appears likely to meet its 2022 goal of running 173 schools that enroll 100,000 students, up from its current 61 schools that enroll 36,000 students. Next year, IDEA will add 18 new schools, and another 18 the following year.

Growing at a rate that few charter networks dare, IDEA has kept student success high by hewing to a tight, never-changing replication model. If IDEA can do it, why not others?

The student outcomes at Texas charters have improved in recent years, partly (or mostly) because of a state law passed in 2013 (SB2) that forced closures of low-performing charters.

In the first year under that new law, 60 charters were closed, compared with 47 in the three years before. That may explain why Stanford’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found that over the past three years, Texas charters added the equivalent of 17 more days of reading instruction per year (measured against their district peers). There was no change in math.

“Texas is indeed on a roll,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “because of changes made to its state law through SB2 that place a greater premium on quality — both to close bad schools and offer high performers a fast-track application process to replicate.”

Or, as KIPP co-founder “big dog” Mike Feinberg put it succinctly: “We tended our garden, pulled the weeds, and gave tender loving care for the flowers to bloom.”

The growth in demand for charters in Texas appears to be relentless.

Seven years ago, there were 119,600 students in Texas charters; last year there were 272,700. IDEA is not the only fast-growing network there; in Houston, KIPP’s student population just grew by 8 percent, up to 13,346 students, while YES Prep Public Schools grew at the same rate, up to 10,258 students.

Harmony Public Schools has 33,500 students in 54 schools. Uplift Education has 16,000 students on 17 campuses in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Smaller cities, such as El Paso, that in recent years had few charter options are suddenly seeing interest from major charter networks.

And still, there aren’t enough seats for parents who want in. Across the state, there are 130,000 students on waiting lists.

Charter-district collaborations in Texas outpace those in other states.

The United for College Success collaboration has emerged as a national model for others to copy. The group is a mix of charters and traditional school districts, all trying to boost the college success rates of its alumni. With the recent addition of Emerge, the college success program at Houston ISD, the group has gained major clout that can be wielded during negotiations with colleges to provide more support for their first-generation alumni.

One interesting discussion item within this group right now: How can charter networks (and possibly traditional districts as well) share the considerable burden of making on-campus checks on their alumni, an important part of ensuring those alumni will walk away with degrees?

Couldn’t a charter network based in Houston check on alumni from other networks attending college in that city, while a Dallas-based charter does the same there? Intriguing idea, especially with the number of charter alumni continuing to grow. In the years to come, what gets worked out here could become the norm everywhere.

This is just a short list of developments in Texas, a list that doesn’t even include the new common application for charters in Houston, where parents can apply to five charter networks using a single application form.

Why Texas? Why now?

Let’s start with “Why Texas?” One reason is that Texas has four charter powerhouses — IDEA, YES Prep, KIPP, and Uplift Education — that are very much interwoven by a mix of talent and shared ideas, as described in The Founders. Houston is the birthplace of KIPP, and YES Prep’s founder, Chris Barbic, once roomed with the KIPP founders while they were all in Teach for America. Barbic helped give IDEA an early boost, and both KIPP and YES were role models for IDEA.


Charter and Traditional Schools Find a Common Purpose in Texas KIPP is collaborating with local districts to improve college admission and graduation rates.


Charter and Traditional Schools Find a Common Purpose in Texas

KIPP is collaborating with local districts to improve college admission and graduation rates.


Richard Whitmire

Oct. 27, 2017 6:39 p.m. ET


Charter-school operators and traditional school districts have long behaved like enemies. But an intriguing truce has emerged in an unlikely place: Texas. In the Lone Star State’s three biggest cities, charters and traditional district schools have discovered that collaborating to help their high-school graduates earn college degrees is a win-win.

Knowledge is Power Program, a national charter network founded in Houston more than two decades ago, helped eight charter operators in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston join forces with local public school districts. Together they formed a new organization, United for College Success. The group’s goal is to improve college graduation rates among alumni. In addition to sharing best practices, United for College Success has begun pressuring local colleges and universities to do more for their students, many of whom are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

This isn’t the only promising collaboration between charters and local districts. In 2015 KIPP San Antonio struck a deal with the San Antonio Independent School District, where the student population is 62% Hispanic and 24% African-American. Three quarters of kids in the San Antonio ISD are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch. By 2020, with KIPP’s help, the district hopes to boost the percentage of its students going to college to 80% from the current 50%. Both KIPP and the San Antonio district want to see half of the city’s graduates heading off to four-year colleges and 10% going to the top tier of schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Two years ago, 20% of San Antonio’s college-bound graduates were headed to four-year colleges. Only 3% were enrolled in selective schools.


Like most urban districts, San Antonio’s had never paid much attention to the college success of its graduates. Educators long viewed that as being up to students, parents and colleges—not high schools. But Mr. Martinez and his colleagues, to their credit, chose to take on the challenge, tapping into lessons learned from the now decade-old KIPP Through College Program aimed at matching low-income minority students with the schools where they are most likely to succeed. The KIPP team follows each student until college graduation, making sure that everything from financial aid to course credits stays on track.

In New York and Houston, the percentage of KIPP graduates earning bachelor’s degrees within six years has risen steadily thanks to the Through College Program. In both cities, roughly half of the program’s graduates now earn their degrees in six years, up from about a third in 2011. Nationally only 9% of students from low-income families earn bachelor’s degrees in that time frame.

The San Antonio partnership, funded by a grant from Texas energy giant Valero, has already borne fruit. At Thomas Jefferson High, the pilot school where a KIPP adviser spent most of her time, 53% of 2017 graduates were accepted into four-year colleges, compared with only 26% in 2016. “We’re seeing a marked increase in the number of students who not only are graduating and going to college, but are being accepted to Tier One universities,” said San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. KIPP has benefited as well from the chance to run their college-success playbook at scale, the kind you find only in big traditional districts.

There’s a reason why collaborations built around college success have proven popular with both traditional districts and charters. Unlike the annual enrollment competition, in which districts lose students and dollars to charters, only high-school graduates are involved. There are no losers, no lost dollars and no closed schools. In fact, traditional districts stand to gain.

Charters are public schools, and their operations are funded by taxpayer dollars. But in most places charter founders need to raise outside funding to launch their schools. For years, traditional school districts watched resentfully as philanthropists and foundations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new charters. The imbalance prompted teachers unions to wage national revenge campaigns, accusing “billionaires” of “privatizing” public education.

Yet the sometimes hostile dynamic between charters and traditional districts shifts when the topic changes to fostering college success. In San Antonio, for example, Valero stepped up with a $3 million gift to KIPP’s college program, $700,000 of which was set aside for launching the collaboration with the San Antonio district. Early next month, Valero is expected to make an announcement of fresh funding for new, KIPP-trained college counselors for the district.

Much of what the college counselors do involves relatively simple data crunching. They look to see which universities in the San Antonio area have amassed a positive record helping low-income and minority students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years. St. Mary’s University, for example, has a far higher graduation rate for Hispanics than does the University of Texas, San Antonio. KIPP tracks college success data like that for hundreds of colleges, a repository of crucial information that San Antonio district counselors can now access.

Recently, the Houston Independent School District’s college-success program, Emerge, joined the United for College Success coalition with the charters. Among the questions they are exploring together: Is there a way to share the time-consuming task of checking in on students at their college campuses?

The participation of a large district such as Houston gives the coalition heft when pushing universities for changes to help first-generation college-goers. Collaborating with charter schools doesn’t bother Emerge founder Rick Cruz, a former fifth-grade Teach for America teacher. At the end of the day, he says, these are all our kids.

If only that attitude could spread nationally.

Mr. Whitmire writes “The Alumni” series at The 74 and is author of “The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.”

College Persistence Linked to Rigorous Courses and Academic Advising

New research suggests that if schools can figure out how to keep college freshman on track, the nation could be well on its path to meeting President Obama's 2020 goal of leading the world in producing college graduates.

A study released Thursday finds the answer is linked to higher levels of math in high school, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and good college advising. And those factors hold regardless of student's socioeconomic status.

The research by Kasey Klepfer and Jim Hull at the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association focused on freshman-to-sophomore persistence rates, since college students are more likely to drop out their first year than any other. And with graduation rates hovering around 58 percent at four-year colleges and 33 percent at community colleges, educators are eager to learn how to get more students to the finish line.

"High School Rigor and Good Advice: Setting up Students to Succeed" a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 high school sophomores in 2002 through their second year in college, both two- and four-year institutions, and discovered three factors related to students' chances of success:

  1. High-level mathematics: Taking Pe-calculus, Calculus or math above Algebra II gave student from a high socioeconomic status (SES) a 10 percent better chance of persisting at a four-year college and improved the odds by 22 percent for those from a low SES.
  2. Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses: The study found the more of these courses a student took, the higher their persistence rates were. This was especially true for low-achieving and low-SES students. They got an 18 percent boost in success at four-year colleges and a 30 percent boost at two-year schools if they enrolled in these classes. "It is surprising that we find that simply taking an AP/IB course in any subject improved persistence in college, and that whether a student passes a test for that course isn't as important," the report noted.
  3. Academic advising: Talking to an academic adviser in college either "sometimes" or "often" significantly improved persistence rates as much as 53 percent for low-income students at four-year colleges and 43 percent at two-year schools.



Government eases student loan rules for Harvey victims

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Education Department is easing financial aid rules and procedures for those affected by Harvey.

The department is encouraging students whose financial needs have been altered by the storm to contact their school's financial aid office. The agency says in a statement that colleges and career schools will be allowed to use "professional judgment" to adjust a student's financial information in the aftermath of Harvey.

A school may even be able to waive certain paperwork requirements if documents were destroyed in the flooding.

The department says borrowers struggling to pay off loans because of Harvey should inform their loan servicers — and they've been directed to give borrowers flexibility in managing loan payments.


Special Report: Tuition spikes send higher education enrollment tumbling

A startling decline in U.S. college enrollment reflects growing doubts about the value of a degree at a time when tuition is surging, grads are strapped with crushing student loan debt and financial aid awards are shrinking.

The number of Americans enrolled in colleges and universities has dropped every year since 2011, to a low of 19.1 million in 2015, the most recent year tallied, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That’s a full 1.2 million fewer students than were enrolled in 2011.




Practical Ways to Avoid For-Profit College Pitfalls

For-profit colleges are a part of everyday life. For many people they present a quick, but often expensive, way to avoid the traditional college system in favor of a "quick" and convenient degree. However, in many of these cases, nothing is really what it seems. From large costs to lack of accreditation, many of these institutions pray on students trying to graduate quickly and get a job leaving many of them in significant debt with a degree that is unaccredited and useless outside of the school. 

If you are considering a for-profit school, please take a look at this article to make sure you are asking the right questions and not being scammed. 

What is a "High Yield" University and Which Schools Have the Highest?

"Yield," in terms of higher education can be defined as the percentage of the admitted students that a college or university actually enrolls. Each year colleges admit a varied number of students, keeping in mind what their typical yield might be. In general higher-yield schools tend to be "first-choice" institutions for many of their admitted students. But which schools have the highest yield. Take a look at this US News & World Report article from this morning. Some of these first-choice schools just might surprise you.