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Charter School Backlash Shows Why Oversight is Needed in Texas

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Texas Capitol
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IDEA Public Schools recently cancelled a multimillion-dollar lease for a private jet and San Antonio Spurs tickets after a wave of negative backlash. State officials should dig a bit deeper to ensure IDEA and other charter management organizations, or CMOs, operating in Texas are behaving ethically and in the best interest of all Texas students.

Representatives from IDEA claim that the money for the private jet and Spurs tickets came from donations. IDEA’s CEO claimed that both the jet and the tickets were acquired to reward committed educators and reduce workload for organization members who may have to visit IDEA schools across Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

As taxpayers and education policy professors, we’re glad to know IDEA wants to reward its teachers and administrators, but these financial decisions raise an important question lawmakers should consider: Can a privately run educational system using primarily taxpayer money and operating across multiple states be effectively monitored? Because currently, there are instances that raise serious concern. Policymakers ought to do more to ensure that IDEA and others like it have at least some oversight.

CMOs are similar to traditional public schools in some ways, but they differ in others. For example, they are not managed by elected school boards. Instead, IDEA and others have privately appointed boards that may not share the same interests of the communities they serve.

IDEA recently stopped allowing business deals between school leaders and their relatives, which included an instance where IDEA’s uniform vendor was partially owned by the husband of Chief Operations Officer Irma Muñoz. Traditional school districts already have rules against this.

IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson also received more than $550,000 in total compensation in 2017. The president and superintendent of IDEA received more than $400,000 in total compensation in that same year. Although attracting top talent is probably a priority, these salaries are significantly greater on a per-student basis than those of typical school district leaders, which should raise questions about how taxpayer public education dollars are being spent.

Special education is another area of concern. Special education enrollment in IDEA schools does not reflect state or national averages, as just 5.4% of IDEA students receive special education services compared with 9.6% statewide. This means in areas where IDEA enrollment is strong, traditional public schools serve a disproportionate share of students with disabilities, which can cause a financial strain on public schools.

Teacher turnover is also a critical issue. The state average years of experience for a teacher is 11.1 years compared with 5.1 years at IDEA campuses. Families become less connected to schools with high teacher turnover, and more taxpayer dollars must be allocated to continuously recruit and train novice teachers.

And IDEA is expanding, especially in Texas, partly with support from philanthropic organizations and the federal government. IDEA’s goal is to go from approximately 50,000 current students in nearly 50 schools to 100,000 students nationwide by 2022-2023. In just one year, from 2016-17 to 2017-18, enrollment at IDEA schools in Texas increased from about 29,000 to 36,000.

At the very least, this growth should warrant some attention from state officials and taxpayers who want to ensure tax dollars are used efficiently. Otherwise, districts may find their new campuses underenrolled if charters open in close proximity. Take El Paso for example, one place IDEA is expanding. Some districts have declining enrollment while others have passed more than $1 billion in bonds to build and modernize campuses.

Yes, it is true that public school districts and other public organizations can engage in corruption and fail to embrace its community or act with the best interest of taxpayers. But they are monitored. IDEA and other CMOs must be carefully monitored just as public schools are.

We have personally visited IDEA campuses and know that their educators are passionate about serving students, but any organization that receives taxpayer money and educates children must have checks and balances to ensure that policy decisions efficiently use public resources so that students benefit to the maximum extent possible.

David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at The University of Washington.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Austin American Statesman and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

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