It may not exactly be the best of times and the worst of times for Austin ISD. But there is a right way and a wrong way for a school district to try to establish a charter school, and within the space of a year Austin ISD has demonstrated both.
Last year about this time, the Austin school board ignored overwhelming community opposition and rammed two charter schools down the throats of East Austin residents. The board approved a partnership with charter operator IDEA Public Schools to convert Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School, both traditional public schools, into charters. Allan was converted into a charter this past fall, and Eastside was to become a charter later.
Voters responded last month by overhauling the school board. The issue was particularly critical in East Austin, where challenger Jayme Mathias unseated Sam Guzman, who had voted for the IDEA contract against the wishes of most of his constituents. Mathias campaigned hard against the IDEA decision and for community involvement.
On Monday night, the board voted 5-4 to end the partnership with IDEA at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Three of the four new members, including Mathias, voted with the majority.
The new board, however, didn’t shut the door on the charter concept. It merely shut the door on arbitrary, top-down charter decisions. At the same meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to approve a charter partnership for Travis Heights Elementary, a diverse school with a mix of languages and family incomes on Austin’s near south side.
What was the difference?
In Travis Heights’ case, the board sought the support of teachers and the neighboring community. The charter will be managed by a board representing teachers, community members and Austin Interfaith. Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate, will be an active partner. The school’s leaders will have more power over its budget and curriculum, which will include, among other things, dual language instruction.
Travis Heights offers a lesson in how to design a charter from the bottom-up, not the top-down. That can make all the difference in the world.