Cherry picking students with tax dollars


A parent named Laurel, whose daughters attend the new BASIS charter school in San Antonio, took strong exception to my recent blog post about BASIS’ cherry-picking practices. The cherry-picking – or taking the best students from public schools and being paid tax dollars to do it — is just fine with her because she got to take her daughters out of an “awful” public school – her description – and put them in a better school for which she doesn’t have to pay private school tuition.

Sounds like a win-win, eh? It obviously is for Laurel, at least so far, and I hope it is for her daughters. But it isn’t a win for thousands of other students in San Antonio, nor is it a win for other Texas taxpayers, including me. I live in Austin, but a share of my state tax dollars find their way to charter schools in San Antonio and elsewhere.

You can read all of Laurel’s comments, if you wish, by clicking on my previous blog post at the link below.

The point of my earlier post was that BASIS, by weeding out struggling students and failing to meet the needs of special education students at its schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., posed a threat to a public education system in Texas that already is inequitably financed and is getting worse.

Charter chains, such as BASIS, which is run by a for-profit operating company, are neglecting the needs of millions of struggling students and children with special needs – many from low-income minority households – the very children that Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick claimed to be trying to help when he convinced the Legislature last spring to expand the number of charters in Texas. Patrick shed crocodile tears during a public committee hearing one day as he pleaded the plight of the educational also-rans.

But that point apparently is lost on Laurel and, doubtlessly, many others.

“I would not say that BASIS is for every child, and the fact that parents with disabled kids have had to find a better option for them than BASIS is NOT necessarily a problem,” Laurel wrote.

But it is a problem for millions of Texas parents and taxpayers because the more cherry-picking that BASIS and other corporate charters practice with our tax dollars, the weaker become our traditional, under-funded public schools, the only resort for the vast majority of Texas children. Those children are overwhelmingly poor, many have special needs and they, too, represent the future of our state.

Laurel contends that charter schools are not under-mining the budgets of traditional public schools because they are paid only for teaching the children they enroll. But that argument misses the point that school districts can’t reduce their costs when they lose students to charters. The money goes with the students, but districts have fixed costs that remain, including building maintenance, bus routes and other costs that simply cannot be reduced proportionately.

And, remember, the Legislature still hasn’t fully restored the $5.4 billion cut from the public education budget two years ago, although total school enrollment has grown by about 170,000 students since then. Laurel, nevertheless, makes the tired old argument that public school budgets are “fat.” They aren’t. If they were, 11,000 teachers wouldn’t have lost their jobs in the first year after the budget cuts were imposed.

Laurel makes it clear she is not impressed with the public schools she has seen. Yes, many public schools in Texas are struggling, while many others do great jobs, much better than many charter schools. The bottom line for public education in Texas is the bottom line of the public education budget. And, as long as Texans continue to elect a legislative majority that is more interested in transferring tax dollars from neighborhood schools to cherry-picking corporate charters than it is in adequately and equitably funding the public school system, many parents will remain unhappy.


  • I have not made adecision over whether to send my kids to Basis next year, and am doing research on it. So far, I have found many emotional outcries against the school, with little causal evidence to support the outcries. I can clearly see the attrition rates are higher than at a public school, but I am not sure that should be a surprise, when considering the full span of a school career. It is a concern, however, for a parent who doesn’t want to have to pull a child due to failing grades.

    Most of the arguments against the school have been about its private leadership. Since the school is paid per enrolled student, and receives less per child than a public school, the conflict evades me. Since this site supports a teacher’s organization (and I am a former teacher myself), I would like to hear more evidence than cloak-and-dagger conspiracy theories. We expect more from our students, and should expect more from each other.

    If there is a causal link between the existence of a charter and the decline of a competing public school, I honestly would like to understand it, so that I can support the right program. Is the decline because the good students are leaving, thus bringing the average student quality down? If so, then it may actually be building a case for tracking along the lines of European school systems, or it may be pointing at our own limitations as teachers. It certainly doesn’t make a case that children should all suffer, just because most already are — any progress is better than none whatsoever. Is the decline due to funding being moved? That wouldn’t make sense, because while the school’s total funding may decrease, the school’s average funding-per-student actually increases as children move from a fully funded public school to a reduced-fund charter. The Premont situation also seems to reinforce that we have a problem with priorities, not with funding per se.

    I truly would like to understand the relationship, if there is one. I know my child cannot receive an adequate challenge in any San Antonio school that we can afford. Basis may offer too much work, and not enough depth. I would keep my kids home until high school if it really mattered at all. We can use resources like TTUISD or the wonderful open courseware to keep their education on the up-and-up through middle school.

    Please clarify if there is any truth to the causality, and try to keep the emotional pleas aside, if possible, because it looks like bias without reason, and it just obscures what evidence may exist. For the sake of all of our kids, the truth needs to be outed, one way or the other. Maybe a radical shift in our approach is good, and maybe it is dangerous. Personally, I suspect that the charters aren’t the best solution, but are exposing a painful sore in our educational culture. Evolution has to try many experiments to advance — some good, some ill-conceived. Usually, each path has to play itself out.

    • Charters do not necessarily receive less money per student than traditional public schools. Charter per-student funding is based on what the various school districts impacted by the charter are receiving, and that amount varies from district to district. I do not know how BASIS funding compares to local districts in San Antonio, but it is receiving a significant amount of state aid per child. When school districts lose students and funding, their fixed costs — such as school buses, building maintenance,etc. — do not go down. And school districts have less state revenue this year than they did two years ago, before the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget. They restored most of that — but not all of it — this year, while public school enrollment across Texas has been growing by about 85,000 students a year, and most of those students probably wouldn’t meet BASIS’ standards.

      I wrote about BASIS because of its controversial history of taking the cream-of-the-crop in Arizona and Washington, D.C. According to an Aug. 4 story in the Washington Post, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been investigating BASIS’ Washington campus for allegedly not providing legally required services to special education students that are required of public schools. Remember, BASIS is technically a public school, even though it is a “non-profit” managed by a for-profit operating company. The same Washington Post story reported that the D.C. Charter Board had found evidence that special education students at the BASIS school were missing their individualized education programs (IEPs) required by law and that some special education students were being moved into remedial classes instead of being provided the educational services they were supposed to receive. A significant number of dropouts from the Washington BASIS school were special education students.

      BASIS may be a great opportunity for above-average students, but those kids are not Texas’ biggest educational problem. The biggest problem lies with the growing number of struggling and special needs students who will remain in traditional public schools, which continue to be under-funded by a state leadership that would rather try to fool the public into thinking that charters are a magic solution to our educational problems. On average, charters are no better or worse than traditional public schools. Some have good academic records. Others are disasters, but they all siphon tax dollars from the schools where the vast majority of Texas children — for better or worse — will continue to be educated. The Legislature is using everyone’s tax dollars to ignore the many for the few.

    • MC in SA: you make very salient points that Mr. Robison failed to address. Yes, the movement of top students to schools like BASIS indicates their needs are not being met in their public schools and some form of ability grouping/tracking may be warranted to keep them challenged. You are right that these charter schools are highlighting a gap and putting pressure on public schools to close it or face losing more top students.

      You are also right that charter schools that get less per student actually leave more in the public coffers that could be redistributed to public schools by increasing their per student allowance. If that is not happening, maybe that’s where Mr. Robison should focus.

      The reality is that charter schools like BASIS can operate on less funding for several reasons.

      1) They do tend to have parents who care about their kids’ education and who find ways to fill in via donations, volunteer work, etc.

      2) They are not encumbered by bureaucracy, unions and “the way we’ve always done it.”
      * They don’t have buses – why do we have buses as a default for every public school student? If parents can drop off and pick up at BASIS, why can’t the same be required for public schools – with exceptions for those who can prove hardship? How much money could be saved with fewer buses, less fuel and fewer drivers?
      * BASIS doesn’t have a typical lunch program – it is run by parent volunteers and catered by local restaurants at higher prices. Given how little my kids’ public school lunch costs, I suspected it was subsidized even though we don’t qualify by income level for such help. Why don’t the public schools only provide lunches for those who financially qualify? I’m thinking there is opportunity for overhead reduction there.
      * What about those schools with gargantuan properties – do they really need so many fields and playgrounds? All of those require maintenance. BASIS has no real playground and only a minimal gym for grades 5-12. They rent space at local sport courts for sports as needed and sometimes go to a local park for PE.
      * What other creative ideas have the schools refused to explore? BASIS doesn’t have a library – there are tons of public libraries in the area so why should they? Another local high school co-located with a public library to share resources – seems like a creative solution to me. I’m not saying schools shouldn’t have libraries but could they share one between elementary, middle and high school or co-locate with a public one?
      * Lastly – and my least politically correct comment – there has been significant effort in recent decades to mainstream special needs kids. Some of this has been beneficial and some of it has been ridiculous. When the cost to mainstream a child who really would do better in a special education classroom becomes exorbitant, the schools need a way to push back without getting sued. I’ve heard examples of schools having to fund a full time assistant for just one kid so he/she can get from class to class – ridiculous.

      The ultimate point is that public schools are stuck in old paradigms. They need to consider creative solutions to their current dilemmas and observing how some charters make their budgets stretch could provide areas for exploration. While I cannot speak for every public school, evidence in my kids’ previous public school is that there has been a 2-3 decade downhill slide in education for above-average children. No in-class ability groupings, budget cuts for gifted programs, slowing instruction for the needs of mainstreamed special needs students – all have resulted in an education pace that leaves the above average child bored to tears. If public schools want to retain these kids, they need to change their approach and find room in their budgets to serve them. I think BASIS and other schools like this are forcing this issue – thank goodness. Still, my kids are growing every day and I’m not waiting around for the public schools to get a clue.

  • Wow…just wow. So, somehow, when the local public school is not serving the needs of the above average student, they and their parents should have no rights to go elsewhere because the public schools can’t make their budgets work. That is what is creating the haves and have nots in this country. Above average students from low to middle income families cannot afford private school tuition when their public school doesn’t help them reach their potential. Without publicly funded charter options, that potential could be completely lost. Personally, I went to a great public school in Maine 30 years ago and it enabled me to pull myself up economically because that school provided me with challenge and resources to reach my potential. I am only asking for the same opportunity for my kids – their public school was failing them.

    Charter schools do receive less money than public schools and they make it work. We as parents, make it work. We pay for books; we pack lunches; we drop off and pick up our kids because BASIS does not have buses. We sacrifice to give our kids a world-class education and you are saying we shouldn’t have that choice because the public school that ignored them can’t make their budget work. Just wow.

    BASIS operates on a shoe-string budget…maybe the public schools should take a page out of their playbook with more modest facilities and fewer administrative personnel. If they had structured themselves more wisely to begin with, they would have had the money to continue enrichment programs for above average children so those kids wouldn’t have had to choose BASIS. They also wouldn’t be suffering so when kids do leave because they would have streamlined their overhead. Honestly, when private sector institutions are faced with a cash flow versus overhead dilemma, they are forced to figure it out or go under. Somehow, though, our public schools think they should just be able to eliminate the competition not get more efficient.

    Yes, public schools have to help the entire bell-curve of student ability and potential AND they get extra money for that. I do not want to shut down the service they provide in that arena but I am a middle-income taxpayer and a parent. I deserve the option for a great education for my above-average kids, too.

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