Exclusive: Houston Independent School District Woes
Recently released video shows just how dysfunctional the Houston ISD school board is. A four-hour session intended to teach board members how to govern effectively turned into a shouting match and an “airing of grievances,” according to the Houston Chronicle, which obtained the video through a public information request.
“The turmoil has stalled efforts to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the district, including poor academic performance among many low-income students, inequities in funding between campuses and unstable administrative leadership,” the Chronicle reports.
The victims of this dysfunction are the 213,000 kids who attend HISD schools; it is any wonder that more and more of them are fleeing the beleaguered district? According to the Chronicle, more than 38,000 students transferred out of HISD schools in the 2017-2018 school year, with most going to charter schools.
It’s important to note here that charter schools are public schools—they’re public schools that have more freedom to experiment, to specialize, to adopt different curricula and practices. More importantly, they have a greater degree of autonomy. They operate independently of HISD and its troubled board.
Can Houston parents be blamed for wanting their kids out of schools that aren’t delivering a quality education (60 percent of Houston ISD students read below grade level, for example), in a district overshadowed by the antics of its board?
That’s why it’s discouraging—to me as a Houston resident and as an advocate for Texas kids—to see state Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Houston Democrat, sign onto a piece in the Texas Tribune’s Trib Talk attacking charters, and calling for less choice and opportunity for Houston families.
Written with Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Rep. Mary Gonzalez of Clint, the essay argues that since charters don’t (or can’t) help everyone, they should help no one.
“When charters cherry-pick students, neighborhood schools are left to educate a disproportionate percentage of more challenging children,” they write. “Neighborhood schools are required by law to enroll all kids, regardless of disciplinary history, special needs or family challenges.”
They conclude, “it is clear that the only meaningful ‘choice’ to be made is for the Texas Legislature to ‘choose’ to adequately fund all of our public schools and to stop exclusionary policies and practices that disadvantage Texas school children.”
Thousands of Texas families respectfully disagree. The “choice” in school choice isn’t about what legislators and teacher unions want; it’s about what families want. And across the state, the families of nearly 300,000 students have chosen charter schools as best meeting the needs of their kids.
And another 130,000 students are on waiting lists.
Do opponents of charter schools believe that these families are wrong?
These lawmakers say charters are “exclusionary,” that they cherry-pick their students. But that’s getting the whole thing backwards; charter schools aren’t pillaging the public schools. Texas parents, who are looking for the best educational experience for their children, are making the choice. And they’re choosing local charter schools because for some reason or another, their neighborhood school isn’t as good a fit for their child.
If parents believed that in every case, the neighborhood school was the best choice for their child, then charter schools wouldn’t exist—not by law, but by a complete lack of demand.
What’s more, charters are responding to the needs of kids with discipline problems and other issues. The YES Prep Public Schools in Houston has launched a new alternative program that helps students with behavior skills through one-on-one and group counseling. And there are other examples.
The fact is that charter schools don’t “disadvantage Texas schoolchildren,” as Reps. Hinojosa, Gonzalez and Thierry contend. And studies show that they don’t just help the kids who attend them. Charter schools introduce competition, and competition makes everyone better.
Look at San Antonio. Like Houston, San Antonio ISD has seen an enrollment decrease (while its population is increasing dramatically). But instead of sending lobbyists to Austin to try to shut down the charters that so many San Antonio families were seeking out, SAISD chose another path.
As Superintendent Pedro Martinez told the Texas Tribune, “families are sending a message — they are looking for options, and when those options exist, they are going to those options.” And the district began offering more options to parents within the district itself—and SAISD’s schools of choice now have waiting lists of their own.
Traditional public schools will always have a role to play in Texas. They are where most of our doctors and database administrators, our electricians and entrepreneurs will be educated. But charter schools also have a role to play—as the best choice for many Texas families.
It would be wrong to take away that choice.
I’m the project coordinator for the Booker T. Washington Initiative for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Washington, a former slave, devoted his life to education (he founded what became the Tuskegee Institute). He knew that education is the key for young African-Americans.
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery.”
Parents and students in HISD should not be relegated to the sidelines while the petty infighting on the Houston school board continues to fail students by denying them the hope that comes with an education. The education system itself should not be an obstacle to overcome. Students and families deserve better.