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Paige: Lawmakers, do what is best for our students

Houston Chronicle
December 10, 2014

By Rod Paige

By this time next month, 181 legislators will arrive in Austin for the 140-day session of the Texas Legislature. Houston's lawmakers will be asked to make serious decisions that affect all Texans - but none more important than proposals relating to public education. To the legislators, I have one simple message: Focus your decisions solely on what is best for Houston children.

As a former Houston Independent School District board member and superintendent, former U.S. Secretary of Education and lifelong education and civil rights activist, I have spent many years in the middle of the "district-versus-charter" debates. These debates are alive and well in Houston, sparking a heated discussion on these pages between YES Prep Board Member Justin Segal ("Embarrassment of riches" Page B14, Nov. 16) and Cy-Fair Independent School District Superintendent Mark Henry ("Charter schools fail to deliver on promises" Page B9, Dec. 4).

Regardless of where you stand politically on these issues, the reality is that today only two out of every 10 students graduating from a Texas public high school will ever earn a college degree. High-performing public charter schools like KIPP and YES Prep have been achieving radically different outcomes for more than 15 years - yielding college graduation rates more than double the Texas average for all students and about five times the state average for students from low-income communities.

It has been thrilling to see these systems that started with a few dozen students and the belief that better outcomes were possible flourish into community schools serving thousands of children across Houston. But even more exciting is to see more partnerships spring up around the state. Spring Branch Independent School District has partnered with KIPP and YES Prep, and last year, Aldine Independent School District and YES Prep opened their first partnership school together at Hoffman Middle School. In these models, the district opens up underutilized campuses to these charter schools and gives families a choice about which school is best for their children. KIPP and YES Prep, which as public charter schools receive less state funding than traditional school districts, gain access to much-needed facilities. The districts and charter schools share resources such as teacher and principal training, extracurricular activities and students from either program share meals together.

This is what it looks like when the adults in the system put their own needs, fears and motives aside and instead look to one simple litmus test: Is this in the best interest of our community's students?

These models are in sad and stark contrast to the more typical bickering we see erupt when issues about charter schools arise. Competition puts pressure on any system, and for many in school leadership roles, the automatic response is to eliminate it all together.

They do this by criticizing real or perceived weaknesses of a few charter schools. They insult parents who have decided that a charter school is the best option for their children. Some say charter schools are for-profit entities with no accountability, though they are actually nonprofit organizations that are held to a much stricter performance standard than districts. By the time Texas' new "three strikes and you're out law" is two years old, at least 20 charters will have been revoked due to subpar academic or financial performance. How many traditional public schools do you know that are closed after three years due to low performance?

Wiser school leaders adopt a different response. They look at the results of schools like YES Prep, KIPP and Harmony, which have proved what's possible for students from low-income families and rather than working against them, they seek them out and work together. Additionally, they recognize and respect parent demand for excellent education - regardless of ZIP code, race or family circumstances.

Our Legislature faces major challenges this session. A decision from the Texas Supreme Court on school funding looms. Budget writers must tackle unavoidable cost-drivers like Medicaid, road congestion and water. I implore leaders from all public schools - district and charter, alike - to work for the interest of all public school students.

Charter schools should support legislation that gives districts some of the regulatory freedoms they are given, like the ability to set a school calendar and to have a longer school day. I support the right of traditional districts to present bonds to the voters, and I also support nontraditional funding channels to accelerate the expansion of proven charter schools.

Districts and charters can work together to support proposals that incentivize district-charter partnerships, that address woefully out-of-date school bus funding, or that restore local autonomy to our community's schools.

Let's stop wasting precious time squabbling and spend it instead working together for the rights of all 5 million Texas public school students.

Paige is a former U.S. secretary of education. He also served as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.