Texas Has Ambitious Plans to Transform Urban Schools
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In public education, the nation's fastest-improving cities have embraced both charter schools and charter-like "innovation" or "renaissance" schools: public schools with real autonomy (some run by nonprofit organizations), real accountability for performance (including closure if their students are falling too far behind), and a variety of learning models from which families can choose. Those rapidly improving cities include New Orleans, Washington, Denver, and Chicago.
Imagine the progress possible if a state decided to push its urban districts to emulate such models. Texas is doing just that, using carrots – including $120 million in grants and assistance over two years – and sticks to convince urban districts to embrace the new approach.
who want to move more towards 21st century school systems in a far more thoughtful way than any other state," says Chris Barbic, who ran Tennessee's Achievement School District for its first four years and now invests in state efforts to turn around struggling districts and schools through his position at the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
"What is most striking to me is how the Texas Education Agency has created a compelling district operating vision, then supported it by not only applying pressure through the ability to close low-performing schools and take over low-performing districts, but also by thoughtfully creating incentives through grant dollars and implementation support."
Perhaps the most ambitious carrot offered by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is called a "Transformation Zone." In a statewide competition, six urban districts have won planning grants to create such zones, which will have independent governing boards that oversee autonomous public schools. The zones can turn failing schools over to nonprofit organizations, including charter management organizations, create partnerships between such management organizations and failing schools, and create new schools, whether district- or charter-operated. Using seven percent of the state's federal Title 1 funding (for schools with a majority of low-income students), TEA will grant $1 million per school to these zones.
A second carrot comes from Senate Bill 1882, which creates incentives for district-charter partnerships. This is modeled to some degree on Indianapolis Public Schools' "innovation network schools," which are district schools in district buildings operated by nonprofit organizations. Some are charter schools and some are district-operated schools whose faculty have voted to convert to nonprofit status, because they want full operational autonomy. These 16 schools are the fastest improving in Indianapolis Public Schools' jurisdiction.
In Texas, where they are called "partnership schools," they will be operated by charters or other nonprofit organizations, such as universities, but overseen by the local school district. They will receive the per-pupil funding amount of a charter or a district school, whichever is higher, plus a two-year exemption from the state accountability system.
This is the stick that comes with the carrot: Under House Bill 1842, passed in 2015, if a school is labeled "improvement required" by the state's accountability system for five years, the state must close it or take over the entire district, appointing a new school board. By creating partnership schools, districts will get a two-year hiatus before such draconian sanctions are imposed.
Nonprofits selected as partners must have acceptable academic performance and financial ratings for the last three years. For them, partnering will bring access to district facilities and often better financial deals.
The Texas Education Agency will approve partnership applications with a process modeled on the charter authorization process. Districts must demonstrate that their proposed partnership schools have autonomy, independent boards, and real performance goals and measures.
Another carrot comes from House Bill 1842: designation by the TEA as a "district of innovation." These districts can use waivers to opt out of two-thirds of the Texas Education Code.
To win such designation, districts must develop, with community input, innovation plans approved by their school boards. Associate Education Commissioner Joe Siedlecki says that while 300 districts have become districts of innovation, "Only a handful have taken the most waivers possible."
Morath's first major step in encouraging districts to rethink the way they oversee schools was the Lone Star Governance program, which aims to teach board members to focus more on student outcome goals. A second was a System of Great Schools Network. TEA invited eight districts, as part of a two-year cohort, to implement strategies to "empower educators to design and lead high-quality schools, support families to access desired best-fit school options, and focus central offices on school support, innovation, and oversight" rather than just operating schools. Recently it added a second cohort of five more districts.
The agency matched each district with an experienced advisor who had firsthand experience with the transition to a decentralized system of choice. For example, San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) partnered with Paul Pastorek, who as Louisiana superintendent of education led New Orleans' transformation. Spring Branch partnered with Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, former Denver Public Schools' chief academic and innovation officer.