If partnership schools prove able to turn around persistently struggling schools, they may be well the effort—but this is still a big if.
Creating District-Charter Partnerships in the Lone Star State
The State of Texas passed an innovation law (Senate Bill 1882) in summer 2017 to foster partnership schools, much like those profiled in CRPE’s recent brief. CRPE research analyst Sean Gill spoke with Molly Weiner, director of policy at the Texas Aspires Foundation, about her thoughts on the creation of the bill and its potential to increase collaboration between districts and charter and nonprofit organizations.
We know that collaboration between district and charter sectors can occur without state incentives, but what do you think inspired Texas legislators to adopt specific legislation? Were there particular barriers to collaboration that they were worried about?
In Texas, charters can be authorized by the local school district or by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The vast majority are authorized by TEA and operate outside the bounds of local districts. While districts and charters technically could partner prior to this legislation, barriers around funding and accountability kept the sectors (for the most part) from pursuing opportunities.
Lawmakers adopted this bill to reduce these barriers specifically—with a focus on partnering at specific school campuses. SB 1882 provides two incentives to districts and charter schools to collaborate: students in the partnership school are funded at whichever per-pupil rate is higher (the charter school’s or the district’s) and turnaround schools receive a two-year pause in sanctions from the accountability system.
I was particularly interested to see that struggling district schools that partner with proven charter school operators or other nonprofit operators will get a two-year pause from state accountability rules. How did policymakers decide upon this approach? Do they hope that this will create space for leaders to take risks that push innovation forward?
School turnaround work is hard, and we know from research and evaluation work that the fruits of a turnaround effort can often take several years. This partnership incentive allows a district to keep a school operating with all the current students (the bill requires that any student in a turnaround partnership have the option to stay) and gives the charter school or nonprofit time to do the work required for successful school turnaround. The school continues to receive an accountability rating so that educators and parents know how the school is progressing, but the state does not impose any additional sanctions. The goal of this provision is to provide school leaders the time and space to commit to a turnaround strategy and execute it.
Under the bill, nonprofit groups can also support turnaround work or create new school options. What type of groups do you expect (or hope) districts will engage? Could these lead to more diversity of school models?
It is still really early to know what potential partnerships could emerge, but the hope is that this expands the possibilities of what partnership means. Some districts are looking at partnering with local universities, others are considering nonprofits that can bolster non-academic supports to schools. We expect to see the diversity of offerings increase in these partnership schools, but will have to wait and see.
Your new brief profiles an agreement between San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) and the John H. Wood Jr. Charter District. What makes this charter operator an attractive partner?
John H. Wood Jr. specializes in curriculum, teaching staff, pedagogy, and management protocols that support students with specialized behavioral needs. SAISD realized they didn’t have the expertise within the district to serve these students, so they looked for support from within the community. Through the partnership with John H. Wood Jr., SAISD students can access teachers and curriculum that address their needs. John H. Wood Jr. also benefits, as the charter school operates within a district building.
It can be a big political risk for districts to engage with charter schools. What inspired SAISD leaders to do this? What makes them an attractive partner for a charter school?
Superintendent Pedro Martinez is in his third year with the district and since arriving, his focus has been on transformation for the students of SAISD. When testifying in support of the district-charter partnership bill, he cited innovation and collaboration as key to that transformation. SAISD partners with different operators and organizations that have developed expertise over years of serving specific populations of students, then leverages that expertise to benefit district students.
Partnership and collaboration is part of the long-term strategy of the district. SAISD has been committed to this work since before the passage of SB 1882, and has several in-district charter schools already operating.
Is the number of partnership agreements limited in law? Are there other Texas districts that will follow SAISD’s example?
The number of partnership agreements is not limited by SB 1882. However, the charter authorization law limits the percentage of students that can be in charter schools authorized by the district, with some exceptions. A few school districts, including Spring Branch ISD and Grand Prairie ISD, have partnerships that predate SB 1882. Many districts, highlighted here, are considering partnerships as a way to address chronically failing schools in their districts. We anticipate that with time and additional guidance from TEA, additional districts will explore this option.
The legislation seems to leave much discretion to districts and their partners. Would the bill allow, for example, partnership agreements to serve students from a particular neighborhood or attendance zone?
The bill was intentionally designed to give autonomy to the local district and charter operator (or nonprofit partner) to build a relationship, identify areas of need, and collaborate on solutions in those areas. Partnership agreements can vary based on the mission of the school and the purpose it is serving. The law does require partnerships using the accountability incentive to specify that all students residing in the attendance zone of the district school prior to the partnership must have a space in the new school and to provide additional enrollment preferences for other students residing within the district.
Anything else we should know? What do you to hope to learn about district-charter collaboration as the work moves forward?
Right now, the main focus of districts has been on using the law to support turning around low-performing schools. In the future, as districts and communities have more time to think through potential partnerships, we hope to see the law also used to expand choice for students and families within districts. We are excited to learn more about how districts can use these incentives to bring in specialized programs, replicate high-performing schools, and provide enhanced learning options for students.
Learn more about Senate Bill 1882 in Texas Aspires Foundation’s new brief.
Betheny Gross examines how five high-choice cities tackle the challenges of student transportation.