Rethinking Charter Schools in Texas

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Prepared Table Charter School in Houston seemed like the perfect solution for at-risk youths. Long under the country's microscope for subpar public schools, Texas embraced the concept of using taxpayer money to set up these specialty schools, or charters, as a means of overhauling a struggling state educational system.

Rev. Harold Wilcox, a respected clergyman in the area, founded the school in 1999 and procured an old church to house it. With its antique stained-glass windows and intricate woodworking, it was not a traditional learning environment by any means, but a sanctuary — figuratively and literally — for children who sometimes had to dodge bullets on their way to public school.

Wilcox opened the doors of Prepared Table in 1999. But rumors soon began swirling about insufficient conditions. Classrooms consisted of no more than some roped-off church pews. The U.S. Attorney General's Office investigated, and District Judge Nancy Atlas ultimately found that Wilcox, who received $2.5 million in federal funds and $16.7 million in state funds for his charter, overinflated enrollment numbers to receive more state money, arranged a six-figure salary for himself and an $80,000 salary for the receptionist, Louvicy Wilcox, who was also his wife. The school's charter was revoked in 2002.

The troubles of Prepared Table have sparked a debate about charter schools. Everything from how much taxpayer money is earmarked per student to how many students would be served and even the application process have become lightning-rod issues that will be debated when the state legislature is back in session in January. Since Texas is a state where charter schools have grown rapidly in recent years — as have their problems — the results are being closely watched around the country as a bellwether for the controversial charter school movement.

Rosemary Perlmeter, president of the non-profit Dallas-based Coalition of Effective Charters (CEC), has proposed giving more state money to successful charter schools while enacting more stringent laws to rein in underperforming ones. Traditional public schools receive $800 per student per year for "facility fees" and campus improvements, Perlmeter points out, but charter schools receive none. "Public schools that are consistently performing at high levels should be supported and nurtured whether they are charter or traditional," Perlmeter says. "If they're underperforming or irresponsibly using government funds, they should be closed."

This approach is endorsed by State Sen. Florence Shapiro, who heads the Senate Education Committee, as well as by a host of other state and national charter advocates. "Texas is an important state, one of the fastest-growing states both in population and in the number of charter schools," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. "If Texas does pass this legislation, it will become the first state to provide facility funds for only high-performing charters."

But the proposals have also drawn fierce opposition from those who argue that the state should not be diverting more resources to charter schools. "The first charters were similar to magnet schools — the school served a specific purpose in a specific location," says Garnet Coleman, a state legislator from Houston. "In my opinion, charters were started as election tools for the 2002 gubernatorial election."

Coleman argues that allocating facility monies for charter schools will take state funding away from neglected neighborhood campuses. Rather than pump funds into the charters, he says, pump money back into the community. "The charter system is a threat to the standard public education system," he says. "It causes districts, politicians and others to ignore the local school's quality."

Such sentiments may be gathering support across the country. In Ohio, Republican candidate for governor J. Kenneth Blackwell drew boos in a gubernatorial debate in Akron when he said that publicly funded charter schools were good for the overall educational system. By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Ted Strickland, drew thunderous applause when he stated: "About $500 million, I believe, was taken out of our public system to fund underperforming charter schools last year. I think that's a waste of resources — for-profit charter schools trouble me greatly."

Nearly 1.1 million children attend one of the country's 3,625 charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter programs, with California leading the pack. But the dollar-per-student ratio varies nationally. In 2002-2003, a national survey found that charter schools received about $5,600 per pupil on average, whereas district public schools received $8,500.