In 1995, Texas lawmakers approved public charter schools to give parents more education options. The law created a marketplace that’s challenging traditional public schools to compete and improve, or potentially lose students.
Dallas ISD has been losing students to charters. Its response? Develop more programs for students, and market them. It held a school fair recently to do exactly that.
'I'm shopping for a very good school'
Usually empty on a Saturday, Hulcy Middle school is now jam packed. Thousands of parents, students, teachers and administrators have streamed into Hulcy’s halls and gym. The Discover Dallas ISD school fair is so big it also spreads into the Ellis Davis Fieldhouse next door.
This mayhem is a marketplace — the Dallas district’s first-ever, showing off what’s offered at every campus.
“I’m shopping for a very good school,” Lorivi Albos says, amidst the crowd of school browsers.
Albos, her husband and their 13-year-old son, Luis, who’s in middle school, have checked out 10 schools so far, including Talented and Gifted, and magnets. There are a lot of program options, from law and health to culinary arts and hospitality.
“We’re here because we’re looking for a good school for my son,” Albos says. “He will be in ninth grade next year.”
Albos says Luis gets good grades, which you need to get into magnet schools. He likes computer science and programming. In front of Kimball High School’s booth, Luis is lured by the student-built robot.
“It’s actually good. I like it. It looks cool. Because I’m inspired to do this kind of stuff,” Luis says.
'You want to be able to sell your school'
Kimball’s principal, Llewellyn Smith, is glad the robot attracted Luis, and calls this Dallas school fair a big deal.
“Oh it’s huge. You want to be able to sell your school. You want kids to come to your school. It’s competitive out there not only with the public high school choices. We have so many charter schools now that are drawing a lot of our kids to those programs. To combat that, there has to be something new done,” Smith says.
Education officials say charter schools have drawn thousands and thousands of kids away from districts across Texas. And because state education money follows the student, districts say they’ve lost millions of dollars.
Uplift Charter School CEO Yasmin Bhatia defends charters and school choice.
“We think that choice is good,” Bhatia says. “Choice is good for families and choice makes all of us better as providers of education because we have to earn the right of families to want to send their children to our schools.”
Charter schools encourage parents with more than just choice. They’re successful marketers, too, Ron Zimmer says. He heads the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy, and he specializes in education.
“Charter schools think that marketing works because they are doing it. For instance, in Chicago, I think there was a lot of marketing around graduation rates of their high schools,” Zimmer says. “So I think they believe it’s a mechanism for recruiting and getting students enrolled.”
Focus on school choice covers up the real issue
These days, charter operations like Uplift have waiting lists of kids wanting to get into their schools. Charters have spread across Texas and the country, with more likely to come. Maia Cucchiara says whatever good that brings, choice is not making education better.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that charter schools push other schools to improve,” she says.
Cucchiara is an Associate Professor of Urban Education at Temple University, in Philadelphia. She’s researches charter schools.
“The weight of the evidence is the reverse,” Cucchiara continues. “That a rise in charter schools ends up having a negative impact on the public schools.”
That’s because Cucchiara says public school budgets shrink when students leave for charters. But in this education marketplace, students have that choice. Cucchiara just doesn’t buy that market place analogy.
“It’s a bad analogy,” Cucchiara says, “because unlike markets, which don’t necessarily have to serve everyone, schools do — public education does. It’s a bad analogy because it treats education as a product and education is much more complicated than that.”
Cucchiara says a focus on school choice obscures the bigger issue: improving education. Some traditional and charter public schools are good, others not. Cucchiara prefers an emphasis on improvement over marketing.
Back at the busy Dallas fair, parents continue their school shopping. Erika Obregon’s seeking a high school for her own 13-year-old and likes the options.
“I wish we had this opportunity that kids from nowadays they have,” Obregon says, recalling her own teenage years. “They have different opportunities, different choices. They can get to an early college. Back in the day we didn’t have that choice.”
In her day, Obregon and her husband finished high school, but never went to college. She wants that to change for her kids. That’s why the Dallas high schools offering college credits top her list. Choosing one may be a tough decision.