Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa wants to close down two schools and convert two others to charter schools to avoid harsh punishment from the state for their poor performance.
He declined to say which of the four failing campuses would be closed or change under his plan, which will be presented to trustees at a Nov. 2 board meeting.
Hinojosa knows the decision to close a campus is difficult and emotional, but he said DISD needs to take action before the state does.
There are three Dallas ISD campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards five years in a row: Edward Titche Elementary in Pleasant Grove, Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center and C.F. Carr Elementary School. J.W. Ray Learning Center has failed four years consecutively.
If one of those schools misses the mark again this year, that would force Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to either close down the campus or replace the entire school board and superintendent.
“If I take a chance and they don’t make it, something is going to happen in August,” Hinojosa said of the failing schools. He added, “We’re not running from the accountability. We have something great we went to replace it with.”
Key to Hinojosa’s plan is using a loophole in a new state law aimed at promoting partnerships between traditional districts and independent charter operators. Legislators wanted to encourage such deals by giving districts that turns schools over to charters more money per student and a two-year break on state accountability standards.
But a provision in the law also gives the same benefits to a charter created and operated by a traditional school district working with a university or nonprofit. Hinojosa said he’s considering that option for two of the failing schools as well as for others campuses across the district.
Hinojosa estimates that the district could get an additional $1,400 per student at campuses that are converted to charters. That could quickly mean about $400,000 to $1 million more for those schools.
Charter schools are public campuses that operate free from some regulations that traditional schools must follow.
Hinojosa said he didn’t consider partnering with an existing charter operator, as the Fort Worth school district is. Dallas has had a contentious relationship with charters, and has lost about 34,000 students to such campuses.
“Three of my board members love charter schools. Three of my board members hate charter schools. And three are in the middle trying to figure out what I’m going to do next,” Hinojosa said. “If I put on the agenda that I want to partner with the charter school, they’ll put on the agenda that they want to fire me. ‘What are you doing collaborating with the enemy?’”
Hinojosa said he expects the four campuses to meet academic standards this coming August after benefiting from additional resources the district has been pouring into the schools. But waiting until August to know their fate would create too much chaos and uncertainty going into a new school year, he said.
Hinojosa did say one of the schools under consideration for closure has low enrollment and one is in a bad location.
The plan is likely to face considerable criticism from trustees who’ve balked at previous attempts to close J.W. Ray Learning Center and have actively fight against the charter school invasion.
Texas has increasingly found ways to boost charter schools in recent years by easing limits on how many are in operation and by passing legislation that will help them grow. Just this month the state received a $60-million federal charter school grant. Authorities want to use a portion of that to encourage more district-run charters.
Morath, who was a Dallas ISD trustee before he was named education commissioner, told charter school operators at their conference in Grapevine last week that he hoped the new law would spur innovation and ease tensions between them and traditional districts.
“I see regularly a fairly high level of animosity between the traditional sector and charter sector of our public schools,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Morath said he’s created a new division within the Texas Education Agency to work on district/charter partnerships under the new law. He also noted that many of the state’s most prominent charters — such as IDEA Public Schools and KIPP — grew out of programs within traditional districts.
While praising Dallas ISD’s existing specialized school-choice options — such as the new all-girls Solar Prep and the Barack Obama Young Men’s Leadership Academy — Morath said Texas districts tend to not scale up innovative programs like charters do.
“Then you’ve helped hundreds of kids when we had the opportunity to help hundreds of thousands of kids,” he said.
David Dunn, Texas Charter School Association executive director, isn’t worried that any move by traditional districts to create their own charters will further drive a wedge between them. He noted that Fort Worth and districts in the El Paso and San Antonio areas are all considering partnerships with charter operators.
“It’s not going to be an ‘either or’ but both,” he said. “We think it’s a good thing to have school districts open to innovation, to trying new things.”
He noted that a few districts — most prominently Houston ISD — already have district-run charter schools.
Hinojosa said he’s talked with Houston and Grand Prairie, which has a partnership with Uplift Education charters, to gain insight. He’s in talks with at least three universities and two nonprofits that have “technical expertise” in the area he wants future DISD-run charters to focus on, he said, He declined to provide more details other than to say he’s been talking with a former longtime superintendent now at a university and with officials at a program that has helped train principals.
If approved by the board, at least two campuses would move forward for charter conversion for the next school year. Others could come online if partnerships are approved in time