Johnston High School, in Austin, Texas was the first school in the state to be closed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The closure and subsequent repurposing as Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus is an opportunity to witness the intersection of market-based reforms, racial identity, community history, gentrification, community organizing and educational decision making. The confluence of macro political and economic forces cannot be ignored when examining the intersection of public school policy and private interests due to their impact in shaping individual and organizational perspectives (Kamat, 2004 p. 156).
This case of how IDEA, a privately owned public charter school, with significant institutional support, was met with resistance from the community it was reputed to serve, provides a unique opportunity to examine how a diverse group of individuals organized and acted on both sides of the issue. In particular, this case of community resistance and ultimately vindication demonstrates the democratic possibilities when communities are faced with state directed take overs and other top-down school reforms we will undoubtedly see under the Devos regime.
Background on School Choice in Texas
Texas, like Washington D.C., embarked on its own efforts toward reform during the 1980s. Texas Governor Mark White, pressured by business interests, appointed Electronic Data Systems founder Ross Perot to chair a special committee on education (Cuban, 2010). Their report, eventually signed into law as House Bill 72, instituted “no pass no play,” and included new education objectives and standards, required achievement testing, equalized district funding from the state, referenced charter schools, and strengthened top-down accountability measures (Cuban, 2010). The appointment of Texas business leaders to the helm of education reform echo similar trends in tailoring education to the “needs of the state” dating back to the early 1900’s (Kliebard, 1987, p. 99). The economic interest of the state benefits from the common sense that students should be prepared for employment and self-sufficiency.
New policy networks include alliances between the business community or chamber of commerce, legislators, think tanks, educational philanthropy, and school regulatory commissions. Policy shifts over time in Texas represent a movement toward market based reforms like an increased emphasis on competition through the expansion of charter school organizations associated with new policy networks (Debray, et al., 2007; Anderson & Donchik, 2014). New policy networks contribute to the inception, promotion, and ultimately legislation which benefit privately run public charter schools like IDEA.
The history of IDEA Public Schools dates back to 1998 when two Teach For America alumni, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, founded an after school program in Donna, Texas. In 2000 the state granted the Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement (IDEA) a school charter. The following should serve then as no surprise when an IDEA administrator Mx. Bishop shares,
Understanding more how the private sector can be a more constructive partner in helping address issues of equity, race, social justice, including education, but also affordable housing, and the revitalization of distressed communities. I just thought there was a lot more that the private sector could do…. I became aware of IDEA Public Schools when I was a staff member in the Texas legislature… I had a meeting with the CEO Tom, identifying, basically find legislative ways to improve equity in funding for public charter schools. (Interview 14, 2015)
This quote illustrates the articulation of discourses on equity and revitalization with the private sector. This resonates with the propensity of neoliberal economic policy “…to bring education, along with other public sectors, in lines with the goal of capital accumulation and managerial governance and administration” (Lipman, 2011, p. 14).
A Closer Look at the Influence of New Policy Networks
According to and AISD Trustee, Mx. Holbrook, the vetting process for IDEA Public School’s contract with Austin ISD spanned one year (Interview 7, 2015). However, Austin ISD identified IDEA Public Schools as a potential partner during the initial reconstitution of Johnston High School in 2008. To be fair, there is some evidence as to the efficacy of in-district public charter school collaboration, the good sense of cooperation found in the common sense of school choice (Gulosino, & Lubienski, 2011). However, this partnership warrants further examination due to the influence New Policy Networks appear to play in facilitating the process (Debray-Pelot et. al, 2007).
In 2008 AISD asked for assistance from the Texas High School Project which is an arm of Communities Foundation of Texas, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. According to their website, Communities Foundation of Texas started in 1953 in Dallas through the efforts of various business and civic leaders. Contributions of land and charitable gifts built the organization, and a tax law change created a larger incentive for contributors to donate to community charities rather than private charities. In the sixties the foundation expanded its scope and began focusing on free enterprise stating, “Though times have changed, the Institute’s mission remains the same – to offer education and training for today’s entrepreneurs” (CFT, 2016).
The Texas High School Project was launched in 2004 in order to “create meaningful change for Texas students. By strategically connecting the diverse stakeholders committed to this cause — from legislators and funders to business and civic groups to school administrators and teachers — Educate Texas is leveraging the power of collaboration, bringing together resources and expertise” (CFT 2, 2016). In addition to helping schools with redesign initiatives the group was successful in bringing 20 Charter Management Organizations to scale and invested thirty-five million in capital, “to achieve tenfold growth and maximize the alliance’s statewide impact” (CFT 2, 2016). The emphasis on small schools and technocratic solutions to education challenges are some of the hallmarks of both the Gates and Dell foundations (Debray-Pelot Et. al, 2007; Burch, 2009). The partners helped AISD find entities that met the criteria of open enrollment, governance, capacity, technical assistance, cost, and external partnerships.
The resulting document of recommendations made specific mention of IDEA Public Schools as a potential partnering entity should they be willing to convert their state charter to a district charter conversion based on IDEA’s connections to external partnerships (AISD September 22, 2008).
To be continued in Installment 3.