School Choice, It’s Common Sense?Installment 2: New Policy Networks Emerge

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.




School Choice, It’s Common Sense?

This blog series, “School Choice, It’s Common Sense?” serves as a counterstory to the current dominant narrative of school choice and neoliberal privatization. Each installment will introduce critical concepts currently being debated in education policy. The series is taken from personal field research conducted over the past two years. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to stimulate a more inclusive dialogue and depict the significance of a democratically run public school board’s expulsion of a privately owned in-district charter school following public pressure and community organizing.
Making the Case:
Overall student achievement is stagnant over the past four years in states like Texas (Weiss, 2015). Urban school districts are increasingly partnering with charter school networks to build their portfolio of schools in the name of meeting accountability measures and improving public education (Levin, 2011). This is observable in urban settings in Texas; therefore understanding how funds are actually being spent is important. In particular, this series will examine one site in Austin ISD, Eastside Memorial High School and the efforts by IDEA Public Charter School and East Austin College Prep to occupy the campus through in-district charters.

Charter schools often adopt similar curriculum and pedagogical practices as traditional public schools thus garnering institutional legitimacy which can act to limit differentiation (Huerta, & Zuckerman, 2009). Wholstetter et al. (2013) cite Christensen and Rainey in asserting charters, through focusing on differentiating themselves, were not innovating new programs as much as repackaging what already existed. Analyzing public school responses to new practices such as marketing demonstrates how public schools are simultaneously adopting business strategies in response to increased market pressures. The diversion of public funds from instruction to private media companies and marketing consultants is an overlooked topic, often overshadowed by discussions on efficiency and achievement. Critically examining the isomorphic tendencies of both public and private governance structures, we begin to tease out substantive from inessential changes (Lubienski, & Lee, 2016).

The current political climate begs the question, why are charter schools able to increase enrollment, further legitimizing the policies promoting their expansion without demonstrating a significant improvement in student outcomes? I argue, one way charter schools are growing is through marketing, advertising, and public relations. Also, charter schools often appeal to notions of good sense including equity, efficiency, and innovation. Finally, their advocacy by way of presidential authority, extends from George H. W. Bush to Barrack Obama and the new policy networks shaping legislation (Frankenberg, & Siegel-Hawley, 2013; Anderson, & Donchik 2014). One question, relevant to the scope of this research, posed by Kahlenberg and Potter (2014) is whether or not charter schools cooperate or compete with regular public schools? Marketing and advertising are one overt way schools compete for students.

The debate in this country about whether the public school, or common school as it was known back in its day, should be treated as a public or private good, spans over a quarter century (Mann, 1848). Scholars provide several frameworks to evaluate the intent and efficacy of education policy (Labaree, 1997; Jencks, 1988). In research conducted for my MA Thesis I coded twenty-four interviews which asked how participants felt about spending public dollars on advertising, and the results were mixed. Some saw it as common sense considering the return on their investment in terms of increasing enrollment, while others perceived this type of spending to be a waste of finite resources in a climate of scarcity and austerity. Another group endorsed their use enthusiastically.
The availability of the information regarding marketing expenditures for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), IDEA Public Charter School (IDEA), and East Austin College Prep (EACP) can all be found on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website. However, there is a lack of uniformity in their filings which is one barrier to accurately measure expenditures which should be addressed in policy with the intent of more easily disseminating the information. Before perceptions can be analyzed we need an accurate picture of actual expenditures in order to improve our understanding of context (Cucchiara, 2016). Figure 1 contains the three most recent years of available data for each school.

Figure 2 depicts these expenditures in terms of per pupil expenses.


The figures above indicate that marketing expenditures are increasing over time. Examining enrollment patterns demonstrate growth for IDEA during this time frame and declining enrollment for AISD and EACP. The decision by AISD to begin formal marketing in 2015 indicates that democratically run public schools are in this case adopting the strategies of the competition in order to recapture students. Increasing competition for students and their accompanying average daily attendance funding play a marked role in shaping school behavior during an age of austerity.
The next installment will trace the history of Johnston High School culminating in the Austin ISD School Boards Decision to partner with IDEA Public School in 2012.
(References are available upon request)