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As State Eyes School Choice Reform, Some Districts Pursue It Locally

State leaders are preparing to push for legislation to expand the choices available for Texas' nearly 5 million public school students. Meanwhile, some local districts are already pursuing similar reforms within their own systems.

Students enter a classroom one one of the 11 Houston-area campuses of Yes Prep, a public charter school system serving 7,000 low-income students.

In debates over school choice, like the one brewing as the 83rd legislative session draws closer, traditional public school districts are often cast as stubborn defenders of the status quo.

Proposals allowing parents to use public money to send their children to private schools — which will probably never gain the support of most major public education associations in the state — tend to suck the oxygen out of any discussion. But as Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Dan Patrick, the Senate Education Committee chairman, push to expand the choices available for the nearly 5 million Texas public school students, some local districts are already pursuing similar reforms within their own systems. And as state lawmakers prepare to consider more controversial reforms like private school vouchers, there are still obstacles for districts who exercise the options that currently exist.

Districts can increase the choices available to parents through partnerships with charter organizations — like the collaborations taking place in the Spring Branch, Austin and San Antonio independent school districts. Charter school advocates say there is much left to be done at the state level to encourage such relationships, particularly related to facilities sharing and how students’ scores factor into accountability ratings. Traditional public schools have also turned to cultivating magnet schools and increasing their virtual course offerings to make more choices available to students.

Their most basic option, though, is an open enrollment policy. That approach permits students to transfer freely between schools within a district or across district lines, and is “most widely accessible and easily available to every public school district,” said Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow and director for the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy who recently conducted a study on school choice policies across the country.

In Texas, school boards can eliminate the geographical boundaries typically used to determine which campuses their students attend. They can also open their doors to students who do not live within the borders of their district. It is unclear how many districts have moved to such policies because neither the Texas Education Agency nor the Texas Association of School Boards tracks those figures.

Something as fundamental as providing that kind of information — or information about the application processes or lottery systems for a district’s charter and magnet schools — can go a long way toward helping parents know what their options are, Whitehurst said.

“It’s not a marketplace if parents can’t really shop and compare and make a rational choice,” he said.

Matt Prewett, a parent in Central Texas, faced that challenge when he decided his local elementary school was not meeting the needs of his third-grade son, and he tried to figure out his other choices in the public school system.

He learned that nearby, Pflugerville Independent School District had a highly praised gifted and talented program. But the district would not accept his son because he did not live within its geographic boundaries. So he tried to find other adjacent districts that might have open enrollment policies and would admit his son. With an eye toward a possible move in the future, he looked for a statewide list of districts with top magnet schools. He came up short on both accounts — and his son is now in a private school.

“It’s not practical for the average parent who is interested in learning more about public school choice to have to look up the policies of 1,200 individual school districts,” said Prewett, adding, “If we really are interested in choice, if we really think that is important to improving education in Texas, we need to spend some resources in making that information available.”

His experiences motivated him to form the Texas Parents Union, an organization aimed at involving parents in public education policy.

Because of the costs associated with transportation and the effect those costs can have on the budgeting process, districts also have little financial incentive to consider open enrollment policies unless dwindling enrollment forces them to recruit students from outside their boundaries.

The policies disrupt the way districts have typically operated, Whitehurst said, which includes a strong central office and moving the boundary lines to make sure each campus has its seats filled. Open enrollment policies make budgeting for transportation and staffing challenging because it can be difficult to predict from year to year where the demand will be.

When Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso was faced with declining enrollment about 15 years ago, it began an open enrollment policy that allowed students from nearby districts to attend. Each year just under 10 percent of its student population comes from outside its boundaries.

The district has developed accelerated learning programs and widely praised international magnet schools that generate waiting lists each year, said Superintendent Michael Zolkoski. He said that the policy has allowed Ysleta to attract some of the “finest minds,” but also acknowledged that the budgeting challenges involved can make it difficult for other schools.

“It hurts districts in the planning for facilities, salaries for teachers, building locations for students,” Zolkoski said.

He added that the transportation dilemma could also make it hard to offer extracurricular programs or remedial help for at-risk students outside of the standard school day.

Garland Independent School District, located in a Dallas suburb, has had an intradistrict open enrollment policy for the past 30 years because of desegregation laws. Superintendent Curtis Culwell said that good public transportation in the area allowed the district to rely less on its own internal transportation — though he said it still had to “run a lot of buses” to cover the 100 square miles and 70 campuses.

Although Culwell said the policy may not be right for rapidly growing school districts that experience significant population changes from year to year, in Garland, where about 94 percent of students get their first choice school, “it’s just a way of life.”

“We've been doing it for so long, people understand and like the system,” he said, “and the number of magnet schools and academies that we have that enhance that choice process.”

Culwell said he thought competition in areas where districts have open enrollment, like in rural areas of the state, has resulted in higher-quality education. It has encouraged districts to develop specialized programs and campuses to attract students, he said.

But he said that there was also a danger of districts prioritizing a few campuses over others in pursuit of students.

“You have to make sure every campus is a campus of choice, that every campus has the resources to do what it needs to do and that your spending is not out of whack,” Culwell  said, adding, “You have to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a great education.”

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