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Charter School Serving Dropouts Fights Closure

As six charter schools face automatic closure under a new Texas law, the state is facing questions over the guidelines used to decide which schools to close.

Parc Smith, CEO of American YouthWorks, a dropout recovery charter school facing closure by the state, looks in a student locker.

As a wide-reaching law intended to encourage the growth of high-quality Texas charter schools and shutter underperforming ones takes effect, the state is facing questions over the guidelines used to decide which schools to close.

The Texas Education Agency has identified six schools to shut down under a provision in 2013 legislation governing the state’s publicly financed but privately operated charters. The provision requires the automatic revocation of a charter’s contract if the school fails to meet state academic or financial accountability ratings for three years. Three of the six schools focus on troubled youths.

Among the schools facing closure is American YouthWorks in Austin, which aims to help students close to dropping out of high school earn diplomas. Parc Smith, its chief executive, argues that the state’s process unfairly handicaps schools that serve hard-to-reach students.

American YouthWorks, which is nonprofit, receives money from the federal and state government, as well as private donors, and provides community assistance and job training programs in addition to its charter school, which was established in 1996.  The school faces closure for  failing to meet  financial and academic standards.

But  Smith described what he called an overly simplistic process to determine financial and academic performance in the 2013 provision, saying red tape was “overruling right decisions.”

He said the school was being penalized on the financial side because it relies on  multiple sources of funding and on the academic side because it closed a campus  three years ago.

One metric also faulted the school because of a high teacher-student ratio because the costs of maintaining it was deemed unsustainable at the state level, Smith said. Another metric noted that the school was  not keeping its money in a bank account. Instead, he said, the school kept its funds in an endowment so that the money could earn more interest.

“I don’t think the Legislature intended for a school to close because of the way a form was interpreted,” he said, referring to state reports that he said did not present the complete picture of a school’s financial health.

Once American Youthworks exhausts its options for administrative appeal, Smith said, it will argue the case in court.

 Lauren Callahan, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said she could not comment specifically about American YouthWorks because of pending litigation, but she noted that the agency was following the direction of state lawmakers in making its decisions.

The accountability provision was a selling point for lawmakers who otherwise opposed expanding a number of contracts the state awards. Charter advocates also supported the stricter measures, which they said would make it easier to shutter poor schools and more quickly free up their contracts.

David Dunn, the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the state should revoke charters that are not serving the needs of students or wasting taxpayer money. But Dunn also said American YouthWorks had “a big positive impact on the lives of lots of kids.”

“It would be a true shame to lose that,” he said, adding that there could be opportunity for “tweaks and cleanup” as the law continues to be instituted.

Callahan said all six schools facing closure have scheduled administrative hearings.

Smith said the state was rubberstamping a decision that would leave struggling students with no place to go next year. He called on the agency’s commissioner to intervene.

But Callahan said any decision was “now out of the commissioner’s hands.”

“If the charter been assigned an unacceptable financial or academic rating over the last three years, or any combination of the ratings, the Legislature tells us that is what we have to do,” Callahan said. 

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