At work, Mark DiBella sometimes has to remind his own employees that the YES Prep charter middle and high schools scattered across greater Houston are indeed public schools.

At the Capitol, the CEO of YES Prep finds himself needing to start from zero and explain what a charter school is before he asks legislators to vote to give them extra state money.

“Honestly, I think the lack of knowledge ... hurts our efforts a ton,” DiBella said. “Last session, I testified to the House Education Committee specifically related to facilities funding, and members of the House committee did not fully understand that charter schools are public schools.”

While Texans debate the merits of offering subsidies for private school tuition, charter school advocates are fighting misconceptions about their goal to expand options for families within the existing public school system — and defining their place within the school choice movement.

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This session, six legislators are pushing bills to increase per-student funding for charter schools, which they say would more closely match state spending on traditional public schools. It’s unlikely they will succeed, with the state struggling to stay within a tight budget, but advocates are optimistic they are setting the stage for a long-term victory.

The House Public Education Committee is considering a bill that would inject $1.6 billion into the public education system, helping both traditional public schools and charters.

Over the past decade, charter school activists have been clamoring for extra money from the state so they can build new facilities without having to dip into the money they need to operate their schools.

“This existing funding gap penalizes families who want to exercise their freedom to select the best public school to meet their child’s needs,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, who appeared at a news conference this week to promote a bill she filed on charter facilities funding.

Five representatives filed a companion bill in the House, asking for $700 more per student, closing what advocates say is about half the funding gap between charters and traditional public schools.

Authorized in Texas in 1995 to test innovative approaches to public education, charters historically have more flexibility than traditional public schools, including the ability to hire teachers without certification and set their own class sizes and student-teacher ratios.

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They cannot levy property taxes as traditional school districts can, and they receive most of their funding directly from the state. Texas charter schools accept students through a lottery system, are subject to strict state accountability measures and are run by nonprofit organizations.

Critics argue that charter schools receive more funding per student than the large urban districts with which they compete for students. Thomas Ratliff, former chair of the State Board of Education, said the school finance system’s complicated formulas mean that many fast-growing school districts actually are not receiving needed funding for facilities.

"This was the deal charters signed up for when they opened their business. They knew what the law was and they told the Legislature, 'We can do a better job for less money,'" Ratliff said. "Now they’re coming back and saying, 'Maybe not.'"

Charter advocates say the additional state money is important for providing parents choices within the public school system — and they say the demand for charters proves the need.

“There is a strong appetite for this type of choice — giving parents options within public education,” said Christine Isett, spokesperson for the Texas Charter Schools Association.

Charter schools report more than 100,000 students are on waitlists to get into their schools in Texas, and they argue that they need facilities funding to meet the growing demand. Critics like Ratliff have questioned this number and asked for independent audits of how the waitlists are managed across the state.

Parents looking for better options than their local traditional public school don't usually care about whether a school is public or private, said Colleen Dippel, who heads Families Empowered, which helps families find schools that are right for them. Many of those families are stuck on charter school waitlists in the Houston and San Antonio regions.

"We are supportive of any program that provides parents, especially low-income parents, with more options," Dippel said. "I worry about the idea that there's good choice and bad choice. From our perspective, from a parent's view, there's just a right-fit school."

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Traditional school districts, too, are looking to sell the idea that they offer school choice to families who want better options. Grand Prairie school district comprises 42 individual schools, including several magnet schools that allow enrollment from students located anywhere in the district, said Superintendent Susan Hull.

"We offer true choice so that we also have something to ensure the success of students who may not have a choice outside of their district," she said.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • The top public education policymaker in the Texas House unveiled a $1.6 billion plan on Monday that he described as a first step to overhauling the state’s beleaguered school funding system.
  • Two major education bills — Senate Bill 2, which expands the state's charter school system, and House Bill 5, which changes high school testing and graduation requirements — are headed to the governor's desk.

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