San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) is in the midst of making hard decisions regarding closing and consolidating schools due to low-enrollment. In the past decade, enrollment in our district has declined by nearly 10,000 students. State education funding is allocated to school districts according to enrollment and attendance, so this steady decline in the number of students means that we are getting less money from the state to operate the same number of campuses.
A consultant hired by SAISD has reported to us that declining birth rates and families moving outside of the urban core to more affordable areas are the driving factors of our declining enrollment. Urban districts across Texas are facing similar challenges. While these factors do play a role, the consultant has downplayed the role that charter schools play in this situation. SAISD is comprised of 88 schools. In addition to those 88 public schools, there are 30 charter schools within our district boundaries. So, in addition to declining birth rates and families moving out of the district, SAISD’s declining enrollment is further aggravated by these 30 privately-administered schools that are competing for students. I believe those charter schools play a significant role in the district’s enrollment problem.
I suspect the reluctance to call out the role of charter schools in SAISD’s school closure discussion stems from a fear of appearing protectionist in the face of market competition. For decades both liberal and conservative policy-makers have argued that the public schools (particularly those that primarily serve students of color who are poor and working class) do not need more money or resources to provide high-quality education. They argue that the public schools just need to be more innovative in how they use their funds (which are dwindling year after year). Operating under the assumption that competition incentivizes private business to be more efficient and effective than the public sector, lawmakers adopted policies supporting the creation and proliferation of charter schools across the country.
The state approach to approving charter schools in communities without consideration of demographic trends forces communities to finance more schools than they need. At the same time, the proliferation of charter schools also erodes transparency, fiscal accountability and democratic-control over one of our community’s most important assets, our schools. This is by design and is part of a larger attack by our state leaders on public schools and the power of local communities. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo has described the state’s approach as “starve, shame and shutter.”
Texas starves its public schools by refusing to adequately fund them. Texas ranks 42nd in per-student spending and we are $4,000 below the national average in per-student spending. Despite having an unprecedented budget surplus of $33 billion (more than the entire budget for some states) our elected leaders have chosen not to provide any additional funding for public schools in the state budget. There is still a chance that the legislature will approve a funding increase during a special session in the fall, but it is likely that any increase will come with the trade off of creating a voucher program that will provide tax dollars to subsidize private schools that have no accountability or public oversight requirements.
The shame component of the attack on public schools centers on the false narrative that public schools are failing our children and charter and private schools can do better. As I previously stated, charter schools have not shown to provide higher quality education for students. The most elite private schools may be able to guarantee small class sizes and rigorous curriculums, but the quality of private school education varies dramatically, and as a rule, has not proven to be better than the education provided by public schools. Private schools have very few regulatory requirements, can discriminate against students and families, and do not have to provide special education services.
Another piece of the narrative is that democratically-elected public school boards are unable to oversee their districts and that, in the case of Texas, the state must take over to fix a district failed by its incompetent board. The most recent and egregious example of this is the state taking over Houston ISD on the flimsiest of pretexts. Takeovers are a way for state officials to take power and local control away from communities. It’s not a coincidence that takeovers occur most often in districts with majority people-of-color boards.
The final component of the attack on public education is shuttering. San Antonio is in the midst of experiencing this assault. In June, the board of trustees voted 5-2 to authorize the superintendent to begin identifying potential schools for closure in the 2024-2025 school year. Several factors (diminished state funding, competing charter schools, changing demographics, and lack of affordable housing) have contributed to hinder SAISD’s ability to continue to provide equitable and robust services at all our campuses.
The timeline for identifying schools to be closed is very short. In mid September, the community and board will be provided with a list of schools that have low enrollment to building capacity ratios that could be subject to closure. This list could include up to 30 schools. The administration will then host a series of community meetings across the district so community members can provide feedback on a list of contextual factors, like proximity to other schools, school performance, and facilities investment (bond spending) that can affect which of the schools on the original list will be recommended for closure. The final recommendations will be presented to the board for a vote in November 2023.
The reason for this quick timeline is that families have to apply for choice school enrollment in December, and school communities need time to prepare for the transition by the 2024-2025 school year. I have argued that this timeline is too short for such an important conversation and I have asked that the process be lengthened by a year so that our community has adequate time to weigh-in on decisions that will have long term impacts on our neighborhoods. At this point in time, the superintendent and the majority of my colleagues are committed to the current five month timeline.
It is vital that community members learn more about the superintendent’s “right-sizing” plan and provide feedback to guide this process. Public schools belong to all of us and the well-being of our neighborhoods is entwined with the well-being of our schools. I encourage you to visit the district’s school capacity study website. This site contains the landscape analysis reports that explain factors likely contributing to low-enrollment; enrollment and building capacity information about each school in the district; and the list of primary and contextual criteria the district will use to determine which schools will be closed.
Community members have a couple of ways to provide feedback on the school closure process and criteria right now:
1. Community members can share ideas for criteria the district should consider in addition to facility usage when determining the future of a campus by completing this survey.
2. The district will also hold two feedback sessions in district 1: August 28 from 6-8 pm at Brackenridge High School and September 5 from 6-8 at a yet to be determined school site. Community members are encouraged to attend and participate.
Charter schools, however, have a competitive advantage: they operate with fewer regulations, fewer labor protections, and less public oversight than traditional public schools, giving them much more ‘breathing space’ for innovation and new approaches. Yet, they directly compete with public schools for students.
Given these advantages, are charter schools better for students than public schools? In reality, results are decidedly mixed. Some charter schools demonstrate modestly higher standardized test scores, but they tend to educate students who have higher incomes than students in public schools, and the charter schools are notorious for pushing out students with disabilities and those with behavioral challenges.
With the academic performance of public schools and charters being essentially the same, the driver of student enrollment in schools is not innovation and high quality programming. It is marketing. Charter schools are able to spend money on marketing and recruitment efforts that public schools — who are accountable to taxpayers — simply cannot. While charter schools are primarily funded with tax dollars and do have to follow most state education laws, they do not have democratically-elected boards, nor do they have the same financial transparency requirements that public schools do.
We have a system where public and charter schools directly compete for a declining number of students. In SAISD, it means that taxpayers are supporting more school systems than we need to serve the number of students we have in our communities. It shouldn't go unnoticed that the number of charter schools in our district boundaries, 30, is also the number of SAISD schools some have argued need to be closed to eliminate excess building capacity. As the public school system, SAISD has a financial obligation to our community to use our funding to support classroom learning and enrichment activities for our students. Therefore, we are forced to have discussions about closing democratically-controlled, neighborhood schools (some that have served our community for 100 years), while privately-operated charters continue business as usual.
Sarah Sorensen is our district's representative on the SAISD Board of Trustees
Charter schools have a competitive advantage, yet they directly compete with public schools for students.
Texas AFT President Zeph Capo has described the state’s approach as 'starve, shame and shutter.'