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It's Showdown Time In Dallas Over A Charter School

Update, Wednesday evening: In a 7 to 6 squeaker of a vote, the Dallas City Council approved a controversial new charter school in southern Dallas. Opponents were concerned the school would pull students out of the Dallas Independent School District.  

Wednesday’s vote was the culmination of a weeks-long campaign to stop expansion of an Uplift Pinnacle charter school at Interstate 35 and Camp Wisdom Road.

Council members heard from speakers on both sides of the debate. Troy Jackson’s four kids now attend Pinnacle. As they get older, he wants them to stay in the charter school, so he supports what Uplift wants to build. 

“Since my kids have been going to the school, I’ve seen great progress with my children,” Jackson said at Dallas City Hall. “They love to learn, they come home telling me everything they learned today. They share it with their younger sibling. We have great communication with the teachers and I think it’s a great thing for the community.”  

Beatrice Martinez is a Dallas activist and real estate broker. She says this charter school will not improve the community she says she’s known and worked in for decades.

“You’re taking from Dallas ISD, money. The taxpayers  – my dollars - to go to a charter school. That’s wrong, I know most of you This is wrong, and you know it. You’re selling our city for nothing.” 17

After a couple dozen speakers sounded off, it was the council members turn to talk. And some speech turned hyperbolic. Council member Carolyn Arnold opposes the school and says city officials should’ve listened to residents’ concerns.  

“This community has told me they have not been actively engaged,” Arnold said. “It is tantamount to rape. It’s ok, we’re going to come in a little bit at a time. It’s wrong for us to ignore those individuals who have sent us to this city hall to represent them.”

In the end, Arnold’s side lost by a vote. Council member Rick Callahan said he was swayed most by the hundreds of charter school students at the meeting.

“I keep looking at the kids sitting out there and it means a lot to them, I guess, or they wouldn’t have shown up to hear the hijinks and the grand performance,” Callahan said. “Just because we were to vote this down today, chances are they’re going to do what they used to do, and that’s go to Duncanville, go to Desoto, go to Lancaster. . .”

Council member Erik Wilson said this really was a zoning issue, not a referendum on charter schools, despite the fight. Wednesday's Dallas City Council agenda features a simmering showdown over a proposed charter school.

Our original story:

Uplift Education wants to build a middle and high school in southern Dallas. City staff approved the plan. A Dallas school board member opposes the charter school, which would be located in her district. She says there are too many charter schools. The contentious discussion and vote could boil over in City Hall.

The KERA radio story

Imagine it’s class time. Today’s civics lesson? How to turn a city zoning case turn into a political fight over education.

At the corner of Illinois and Vernon Avenues sits Uplift Pinnacle’s campus for kindergarteners through fifth graders. The charter operation wants to build a middle and high school five miles south, at Camp Wisdom and Interstate 35.

“It’s a simple zoning case on a piece of land that’s been abandoned for 30 years,” says Yasmin Bhatia, CEO of Uplift Education. The growing north Texas charter operation has at least 17 campuses.  

Credit Uplift Education
Uplift Education
Yasmin Bhatia is Uplift Education's CEO. The charter operation is among the fastest growing and well regarded in North Texas.

“Uplift wants to develop it into a secondary school site,” Bhatia continues, “and invest $10 million in in the southern sector where there’s a whole “grow south” campaign right now going on.”

Hold on, says Joyce Foreman, Dallas school board member whose district includes the site in question. The student migration to charters has cost the Dallas Independent School District about $10 million in state education funds.

“There’s an over-proliferation of charter schools in one concentrated area,” Foreman says.

Nearly 30,000 Dallas kids are in charters who could be enrolled in schools in the Dallas Independent School District.

“But 12 thousand of those children,” Foreman adds, “are concentrated in one area. And that’s in my district.” 

Foreman says enough. City staff already approved Uplift Education’s plan. Foreman urged the city council to reconsider. So the vote got delayed. Bhatia says that leaves charter parents out of the picture.

“It worries me,” Bhatia says, “that because a particular individual does not like the choice people are making, instead of making the alternative be more attractive, it’s - let’s take their choice away.”

Foreman remembers when Dallas closed a dozen schools a few years back, many in the south. Low enrollment in tough economic times was the reason.

“I hear us using the debate about choice,” reasons Foreman.”Well, if the public schools as we know them are closed and it’s only charters in one particular area, then what choice would the people have?”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dallas School Board member Joyce Foreman flipping through pages assembled to support her argument that there are too many charter schools in her Dallas ISD district.

Foreman took her arguments to a packed Paradise Missionary Baptist Church meeting last Friday. It’s near the proposed Uplift Pinnacle site. Only it wasn’t an exclusively anti-charter crowd. Joshua Lewis, has three kids. His 10 and 11 year olds attend charter school.

“They were in DISD two years ago. I wasn’t very happy with the progress they made. And since I put them in the Uplift school they’ve made a lot of progress. So if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Lewis said.

His five year old is in a Dallas elementary and he calls Rosemont a great school.

On the other hand, Catina Ford moved her two kids to charters.

“And they weren’t learning,” Ford says. “My son came home, told me they played and would take naps all day. And when I moved him back to DISD he was behind, and I was not ok with that.”

Her children are now doing fine in Dallas schools, she says.

Experiences are mixed, just like the schools. In 2015, many Uplift campuses not only met state standards, but earned all seven distinctions from Texas. Uplift Pinnacle, though, didn’t even meet the state standard. The Dallas ISD school next to the proposed Uplift site, though, not only met the state standard, it earned four distinctions from Texas. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.