For school districts with chronically failing campuses, a recently passed law that allows them a reprieve from state sanctions was supposed to be a lifeline. A year on, less than a tenth of those districts are on track to take advantage of it.
About 60 Texas schools in more than two dozen districts were considered failing for four or more years in 2017, putting them at risk for being shut down by the state next year. Several of those school districts considered using Senate Bill 1882, which allowed them to partner with outside organizations to turn those schools around and get an extension from harsh state penalties, but only five are currently on track to do so.
Others had trouble meeting the tight application deadline or faced backlash from school communities that protested giving up the management of their low-performing schools, many of which are located in majority Hispanic and black neighborhoods.
"They've taken on a new process, challenging because it is new, and they've done it in a really hard context of a long-term, low-performing campus," said David Anderson, policy analyst at Raise Your Hand Texas, which has been following the implementation of this law. "It's sort of a perfect storm in the sense of hard to do."
The Texas Education Agency last week made a first round of decisions on six districts' partnership applications, rejecting one district’s proposal, approving another's contingent on technical changes and requesting interviews with the proposed partner organizations for the last four. It plans to make final decisions before the next school year begins.
Three years ago, Texas passed a strict law intended to force districts to take responsibility for bolstering schools that failed to meet standards by setting deadlines for improvement and imposing sanctions on those that didn't meet them. After a slow phase-in, the state is poised next school year to impose those sanctions, which include forcibly shutting down schools considered failing for more than three years or taking over the school boards of those districts.
SB 1882 at first seemed like it could offer some help for school administrators in need of more time to implement fixes: districts that partnered with a nonprofit, charter organization or university to overhaul failing schools could receive a two-year reprieve from state penalties as well as additional state funding.
But the process was harder than it seemed. "People go through a couple of stages of this where they initially say, 'Oh my, that's a bunch of money.' Then they see what they really have to do to make it work, and that is daunting," Anderson said.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he was unwilling to wait months to decide how to proceed with three schools that had been listed as failing for four or five years. "We would be insulting your intelligence as well as any potential partners to have them consider something and have a plan in by March 1," he told board members in November, according to the Dallas Morning News. The TEA released the guidelines in late February and March, and districts faced an April 30 final deadline to submit their applications.
Some Dallas ISD board members and community members also didn't want to give up the reins of their schools, said board member Miguel Solis. Under SB 1882, districts are required to sign contracts giving the charter group or university authority over the schools' operations and employees.
"The fear from some of my colleagues was that the innovation that we are actually doing related to school choice in Dallas ISD would have been at risk of being taken away from the district's control and basically given away to universities to run as they pleased," Solis said. Instead, Dallas ISD officials are planning to close and consolidate some schools and use the district's own program to try to turn struggling schools around by paying high-performing teachers stipends to work at them.
Solis argued the state should be spending more money on innovative programs districts already have in place. "We have data that shows this is a more effective innovation strategy," he said.
Victoria ISD Superintendent Robert Jaklich proposed partnering with local University of Houston at Victoria to manage two schools that had been failing for five years. It would have received an estimated additional $1,921 per student — $2.1 million total — from the state each year of a proposed three-year partnership.
But he couldn't get the contract together in time and so got a terse letter from the state last week saying his request for an extension on state sanctions had been denied. Jaklich isn't too worried about the rejection: he's positive that school leaders have managed to turn those schools around, and that they'll receive passing marks in August's accountability ratings, largely based on standardized test scores. "We're extremely confident that all of them are going to make it," he said.
Not all school administrators are as optimistic. Houston ISD has been the key example for the high stakes of the upcoming state penalties, with 10 failing schools putting Texas' largest district at risk of state takeover. In a disastrous board meeting that ended in multiple arrests, Houston ISD proposed applying for a turnaround partnership to hand over the management of its schools to a charter group called Energized for STEM.
Community members turned out in protest, furious at the drastic proposal on a tight timeline, and district officials and board members backed away from the proposal.
Houston ISD has another option for a reprieve. It could receive a waiver from its state ratings this year because of the massive financial and phsyical destruction it suffered under Hurricane Harvey — which would delay the sanctions another year.
Anderson thinks more districts will be poised to apply for partnerships next year, with more time to plan, and especially as schools continue to trigger potential state takeover. "The campuses people weren't so concerned about because they were three-year low-performing, if they turn into four-year [low-performing campuses] in August, you have this whole discussion again," he said.
Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.