Profiting Off Our Kids: A look at Houston ISD's In-District Charter Schools

One of the schools on the list of contracts scheduled to be approved on Thursday is Texas Connections Academy (TCA). Texas Connections Academy is an online school that is run by the testing industrial complex’s darling, Pearson, the publicly traded company that made $782 million in profit last year. Their model is to get parents, who they call “learning coaches”, to do the hard work of motivating their children on a daily basis to complete their online coursework while the shareholders of Pearson reap the financial windfall from collecting annual revenue similar to the allotment a traditional school gets from the state, but without having to pay for the expenses of running a traditional school.

Why would Houston ISD involve itself in such a scheme?

Essentially, HISD is getting a cut of the profit. The state pays HISD the same amount of money for each student enrolled at Texas Connections Academy as they receive for a student sitting in a brick and mortar school, despite the extremely reduced costs.

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Tale of Two Districts: Analysis of the two cheapest trustee races in Houston ISD.

Houston ISD has nine trustees that represent nine separate geographic districts. These nine districts are different in so many ways. Among them, resources is certainly a major one. Resources in the community. Resources in their schools. And apparently, resources spent on school board races.

Of the nine districts, six have trustees up for election, and so far this year, campaign contributions to 19 candidates in those six elections have totaled almost $300,000. $294,127.37 through September 30th, to be exact.

But each of the districts don’t have the same kind of money flowing through their campaigns. 

District 5 (Cheben, Deigaard, DeRocha, Shafer) has raised the most overall: $67,555. However, District 7 (Luman, Sung) has raised the most money per candidate with $61,383 being split by just two candidates.

When you compare these six districts by campaign contributions, you see there are really two distinct kinds: expensive ones and cheap ones.

Districts 1, 5, 6 and 7 have garnered between $60,000 and $70,000 per race (so far) making up almost 90% of the campaign contributions districtwide while only representing about 65% of the candidates running.

On the other hand, Districts 3 and 9 have garnered a mere $36,272 total across seven candidates. And one of those candidates, incumbent Board President Wanda Adams, is responsible for two-thirds of that amount ($23,075) by herself. The other six candidates in those races have only raised about $2200 each on average.

In the District 3 race, which is a special election called to fill the two-year vacancy created by the passing of Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, we have four candidates (Lira, Perrett, Reyes, Rodriguez). Even though there are four candidates, District 3 has the lowest total amount of contributions in any district: $9,147. That’s about $2300 per candidate. Of course, the special election was only recently announced, and so theoretically these candidates have had less time to fundraise than others. But even when comparing these contributions to the contributions made to other campaigns in just the last two months, they are still shockingly low.

What does this mean? It means that in these districts, it is much easier to win favor and influence. It costs less money to be more important to a given trustee’s win or re-election. It means that it’s easier for influences outside the local communities (such as vendors or political groups) to get the attention and loyalty of the trustee.

So as we did in District 1 already here and here. Let’s take a look for notable contributions in Districts 3 and 9.

In District 3, we only found one notable contribution among all candidates, and that contribution was to Jesse Rodriguez. Arturo Chavez, an architect at Page which is a large architecture firm that does a significant amount of business with HISD, gave Mr. Rodriguez $1900. In the last year alone, Page has been paid over $750,000 by HISD. Mr. Chavez’s contribution to Rodriguez is just $100 less than the $2000 threshold at which board policy would require a trustee to recuse themselves from a vote due to conflict of interest. This $1900 is large but not huge relative to many donations across HISD. However, for District 3, it’s massive. This single $1900 donation represents 20% of all the money given to all candidates in the District 3 race so far. Certainly notable.

First, they were all disclosed as being received on the same day—October 9th, the last day of the reporting period. Second, there are only 11 contributions that total $23,075.  No other candidate has such a high average donation amount. And just 5 of those donations amount to over $20,000. $15,000 came from Houstonians for Great Public Schools and one of its major backers. $4,000 came from two major law firms that do business with HISD and $2500 came from the Realtor lobby. All of these donations represent significant interests outside of District 9—the high-stakes testing and charter schools lobby, HISD vendors and lower property tax lobby. To understand more about how these donations were shocking, watch this video that compares them with her own statements about ethics and campaign donations.

That wraps up analysis of Districts 3 and 9. Outside of the significant vendor contributions to Adams and Rodriguez, the most notable thing about these campaign finances is their size. A close watch on the 8-day and after election reports will be important to see what additional influences might capitalize on the opportunity these inexpensive races present.

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I Wonder What They Were Talking About This Morning

I’ve written about this conflict before with regard to both negotiating a separation with Dr. Terry Grier, the former superintendent, and when the board was negotiating with Mr. Carranza to become the new superintendent. I warned about the inherent conflict in those dealings. Now when I attend board meetings and workshops, I can see that conflict manifest itself right in front of me. I wonder what they were talking about this morning.
The board of trustees represent us and their lawyers represent them. If we are to believe they are working in our best interests, we must demand that they receive independent advice.
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Houston ISD School Board Should Make New Superintendent Contract Public

But the public deserves more transparency. I have written before about the potential conflict of interest between the lawyers advising trustees on superintendent contracts and how those same lawyers can benefit from millions of dollars in business controlled by that same superintendent. The students, the parents, the teachers, the career educators, the taxpayers and all the stakeholders in our public education system deserve more transparency on what might be the most important decision this board makes for years to come.
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