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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Donors, Endorsements and Ed Reform: Analysis of Gretchen Himsl, Candidate for HISD District 1

Now that we’ve all been able to hear the candidates’ positions on repeat at candidate forums these last few months, we thought we would kick off our campaign finance analysis. Understanding donors to trustees is important, because after the election is over, we need to know who will have access and influence with these trustees over the coming four years.

We’ll be publishing a list of notable donors for each campaign over the coming weeks and keep them updated as new finance reports are published.

Today, we start at the top of the list — District 1, Gretchen Himsl.

Already clear from her endorsement by Houstonians for Great Public Schools (Houston GPS), an organization which pushes to make testing outcomes the center of the school board’s focus and her work as an analyst at Children At Risk which is most widely known for its school rating system heavily based on STAAR scores, Gretchen Himsl is clearly the candidate most tied to the state’s accountability system. Her campaign logo even has a No. 2 pencil in it.

This pro-accountability position is confirmed with the endorsements and donations from the current HISD District 1 Trustee Anna Eastman and three other former HISD trustees: Paula Arnold, Catherine Mincberg, and Dianne Johnson. All of these trustees are pro-STAAR, pro-accountability trustees.

Paula Arnold and Catherine Mincberg were a part of the beginning of standards-based reform and decentralization in Houston ISD as chronicled in the book by Don McAdams: Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools-- and Winning!: Lessons from Houston.

To give context around the ongoing connection of former trustees Arnold and Mincberg to high-stakes, test-based education reform, take a look at Center for Reform of School Systems, an education governance consulting firm on which Paula Arnold serves as a board member along side the Godfather of No Child Left Behind, Rod Paige. Catherine Mincberg and Rod Paige serve as “faculty” at CRSS, and CRSS’s founder and chairman is Donald McAdams, a republican and former HISD trustee, who hired Rod Paige as superintendent and helped usher in the decentralization and high-stakes testing culture that HISD suffers from today.

Arnold and Mincberg are both donors to Gretchen’s campaign along with another education reformer, super conservative James Windham. Windham serves alongside Michael Williams and Rod Paige on the board of the group Texas Aspires, a staunch defender of STAAR and advocate for pro-charter, anti-teacher policies in state politics. Read Windham bash teachers, the NAACP and the rights of LGBTQ kids in his own words here.

Also, notable donations to Gretchen are lawyers from Bracewell LLP, a major Houston law firm that does business with Houston ISD, Sara Morgan, a democratic super donor and wife of oil magnate William Morgan, and Garnet Coleman, a State Representative to whom Gretchen’s husband once served as Chief of Staff.

Another interesting connection... Paula Arnold serves as Anne Sung’s campaign treasurer while Rod Paige (Arnold's colleague at CRSS) served as campaign treasurer for her opponent, John Luman, last year.

High-stakes test-based education reform is a small world.


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Why Your Vote on HISD Prop 1 Doesn’t Matter

Where did all that money go? I don’t know. And you don’t either. Your vote doesn’t matter, because whether HISD has more or less money next year won’t make a bit of difference to our kids as long as parents don’t pay attention to how that money gets used. And they have to pay attention longer than one or two months to know whether anyone is telling the truth or just saying the right buzz words to get us to all calm down and go home. Who cares about who’s recapture projections are right if no one is going to pay attention long enough to find out?
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Who's behind Mayor Turner's PAC to defeat HISD Prop 1?

In the report, we see the Mayor’s PAC has spent $104,000 and raised just $50,000 which means we only have visibility into about 40% of the money being spent so far. Of that 40%, the vast majority comes from people or companies in the lobbying, real estate and construction businesses. And almost half of the money comes from just two companies which each gave $10,000 donations.
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4 Major Errors In A Realtor's PTO Pitch Against Prop 1

When experts in Austin talk about how unlikely it is that school finance will change without a court order, its because of special interests like these. If we lower property taxes as a source of revenue for state public education, that money has to come from somewhere else. And in every fight that has come before, no consensus has ever been formed on a better place to get that money. 
Grocery stores don’t want the state taxing bananas. Newspapers don’t want the state taxing information. Business don’t want new franchise taxes. No one wants a state income tax. And no legislator in the State of Texas that plans on running for re-election is going to stand up against the lobbyists that threaten to unseat them if they suggest a new tax on anything.
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10 Problems in a Recent Statement About Recapture by HISD’s Government Relations Director

Whether they cost us money or grant us money—good public policies that increase equity for Texas children should never be Houston ISD's enemy, and our public servants shouldn’t be paid to fight for their demise on our behalf. And when those public employees stretch the truth or keep the public in the dark about important facts, we need to look past this issue and ask what kind of leadership we expect from our senior administrators and of the trustees that set their agenda. Only when we have our own house in order will we be truly effective at convincing the state and its voters that public education is deserving of greater investment.
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Every Number Needed to Explain HISD's Cost of Recapture on a Single Page

Houston ISD's information on recapture is confusing—if not down right biased. First and foremost, HISD communicates that recapture cost $162 million this year and drove a budget deficit which required cuts to classroom spending. Then, the material forecasts recapture payments to total more than $1 billion dollars over four years.
All of this is true. But by stopping with those figures, they lead the public to believe that future increases to recapture payments will drive hundreds of millions of dollars in additional budget cuts. This is simply not true. 
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October Speech to School Board on Equity & HSPVA Kinder Donation

If trustees accept this money, the district establishes two new precedents in our district…
1) That Houston ISD is willing to trade the name of our schools for money, and  2) that Houston ISD will accept an increase in disparity among our students as long as that disparity is paid for privately.
What do these things say about us? What do they teach our students?
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Recapture: Just a bit more complicated than “vote no.”

If we let politicians oversimplify the problem to it being only about Houston keeping its money, we do Texas and its children a great disservice. If we advocate for keeping our taxes but ask someone else to come up with a solution for adequately funding the charter school students in our midst or the rural and suburban students far away, we dare the system to break down even further.
We must be really careful. Not only is the immediate cost of recapture to Houston on the line—the difference between $162 million and $192 million dollars this year, but so, too, is the battle to adequately fund public education in Texas. 
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