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Study Questions Claims Of Charter School Seeking AISD Contract

Austin ISD is considering a deal with IDEA Public Schools that would create an in-district charter school, but one study questions how effective IDEA really is at educating disadvantaged kids.
Nathan Bernier
Austin ISD is considering a deal with IDEA Public Schools that would create an in-district charter school, but one study questions how effective IDEA really is at educating disadvantaged kids.

The Austin Independent School District is negotiating a deal with IDEA Public Schools, a charter school district based in the Rio Grande Valley, to run an in-district charter school in East Austin that targets AISD students classified as “economically disadvantaged.” But a new study suggests IDEA’s educational outcomes may not be much better than traditional public schools.

The study was conducted by Dr. Ed Fuller. He used to work as at the University of Texas’ College of Education. But earlier this year Fuller was hired by Penn State University to direct a research center.

Fuller examined student level data he obtained from the Texas Education Agency and published a study online that makes three critical claims.

1. IDEA Public Schools enroll lower percentages of economically disadvantaged students, special education students, bilingual education students. 2. IDEA charter schools send 100 percent of graduates to post-secondary institutions, but 65 percent of students enrolled in 9th grade leave before graduating. 3. IDEA charter schools lose a greater proportion of lower performing students than higher performing students. This disproportionate disappearance rate of students would increase overall TAKS scores at the school and district levels even if the remaining students made no increase in achievement.

“I would say [to AISD] slow down. Look into these schools more carefully. And involve the community in a real and authentic way,” Fuller told KUT News. “If you’re really dead set on going with a charter operation, hire an independent person and look at all of the data on the schools and figure out which one is best for East Austin.”

IDEA Public Schools’ founder and CEO Tom Torkelson dismisses the report’s findings, suggesting that Fuller is a “well-documented” opponent of charter schools.

“I think that it’s irresponsible for a so-called researcher to be throwing information out there that has not been thoroughly vetted by peers in his sector,” Torkelson said this morning a phone interview. “The fact of the matter is, we are typically and often held up as one of the top performing public schools serving low income students in all of America.”

(You can listen to the interview we did with Torkelson last week, before this study was released.)

Fuller said his work was reviewed by some of his colleagues at UT-Austin’s College of Education and will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication.

The Austin ISD board could vote as soon as December 12 on a plan that would provide IDEA with AISD’s $8,000 per student allotment to operate an in-district charter school focused on serving students in East Austin.

AISD has struggled for years to improve academic outcomes at those schools. Eastside Memorial Global Tech High School, one of those ranked “Academically Unacceptable” by the state last school year, counts 86 percent of its student population as economically disadvantaged. Only 53 percent of students met state benchmarks on a standardized science test, according to TEA data.

The Austin American-Statesman’s editorial board this month chided the school district and its superintendent, Meria Carstarphen, for not communicating clearly their intentions to the East Austin residents it could affect.

Making such a seismic shift in how students are educated is best done with the backing and trust of those affected by the decision. That opportunity was not extended to East Austin parents, teachers and residents. It should have been. Not doing so fuels a perception that the district has given up on East Austin.

In response, the school district on Monday posted an editorial from school board trustee Sam Guzman, whose district includes Eastside Memorial High School. Guzman says the notion of bringing a charter school to Austin has been long discussed.

[N]o decisions are "being rushed." The board initially considered and authorized applications for a charter campus or program 10 years ago. This past year, trustees approved changes to the policy, designating in-district charters. And, in June of this year, the board authorized the superintendent to explore a partnership with IDEA.

The Austin school district is hosting a meeting tonight to talk about these very issues at Martin Middle School. It’s scheduled for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the cafeteria.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.