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Unexpected side effect of Texas school finance overhaul has Dallas schools nixing controversial charter partnership

One of the most politically heated battles the Dallas school board has undertaken in recent years was the decision to transform some classrooms into charters.

Parents and teachers crowded meetings for months urging the board to not “privatize” any part of DISD by handing control over to outsiders. Trustees argued amongst themselves late into the evening — and well into the early morning hours — before finally agreeing earlier this year to create partnerships that allow private operators to run some DISD prekindergarten classes as charters.

But now, DISD is hitting reverse. Administrators told trustees on Thursday that the district needed to scrap the plan altogether because the district will receive dramatically less money from the state than projected.

Trustee Joyce Foreman, the only sitting board member to oppose the partnerships, said the unexpected was exactly why she didn’t want DISD to participate.

“I’ve been a person who has cautioned this board about moving too fast — and the administration — on things before we have the full understanding,” Foreman said. She added, “Yes, I’m gonna crow. Take your time. Slow your roll.”

The district was taking advantage of a 2017 law, SB 1882, aimed at encouraging traditional districts to partner with charters, which are public schools that are generally run by independent operators. Districts using the law would receive about $1,800 more per student in 1882 partnerships, which was about how much more charters received in previous state funding formulas.

Then the historic revamp of school finance by legislators this spring meant more money flowing into public schools. But that also had the side effect of dramatically reducing the gap between charters and districts, thus decreasing the money available for 1882 partnerships.

Because DISD’s partnership was for pre-K students, which were funded at a half-day rate by the state, the district expected to receive between $800 and $900 per student. Instead that would be closer to $350.

Derek Little, DISD’s assistant superintendent of early learning, said officials also recently learned of additional burdens that would be placed on partners. That included required training in governance as well as in open records laws, which is required for those operating public schools, since the partners would be running the in-district charters largely independent of DISD.

“Our intent has always been to support and expand pre-K partnerships,” Little said. “We thought, based on the information that we had, 1882 would be a way to do that. Given the new information that we have, we do not see that as a viable way forward.”

The board will vote later this month to revert those partnerships back to the original agreements the district had in operating the DISD classrooms out of the preschools.

Still, some trustees gave credit to district officials being creative. They also pushed back on the community concerns that such partnerships were a move to privatize public schools saying the 1882 partnership was intended solely for leveraging more state dollars.

“Everyone should rest assured that this was not being done to privatize our schools because if it was, we would keep them,” trustee Dustin Marshall said.

Meanwhile, other school districts will have to see how the funding changes will impact their plans. SB 1882 allowed districts to partner with charter operators, nonprofits, universities and other government agencies.

The Fort Worth school district has a five-year 1882 partnership with Texas Wesleyan University to operate a four elementary schools and one middle school, all of which had been struggling campuses.

This is the first year the university is overseeing the campuses. And FWISD Superintendent Kent Scribner has expressed interest in looking for additional partners in Fort Worth.

FWISD spokeswoman Barbara Griffith said officials are working with the university to see what the funding changes mean. The district did not provide an estimate as to what the funding difference might be.

“Right now our intent is to continue the current 1882 partnership with Texas Wesleyan,” she said. “ And, we could be exploring other 1882 options with other Fort Worth ISD schools at some point, but no decision will be made right now.”

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