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McALLEN, RGV – When, back in 1996, state lawmakers were crafting legislation to allow charter schools to operate in Texas, Harlingen CISD board trustee George McShan went to Austin to testify against.

Now, he has a different outlook having seen the impact charter schools have had in the Rio Grande Valley, particularly IDEA Public Schools.

George McShan
George McShan

With McShan’s full support, Harlingen CISD is applying to become a District of Innovation, which will provide some of the flexibility charter schools enjoy, allowing it to deviate somewhat from Texas Education Agency rules regarding the school calendar, employment practices, and class size.

“Charter schools have been responsible for disruptive innovation and that is good. Parents and their children want different things. Often times, we fall into the category of educating children for the past and not their future. That is a big issue we have,” McShan said. He also noted that IDEA is doing “a number of innovative things.”

McShan spoke about his change in attitude towards charter schools and the new approach Harlingen CISD is adopting at a Legislative Border Briefing hosted by the Texas Charter Schools Association. The event was held at IDEA’s campus on Bentsen Road in McAllen and focused on partnerships between traditional public schools and charter schools.

In his remarks, McShan recalled his early opposition to charter schools and how, after he testified against their introduction in Texas, the then-chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, the late Teel Bivins, said, “come on, George, what’s wrong with a pilot program with 26 charter schools.”

IDEA Public Schools gained its charter in 2000 and now serves over 24,000 students in 44 schools across in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and Austin. At the Legislative Border Briefing, McShan said he has watched with interest the positive impact IDEA has had in the Brownsville area. He said it has meant Harlingen CISD has had to raise its game.

McShan said House Bill 1842 gives traditional public school districts an opportunity to become more flexible. “That legislation is very powerful. We think we should be able to do some things charter schools can do, with regard to flexibility and local control. We have decided to move with disruptive innovation.”

McShan said that starting next week, Harlingen CISD would be informing the public through a 30 Days Notice rule that it intends to apply for District of Innovation status. By August, he said, the designation should be in place. Sarah Orman, a senior attorney with the Texas Association of School Boards, said there are more than 40 school districts across Texas applying for such a designation.

“Being a District of Innovation will allow us to do three things,” McShan said. “It will allow us to move our calendar, so our early college high school can be aligned with Texas State Technical College. The TSTSC school year ends April 30. Our early college high school ends its school year on May 31.”

Flexibility will also be afforded in the area of employment practices, McShan said, pointing out, for example, that Harlingen CISD would be able to hire a healthcare professional to help students get certified in that field. “That is a big one for us,” he said.

The third way District of Innovation offers flexibility, McShan said, is in class size. “We do not necessarily want to have 22 to 1. We are looking at 25-1,” McShan told the Rio Grande Guardian. He said the new designation would mean Harlingen CISD would not have to keep getting waivers from the Texas Education Agency in order to introduce an innovative program. He stressed, however, that his school district would not be putting teachers at an “at-will” situation.

David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said school districts like Harlingen are “looking to use some of the flexibility charter schools have used to good advantage for 20 years now.” In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after the Legislative Border Briefing ended, Dunn said: “The State of Texas gives charter schools more flexibility but holds them just as accountable, academically and financially. It lets them experiment to find some innovative things that work. We are thrilled with the District of Innovation law. If we can help, we would be pleased to do that.”

Asked how traditional public schools could benefit from House Bill 1842, Dunn said: “Aligning the school calendar year to colleges; employment provisions; the ability to bring folks in that have expertise in various fields, even if they haven’t been strictly certified by the state of Texas. That could be tremendously innovative.”

David Dunn
David Dunn

Dunn said the Legislative Border Briefing came about following conversations with state Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso. Blanco was present throughout the event at IDEA McAllen. State Reps. R.D. ‘Bobby Guerra of McAllen and Eddie Lucio, III, of Harlingen, were present for part of it. Dunn said the event was a great success because it focused on the collaborations traditional public schools and charter schools can achieve.

“We are all in the education space. We are all in this for the same reason and that is to improve education outcomes for kids. To the extent that we can learn from each other; build on each other’s successes and help drive student improvement, that is what this is all about,” Dunn added.

An example of traditional public schools and charter schools working together was provided at the forum by PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King and IDEA’s co-founder Tom Torkelson. The two worked together to secure a $5 million federal Investing in Innovation grant. This enabled PSJA and IDEA to develop a leadership program for its teachers and staff and provide instructional coaching for new teachers.

“We learned from each other and from Teach for America,” King said. Torkelson said the partnership “was in many ways spectacular.”

When the Investing in Innovation grant ended PSJA and IDEA continued to work together in more informal ways, such as sharing ideas on how to make transitional counselors at UT-Rio Grande Valley do a better job for freshmen students, King said. He also cited the work PSJA and IDEA have done together in the United for Success Coalition and in RGV Focus.

Partnerships between traditional public schools and charter schools are not always smooth sailing, however. Torkelson pointed out there was a lot of opposition early on to proposals for IDEA to run some of Austin ISD’s schools on Austin’s east side. “I would offer a cautionary tale of how challenging these partnerships can be and the steep political costs that courageous people who champion these partnerships have to face,” Torkelson said.