Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia: In the past week, there has been discussion in The Dallas Morning News and in other Texas media about the level of accountability for charter schools. As the CEO of North Texas’ largest charter school network, Uplift Education, I think it’s vital to understand how we are held accountable and the disadvantage we face based on how the state funds our schools.
It is also important to know what’s at stake. In Dallas County, 475,000 children attend public charter and local ISDs. Almost 350,000 of them come from low-income families. Less than half begin school ready for kindergarten. Only 14% of seniors are ready for college. Nationally, only 8% of students living in poverty will graduate from college by their mid-20s. Those who do graduate college will earn $1 million more in lifetime earnings.
In most cases, high performing charter schools are having a significant impact on college readiness, so much so that President Obama and Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn are aligned in supporting the replication and expansion of high-performing non-profit charter management organizations through the Charter Schools Program. To date, 18 Senators from across the political spectrum have co-sponsored legislation to support the growth of high-quality charter schools.
At Uplift, we have had success showing first-generation college students can achieve at high levels. Despite what the statistics predict about their future, our students are outperforming state averages by as much as 24% on annual STAAR exams.
Texas sets a high bar for public charter schools, which operate with more local autonomy from the state. A new state law requires Texas to shut down a charter school after three consecutive years of failing performance on any combination of financial and academic ratings. Local ISD schools with failing ratings can stay open for as many as seven years before the Commissioner is forced to close them. We support this law because the right to educate kids should come with strict standards.
Some have suggested that public charter schools spend tax dollars with no accountability to the public, but the opposite is true. We abide by transparency and accountability requirements that are almost identical to local ISD schools, including annual financial audits from the state. Like all public schools, we post our CEO salary on our website and make current financial statements available online for each of the five districts in the Uplift network.
Currently, Uplift has more than 10,000 children on our waitlists. We believe in Texas parents’ ability to make the best choice for their children. We believe that volunteer boards of directors, held to stringent quality standards, can respond to the needs of those parents, who are seeking us out in large numbers.
Our biggest roadblock in meeting that demand is a lack of access to school buildings. Charters spend as much as 20% of our annual operational budgets on the growing cost of facilities because the state provides no facilities funding. When a mother decides that an Uplift school is the right program for her son, about $950 in public funding disappears. For our 11,500 Uplift scholars, that represents a nearly $11 million gap in annual state funding. We would like to see those dollars directed to our classrooms, to our teacher performance pay program, and to enriched learning opportunities like STEM education, athletics, and fine arts programs.
Public charter schools have played a pivotal role in our educational system for nearly 20 years, and parent demand for high-quality charter seats is growing. We hope the Dallas community will join us in asking Texas lawmakers to erase the funding gaps between public charter and neighborhood schools to provide opportunity for all Texas children.
CEO, Uplift Education