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Charter school opens this fall in Red Oak

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School choice, voucher movement gains steam, despite opposition
JOEY DAUBEN
The Ellis County Press

RED OAK - Parents take a more hands-on approach in the education of their children at Life School - Tom Wilson likes that.

Wilson, pastor at The Oaks Fellowship in Red Oak, leases space to Life School, a charter school.

Life School, which operates a 1,300-student facility in Oak Cliff, has plans to open the Red Oak school this fall and curently out-performs local school districts such as Dallas, on standardized tests.

Life School and Waxahachie's Faith Family Academy depend on state funds, rather than direct local property taxes - taxpayers like that even better.

And administrator pay for the charter schools is also considerably less than an independent school district, according to figures from the Texas Education Agency.

In fact, state average per-pupil expenditures in the 241-charter school system was currently $5,383 - less than the $6,176 state average in regular public schools.

'It's approximately $4,500 [per-pupil] here, but local taxes stay within the districts, so they [independent districts] actually make money from us,' said Wilson.

In other words, if a student from the Waxahachie ISD enrolls at Life School in Red Oak, the WISD retains, on average, $2,000 or $3,000 of that parent's property tax money.

The method mirrors a private school, because parents who send their children to for-profit or religious schools still must pay the local school district with taxes.

But the movement to get public schools' monopoly on the property taxes broken and in turn, broaden school choice (also called a voucher system) is growing - despite opposition from teacher's groups, national teacher's unions and the local education establishment.

'School districts are opposed to school vouchers because they take money away from public education,' said WISD Director of Public Relations Candace Ahlfinger.

But the money is and should be spent at the discretion of the parents, taxpayers say.

'The parents conceived the child, the parents earned the tax money and the parents should be able to choose the education,' said Don Zimmerman, a staunch proponent of vouchers and school choice.

'Children are not ‘global resources' for training and exploitation as government statistics and some corporate bosses typically think.'

That argument though, public school district officials say, could be used for all taxes.

'I assume you've never driven on Interstate H in Hawaii, but your tax dollars were spent for it's construction,' said Midlothian ISD School Board Trustee Duke Burge.

'On a closer scale, how many times have you called the fire department to your house? Yet, few people would argue the need to do away with it.

'In some respects, the public school system is the same. It becomes the responsibility of the elected officials to see that the monies collected are spent in the most efficient way possible to provide the best education for the most kids.'

'What we see is that the people of Texas persist in demanding school choice,' said Texas Public Policy Foundation Director of Research Chris Patterson. 'They see public schools wasting their money and they want change.'

But it's the 'union-mindset' of the Texas Education Agency, Texas Association of School Boards, and local school districts keeping the competition backers at bay.

'School choice will reduce power, pure and simple. Public schooling eliminates competition, which would threaten the jobs of the teachers and administrators, 'said Marie Gryphon, education policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute.

'Teachers [organizations] and other public school unions have outsize bargaining power with state and local governments, because of their political clout.'

The increasing costs, however, are what taxpayers are furious about, which is why the state legislature has scheduled a special session on school finance.

Currently, money from 'rich' districts must send property taxes to the state to be redistributed to 'poorer' ones.

A plan to alleviate the property tax burden on homeowners and replace it with a 75-cent statewide tax and an increased sales tax has been proposed by the state senate, but redistricting battles in Austin have prevented the session from taking place.

'If we could somehow manage to increase voter turnout to 80-90 percent, then I believe we would see changes in the public school system that would alleviate many of the concerns of the voucher proponents,' Burge said.

The TEA prohibits charter schools from being run by religious organizations, but Wilson's church can lease the building to the schools.

'They can lease the [church] to a hospital if they wanted to,' said Wilson, referring to Life Schools of Dallas, the non-profit organization that runs both schools.

Wilson said the TEA 'loves' Life School because of its parent-teacher cooperation philosophy and its high test scores.

'We take the same tests, we have a community school board, we're just like the other public schools,' he said.

The difference, though, is what Wilson refers to as the 'environment control' the schools use.

'We have 32 character concepts that we stress, and that are taught once a month,' he said. 'Parents are the basic education device. Teachers work with the parents.'

Those concepts, Wilson said, are why Life School has been able to meet 25 of the 26 test standards set forth by the TEA.

'Parents are central,' Wilson said. 'We deal individually, rather than collectivist.'

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