Column: Good schools available for parents who care; If your child’s education is a priority, you have an option

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Why do some parents make such stupid decisions?

That was the question that kept popping into my mind last week as I walked around the KIPP TRUTH Academy in South Dallas.

(For the moment, please forgive their over-commitment to capital letters.)

Here was a middle school, in a poor part of town, that put academics first. A free charter school with a demonstrated record of taking struggling neighborhood kids and putting them on a path to college. A school whose graduates will get scholarships to Dallas’ most elite private high schools and who will eventually be successful in life.

And it opened school this month with 20 empty seats in its fifth-grade class.

Before you ask why a school was opening in June, let me explain. KIPP TRUTH is part of the terrific KIPP chain of nonprofit charter schools. Their philosophy: Any kids can learn if they’re willing to work hard.

Class goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week. There are classes on Saturday. There’s even a mandatory three-week summer school. (That’s why school opened this month.) Kids are given homework – and actually required to do it.

“Kids who are behind need extra time and extra help,” Steve Colmus, the school’s principal, told me. “We are all about getting kids into college, and there aren’t any shortcuts to that.”

In exchange for that commitment from students, teachers commit to working long hours, giving kids their cellphone numbers and requiring them to call at night if they have problems with their homework.

The results show up in test scores. When the first class of fifth-graders arrived at KIPP in the fall of 2003, the school gave them a nationally accepted standardized test. They were functioning at the level of third-graders.

But less than two years later – at the end of sixth grade – those same kids were reading like seventh-graders and doing math like 10th-graders.

The results show up on state tests, too. Last year, KIPP TRUTH’s math passing rate on the TAKS was 10 points above the state average.

But you don’t need numbers to know KIPP works. You can just walk into a classroom and see the kids engaged in what they’re learning. You can hear the polite, disciplined way they talk. You can watch them walking to lunch with their noses pressed into a book.

There are reasons why the KIPP model might not scale well. A lot of teachers don’t want to work its long hours. And it takes a bit more money to run a KIPP school than most public schools. (At KIPP TRUTH, Dallas billionaire Todd Wagner makes up the difference.)

But those reasons don’t explain those 20 empty seats. Dumb decisions by parents do.

I’m talking about parents who send their daughter to a bad school just because it’s close to where they work. Or send their son to a high school with horrid test scores but a good football team. It’s amazing how often something other than academic achievement is Priority No. 1 when it comes to picking a school.

That’s the core problem with school choice as a solution to our educational woes. They count on parents to make smart decisions. Many don’t.

An example: Texas has something called the Public Education Grant program. It pays for kids stuck in low-scoring schools to transfer elsewhere. But almost none actually do it. In 2003, 92,000 Texas kids were eligible to transfer.

The number who actually did: 127.

Another example: There are some plumb-awful charter schools in this state. Charter schools are supposed to bring the free market to education; parents can choose whether to send their kids there, and theoretically if a charter school is bad, parents should flee.

But parents don’t flee. Once they choose a bad school, they tend to stick to it. So the bad charters stick around, too.

The old political saying goes that if you ask Americans what they think of Congress, they’ll say it’s full of incompetent thieves. But if you ask them about their particular congressman – well, he seems like such a nice fellow in the commercials, doesn’t he?

The same is true of public schools. Talking trash about “the schools” is as accepted as complaining about the heat in July. But people think their local school is an exception. So they stick with it, even when evidence mounts that it’s not the best place to be.

Now, I understand that no parent wants to think she’s not giving her child the best. I’ve written a lot of stories about Wilmer-Hutchins, which was about as bad a school district as has ever scarred the earth. But despite all its troubles, a lot of parents defended Wilmer-Hutchins to the death – because at least it was theirs.

And obviously, not everyone has the same choices. Not everyone can choose to send Junior to St. Mark’s or Hockaday. And for some families, questions of logistics rule out all but a few options.

But it kills me to see empty chairs at KIPP. Each one of them means another parent has made a bad decision.

If you live in South Dallas and you want your rising fifth-grader to get a good education – if that’s your top priority – you might want to call Steve Colmus. His number is 214-375-8326.

If that’s not your top priority, ask yourself why.