The San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Area has two of the fastest growing cities in the country. But according to Texas enrollment data, the region’s traditional public schools lost nearly 4,000 students between 2017 and 2019.
The main reason for the apparent contradiction is an exponential growth in publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools. Charter school enrollment in the San Antonio metro area has grown by more than 200% since 2009, according to a Texas Public Radio analysis of a decade of enrollment records obtained through public information requests.
In the past two years alone, charter networks in the San Antonio metro area gained nearly 11,000 students. For traditional school districts, that meant a corresponding loss in funding. State funding is based on attendance.
More than half of the region’s charter school growth came from IDEA Public Schools, a charter network that started out in the Rio Grande Valley.
Rolando Posada, IDEA’s San Antonio regional director, said families are attracted to the charter network by its “mission of college for all,” and the high standards it sets for both behavior and academics.
“The core values you’ll see plastered all over the walls,” he said, standing in the courtyard of IDEA Carver on San Antonio’s East Side. “‘Whatever it takes.’ ‘No excuses.’ This is the idea that if you work hard enough you can accomplish your goals in life.”
Fifty-five messages are posted everywhere at IDEA schools, some are reminders of rules and some are inspiration.
Even though there were only five days left of school, Armando Vela’s second grade class was hard at work subtracting three-digit numbers at IDEA’s flagship San Antonio campus.
“What are the key words in the question to tell me what I’m going to do?” Vela asked his students, reading a word problem aloud.
“How many more!” they chanted.
“Yes, ‘how many more,’ boys and girls,” Vela said. ‘‘How many more tells me I’m going to do what?”
At the end of their math class, the second graders lined up with one hand behind their backs to remind them to keep their hands to themselves, and an index finger in front of their mouths to remind them to keep quiet as they walked to their next class.
Posada said that kind of structure and high expectations aren’t for everyone, but he believes it’s necessary to prepare kids for college. Most of IDEA’s schools received A’s or B’s on the state’s academic accountability rating last year, but a couple earned the equivalent of a C or a D.
“Too often the statistics show that low-income Latinos, low-income African American scholars drop out the first year of college,” Posada said. “And many times the reason they give up is that they just weren’t ready for the rigor.”
Posada said that same mission is what drives IDEA to expand so quickly. The charter network started out in poor neighborhoods near struggling schools in San Antonio’s urban core.
With plans to grow from 24 to 37 schools in San Antonio in three years, a growing number of its campuses are located in suburban working class and middle class areas on the city’s North Side.
Because IDEA doesn’t provide transportation, Joe and Samantha Cantu drive 80 minutes a day to take their 9-year-old son Lucas to IDEA Judson on the eastern edge of the North East school district.
“What’s important is that he gets the best opportunity, and this is what we feel is giving him the best opportunity,” Joe Cantu said as he drove to pick Lucas up from school.
Joe Cantu works nights at a company that hosts backup computer servers, while his wife Samantha stays at home with their 4-month-old-son Castiel.
They’re excited that Lucas already knows what he wants to study in college: robotics and marine biology.
The Cantus family started looking at charter schools when Lucas was 4 because the neighborhood public school, where Lucas received speech therapy, left them with a bad first impression.
They felt like his speech was getting worse, and Samantha said she saw the front desk clerk let someone pick up a child from school without asking for ID.
“I couldn’t fathom my kid accidentally getting sent with someone else,” Samantha said. “So I was like ‘No! Security’s not good for me.’”
They chose IDEA when Lucas was in kindergarten, and haven’t looked back.
Northern Bexar County school districts like North East, where Lucas’ IDEA school is located, have historically been the districts of choice in San Antonio.
Up until recently that brought the districts a steady stream of growth, but TPR’s analysis of enrollment data found that to no longer be the case.
State transfer records show that the decline in enrollment growth at traditional public schools on the North Side corresponded with an increasing number of students leaving their home districts over the past five years for new charter schools like IDEA, Great Hearts and Basis.
Some previously fast-growth districts, like North East ISD, stopped growing entirely. North East lost more than 2,000 students the past two years.
There are other reasons some school districts in the San Antonio metro area are losing enrollment. For instance, birth rates began declining during the 2008 recession. But according to Texas state demographer Lloyd Potter, that shouldn’t affect the parts of the region that a lot of people are moving to, like the North Side of town.
It’s also hard to know the impact of homeschooling and private schools because there are no reliable sources of local data.
Standing in the neighborhood next to Oak Meadow Elementary in the North East school district, Cameron Vickrey said her daughters’ school “experienced a kind of mass exodus” a few years ago to go to Great Hearts. Great Hearts is a charter network that uses a classical curriculum similar to private schools.
“When all of those people left there was a volunteer vacuum,” Vickrey said. “That was when I came to the school, and as a new kindergarten mom I was put on the PTA board… because they pretty much had to create a PTA board from scratch.”
Vickrey’s neighborhood is mostly one-story, ranch-style houses a short walk or drive from the elementary school.
Trimmed yards are sprinkled with white signs that say “Proudly RootEd in NEISD.”
Vickrey and a few other Oak Meadow parents started making the yard signs after hearing other parents say that nobody in the neighborhood goes to the traditional public school.
“And we stopped and thought about it, and we were like, ‘That’s not true! Of course people go to that school.’ They just don’t know those neighbors, right, because maybe they’re not in their clique or whatever.”
From there, RootEd grew into a nonprofit with a mission of spreading positive stories about district schools — both by word of mouth and on social media using the hashtag RootEd.
“RootEd just wants to say, ‘Wait, hang on a second. Remember that these schools are here. And there are awesome things happening in them still,’” Vickrey said. “Make that your first stop, the first thing that you look into and if it doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, nobody’s going to fault you for that. You have a right to do that but we just want to make sure that people don’t discount their public schools.”
Vickrey said she also wants parents to consider the “unintended side effects” of choosing charter schools: less money and volunteers for the traditional public school, and a tendency to choose a school where people look like you.
“Our middle school that we’re zoned for here is a Title I (low-income) school, Jackson Middle School,” Vickrey said. “And it’s fabulous, but so many start choosing their school path for elementary school based on trying to avoid Jackson Middle School.”
Jackson Middle School is 80% Hispanic and 72% economically disadvantaged. San Antonio’s Great Hearts schools are less than 20% low-income and almost 50% white.
San Antonio charter school advocate Inga Cotton has a different perspective.
“It’s not that they’re seeking to necessarily get away from something, it’s that they’re trying to find this beautiful education community,” said Cotton, whose children go to Great Hearts.
Cotton’s son is on the autism spectrum, and she said the structure and support he gets at Great Hearts is the only school program she’s found that meets his needs.
“I think it’s important to recognize that even good schools can’t serve all students, and that those students need a choice,” Cotton said. “We live in a district that has a B rating, which is pretty good. And, you know, one of the better districts in town. But there’s only one school that has kindergarten and my son was not well served there.”
It’s worth noting that both IDEA and Great Hearts serve significantly lower rates of special education students than their closest traditional public school.
Cotton's nonprofit, San Antonio Charter Moms, recently received funding to support her advocacy. With the help of that funding, they created an app that parents can use to find charter schools. She said her goal is to make sure everyone knows what their options are, instead of relying on word of mouth or school marketing.
It also has the potential to attract more families to charter schools while the North East school district is still trying to figure out how to keep its students current enrolled.
“Competition has just entered into the educational realm, and that’s something that I think overall that we’re just not accustomed to,” Interim Superintendent Sean Maika said. “I’ve often said that Kodak had competition with digital camera — they created it, they did it, and then they went away. Our commitment here is that we continue to remain as relevant as we always have been.”
Maika said the district will roll out a plan to better compete in August, but he’s not sharing the details just yet because “that would be like playing poker while showing you my cards.”
Before former North East Superintendent Brian Gottardy retired, he and Northside Superintendent Brian Woods asked the San Antonio City Council not to approve a tax exempt bond for IDEA. Woods and Gottardy told the San Antonio Express-News that local officials should use tools like tax-exempt status and zoning to prevent an over-concentration of charter schools.
Earlier this year, Woods said he thinks there needs to be better state policy around where charters can locate and how much notice they give school districts so they can plan.
For the first time in decades, Northside, San Antonio’s largest school district, lost students during the 2018-2019 school year.
“I have all kinds of questions about selective enrollment practices that I think ought to be addressed at a state level,” Woods said. “I don’t have any problem with the competition. What’s going on is that there’s competition, but one of the competitors is being held back by state policy, and that’s the school districts.”
Texas requires charter schools to accept applications from all students, but charter networks are allowed to bar students with discipline records from enrolling.
San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez has a more conciliatory reputation when it comes to charter schools. The district has contracts with two charter networks, Democracy Prep and Texas Can Academies, to run SAISD schools, and SAISD is partnering with the KIPP network to improve college-going rates.
Still, Martinez agreed that there’s not a level playing field between charter networks and school districts.
“There are definitely a lot of challenges with the way charters are authorized here in this state… but I don’t see anything changing,” Martinez said. “I’d rather spend my time making our schools more attractive to keep our families.”
Charter schools have had a negative impact on SAISD’s enrollment for a longer time than North East, and SAISD has a strategy that’s starting to see results.
That’s the focus of part two of TPR’s The Charter Effect.
Editor's Note: IDEA Public Schools is a contributor to Texas Public Radio's Education News Fund.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille
This is the first of three stories in TPR’s series The Charter Effect examining trends uncovered from an analysis of a decade of enrollment data.
Methodology: Data used in this analysis is based on enrollment reported to the Texas Education Agency on a single day in October. In addition to enrollment reports, TPR obtained a decade of data listing the number of students attending a district or charter network other than their home district, as reported to the Texas Education Agency each fall.
TPR used statewide campus-level data cross-referenced with district enrollment reports and physical addresses to create an accurate list of charter schools and traditional public schools located in one of the eight counties in the San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Area. See the data.