Not All IDEAS are Good Ideas: Labor and the Community Turn Defeat into Victory in the Struggle Against IDEA Charter Schools in Austin

This article was written by SOCM Social Justice Committee (SJC) Co-Chair Travis Donoho. Before moving to Knoxville last year, he worked as an organizer for the teachers union Education Austin (in Austin, Texas). Here he tells the story of his union’s successful campaign to stop the charter takeover of a public high school (for more background on charter schools, see the suggested readings at the end of the article).

With public schools facing deeper budget cuts and threats of privatization, SOCM and numerous allies are working to build the kind of broad community coalitions described in this article. Though this case study is from Texas, there are plenty of lessons here for those advocating for public schools in Tennessee! To get involved with the SJC, contact us at

Photo: Austin Chronicle
Photo: Austin Chronicle

Education Austin (EA) is a merged affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with approximately 3,000 members out of a total of 10,000 eligible Austin Independent School District (AISD) employees. The State of Texas has generally prohibited collective bargaining for state and local employees by statute for decades. To circumvent this prohibition, a handful of teacher and school employee unions in Texas have won the ability to participate in exclusive consultation, which is similar to the collaborative conferencing process for Tennessee teachers.

In 2010, Education Austin undertook a long-term project to create an in-district community charter school, with financial assistance of the AFT and the active collaboration of the AISD administration and the Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate, Austin Interfaith, to which EA had long belonged. The school would be an experiment in which decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, use of resources, and other factors would be collectively made by teachers, parents, staff, and the campus principal. Unlike other charter schools, the community charter school would remain directly answerable to the district and would adhere to the district’s personnel policies (including the right of non-probationary teachers to an ongoing contract). The process would require the proposal to win supermajorities among school employees and parents before it could be presented to the school board for final approval. A former SOCM organizer, Alex Moir, was hired as EA’s community organizer, and he set about identifying a school willing to make the transition and ready to build the consensus necessary to move forward.

A year later, on October 20, 2011, AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen suddenly announced plans to gradually turn over Eastside Memorial High School with its overwhelmingly Hispanic student body, to IDEA Public Schools, a growing charter school chain based in the Rio Grande Valley. Eastside has been low-performing for several years according to results from state-mandated standardized tests, and had actually been the first school in Texas to be closed, renamed, and repurposed due to low standardized test scores. Although the district’s consultation policy clearly provided that such a drastic change should have been discussed with the union, Dr. Carstarphen’s announcement was a complete surprise to Education Austin. As the plan eventually unfolded, IDEA would gradually take over the school’s feeder schools, starting with Allan, an acceptably performing elementary school, which IDEA would gradually turn into a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade elementary/middle school. Within a few years, IDEA would move into Eastside and start taking it over one grade at a time with each school year until Eastside had been completely charterized. IDEA would be exempt from state laws requiring that non-probationary teachers be given a contract and that they be terminated only for good cause shown or financial exigency; IDEA, like most charters, is an at-will employer which freely terminates teachers for any reason or no reason at all.

At first, Education Austin was the most visible force opposing the superintendent’s plan, vocally denouncing the plans at AISD school board meetings from the outset. Not surprisingly, the board’s 6-3 pro-Carstarphen majority smeared the union, claiming that Education Austin was only interested in preserving its members jobs and not in “what was best for the children.” Although EA had been the single largest dues-paying affiliate of Austin Interfaith, Austin Interfaith had no congregations or other organizational members based in the affected area. Thankfully, the surrounding community soon mobilized in defense of Eastside, one of Austin’s poorest schools and historically a source of great school pride for much of Austin’s Hispanic community. A very vocal teacher/parent/community organization, PRIDE of the Eastside, sprung up virtually overnight and was joined by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and Occupy AISD, an offshoot of Occupy Austin (which was occupying Austin City Hall at the time) in ferociously opposing Carstarphen and IDEA. At Education Austin’s suggestion, all anti-IDEA forces began coordinating their efforts. With the help of Texas AFT, Education Austin released a study prepared by a prestigious Penn State education professor which refuted many of IDEA’s claims, for example, its assertion that all of its graduates went on to college. Fuller also showed that those IDEA students who did attend college often did poorly and/or dropped out because IDEA’s “drill and kill” (drill students endlessly for standardized tests and kill their love of learning) curriculum did not prepare them adequately for the non-multiple choice world of higher education. The AISD administration quickly denounced the study, but offered no refutation of the professor’s research.

Board meeting
Photo by John Anderson

The district sponsored a series of citizen communication forums, which were thinly veiled attempts at public relations events for IDEA, but the overwhelming majority of speakers denounced the plan and pointed to the administration’s constant tinkering with Eastside and resulting lack of stability as the true source of most of its difficulties. During the forums, it soon became amply clear that IDEA’s “direct teaching” curriculum consisted of little more than constant preparation for standardized tests with the students endlessly parroting answers to questions anticipated to be on the state’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). IDEA later even admitted that its students in the Rio Grande Valley wore uniforms which were color-coded, not on the basis of grade or age, but on standardized test-score achievement, thus insuring the humiliation of older siblings by their more test-savvy younger brothers and sisters attending the same school!

On December 18, 2011, the day before the school board vote, two former Austin mayors, one of whom had also served as State Comptroller, denounced the plan at a press conference in front of Allan Elementary School in a steady drizzle. That night Occupy Austin moved most of its operation to the AISD administration building, while leaving a skeleton contingent at City Hall. The occupiers stood in the cold drizzle all night long so that they could stand in line as proxies for teachers, Eastside students, and members of the community so that all 30 spots in the citizen communication segment of the meeting would be anti-IDEA speakers, despite it being the week of final exams. As each teacher or student showed up, the occupier holding a sign with his or her name on it gave up his or place in line to the teacher or student, who then signed up to speak that night once the building opened for business.

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis and community leaders at press conference to keep Eastside open.
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis and community leaders at press conference to keep Eastside open.

Despite the presence of hundreds of union members, parents, students, and members of the community led in anti-IDEA chants by Eastside cheerleaders for hours, the school board voted 6-3 to approve the superintendent’s plan just after midnight on the morning of December 13. As the board president gaveled the meeting to a close, dozens of protestors rose to their feet and spontaneously chanted, “We will vote you out!” for a full fifteen minutes.
In the wake of the AISD administration’s victory over the union-community coalition, the superintendent sought to retaliate against Education Austin for its militance against IDEA by reducing its status as exclusive consultation agent from exclusive to a “king’s court” or “one-among-many” approach. Education Austin had won election over its much smaller anti-union competitors, ATPE and TCTA (both similar to Professional Educators of Tennessee) time and time again since the AFT local and the NEA local merged to form EA in 1999. Carstarphen’s proposal would have made the two anti-union outfits equal parties with Education Austin in negotiating with the administration over employee issues, a recipe for ineffectiveness and stalemate. Fortunately, her proposal received little support from the school board. Even the school board member who initially proposed the takeover of the Eastside vertical team by IDEA spoke out publically against the “king’s court” scheme. (To Carstarphen’s credit, she never attempted to derail the ongoing work by Education Austin and the community to create an in-district community charter school at Travis Heights Elementary.)

As the spring semester unfolded, IDEA rolled out its campaign to recruit students for Fall Semester 2012 with billboards, radio and TV ads, and aggressive phone calls. AISD’s own website became a digital billboard for recruiting students away from their home schools to the IDEA charter. As it took over the Allan campus, forcing anti-IDEA parents to send their children to other elementary schools in the surrounding area, IDEA eliminated the school library, sending its contents to AISD schools so that students would more readily acclimate themselves to rote learning by recitation and computer-aided instruction. Ultimately, thanks to the efforts of Pride of the Eastside to boycott IDEA, when IDEA/Allan opened in the fall of 2012, only 18% of the enrolled students came from the Eastside vertical team area; IDEA had to scramble all over the district and then some to find sufficient students to open IDEA/Allan.

In the meantime, Education Austin and its community allies were actively recruiting anti-IDEA candidates to run for school board. After months of blockwalking, phone banking, and contributions from EA’s ample political action committee, four new school board members were elected in November 2012. At the board’s December meeting, almost exactly a year after the superintendent’s victory, the new board voted 5-4 to abrogate the contract with IDEA and retake control of Allan Elementary in June 2013. (Ironically, earlier in the meeting the board had approved Travis Heights Elementary School’s to become the district’s first in-district community charter school by a unanimous vote of 9-0.) In 2014, Dr. Meria Carstarphen left AISD to take another position as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. In November 2014 the Atlanta school board vote to move to a “charter system.”

Unfortunately, the end of IDEA within AISD did not end Eastside Memorial High School’s troubles. Soon after the school board’s action, the state’s commissioner of education announced that, as a perennially low-performing school, Eastside would still have to partner with another “entity” to improve its academic performance in order to remain open. Once again, Education Austin, Pride of the Eastside, and the broader Eastside community worked together to encourage the district to partner with Talent Development Secondary of Johns Hopkins University, an entity dedicated to truly collaboratively partnering with the school rather than taking it over and running the school itself. After months of meetings and genuine community forums, the education commissioner announced its approval of the partnership with Johns Hopkins at Eastside’s commencement on June 5, 2013.
Postscript: On August 7, 2015, the teachers, non-teaching staff, parents, and students of Eastside Memorial High School were notified that their school has reached a rating of “acceptable” on the STAAR (formerly the TAKS the state’s primary statewide testing assessment) for the first time in 10 years and was rated the number school in the state for achieving academic progress over a single academic year.

Photo: Eastside Memorial High School Poem Dedication
Photo: Eastside Memorial High School Poem Dedication

Lessons to Be Learned

1. Teacher and school employee unions and community organizations desperately need each other to win the big battles in these days of so-called education “reform.” Education Austin reluctantly had to take a step back to encourage the community to step forward, since the school board falsely but at first effectively accused the union of only being concerned about is members’ job security. EA’s community allies were not vulnerable to the board’s attacks on this point. The labor-community alliance that produced the Chicago Teachers Union’s victory over Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in its historic strike was many years in the making; start now to develop your own labor-community alliance.

2. Do not underestimate the power of academic counter-research to sway the media or the public.
Although charter schools almost always claim to have a better curriculum and more impressive results than ture public schools, when closely examined their claims are often based on lies and unsupportable half-truths. Professor Ed Fuller’s study did much to sway the daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, to our side and the influential alternative newsweekly, the Austin Chronicle, used Fuller’s report against IDEA like a club in the court of public opinion.

3. Alternatives to charter schools (such as the Travis Heights Elementary School, sometimes referred to as an “innovation school,” rather than as an in-district community charter school) are worth investigating as a means to forestall school districts imposing traditional charter schools on their students, teachers, and parents. Also, Education Austin and many other educational worker unions and their community allies are putting forward community schools (neighborhood schools as one-stop shops for virtually all educational and family needs, including adult education and social service agencies), which promise to make communities stronger and better able to resist imposition of charters on their neighborhood schools.

4. Never underestimate the power of the community to fight back, no matter how impoverished or dispirited. A neighborhood school is the soul of a community; when schools close or are turned over to a unaccountable outside entity, neighborhoods tend to die.


For more on charter schools, check out these articles:

“A Dozen Problems with Charter Schools”

“Charter Schools Are Cheating Your Kids”

“Nashville Should Recommit to Public Education”

“Charter Schools and the Risk of Increased Segregation”

“Ten Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All Charter School System Has Proven a Failure”

“Koch Brothers/Charter School Nightmare”

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