The Insider

Charter Now, Pay Later
The University of Houston will unveil its new charter school for 20 kindergartners and first-graders this week, but until recently its administrators have had a distinct problem reading off the same page on the project. A last-minute rush to open the school for its first term seems to have been motivated as much by political as educational considerations.

The UH Charter School of Technology is the last of an initial batch of 20 charter schools licensed by the State Board of Education under a program pushed by Governor George Bush. As the only university-based charter school, it has symbolic significance for the backers of the charter-school movement.

Charter schools operate independently of local school districts but receive public funding with the aim of encouraging innovative, quality schooling. In UH's case, the school is basically an extension of the School of Technology's long-running and much-praised Human Development Lab, which follows a "constructivist" philosophy that encourages students to learn at their own pace.

The project, however, does not have universal campus support. It was initially scheduled to open in September, when the other charter experiments around the state got under way, but some UH officials questioned the expenditure of funds in a cash-tight academic environment to provide education for kids rather than young adults. The Daily Cougar reported that as recently as late December, UH provost Jack Ivancevich told faculty senators that he was recommending that the charter-school program not be promoted because it "lacked depth" and had shaky funding. The hierarchy at the UH education department also proved unsympathetic to the proposal, viewing charter schools as a trend that could eventually undermine public schools.

The delays did not please the governor's office, according to UH System insiders, and Bush began pressuring his appointee, board of regents chairman Eduardo Aguirre Jr., to get the project moving. Aguirre, in turn, cracked the whip over interim UH president Glenn Goerke after Goerke suggested that the charter school be put on hold until the new chancellor-president, Arthur Smith, assumes command April 1.

"Having carefully considered all of the issues," wrote Aguirre to Goerke in a November missive, "I believe that it is clearly in the best interests of the University of Houston to honor its commitment to the state of Texas by establishing a charter school immediately." He might have added that it was even more clearly in his own political interests to see a charter school -- any charter school -- open on campus.

As far as letting Smith have a role in the decision, Aguirre indicated that was not necessary. "I would expect that the new president, when named, will be fully briefed by the appropriate parties in academic affairs, and that the [regents] will be kept apprised of the progress of the charter school through the usual channels." Aguirre added, in a rather odd line, "Further, I would expect that the university will make every effort to assure the success of the school," implying there might be some on campus who wouldn't mind seeing it fail.

After UH Information Technology vice chair Katy Greenwood offered Aguirre her own concerns about the charter school, Aguirre responded brusquely: "I appreciate your deep concerns for the charter school and expect that you will support the university administration's operational decisions for the school," he wrote. "Should you have further questions or comments about the operational process, please consult through the normal university channels."

The chairman also noted that Goerke had asked Ivancevich to move forward "as soon as possible" to open the school. The letter was written more than a month before Ivancevich told faculty senators the charter-school proposal should be shelved.

In another indication that what the regents want, the regents get, immediately, the UH System quickly produced $250,000 in discretionary funds for startup costs to cover the school's first semester.

And just in case you wayward UH administrators are slow to grasp the ABCs of the charter movement, the school's political science department is hosting a seminar next Friday featuring national experts on charter schools. "These will be mostly supporters," says one planner dryly. "It is not going to be a debate on the validity of charter schools."

Perhaps Aguirre will reserve a special seat for Ivancevich.

You Should Get Such a Deal
It turns out that the Chronicle's support for the downtown stadium was even more generous than its ballpark-friendly coverage indicated. Not only did the Chronicle's sports scribes and editorialists obligingly shill to make downtown safe for Drayton McLane Jr., but the paper itself tossed in $137,526 worth of free advertising on behalf of Harris County Citizens for Proposition One, making it the largest single contributor to the pro-stadium PAC in the reporting period from eight days prior to the November 5 referendum through New Year's.

The PAC collected more than $659,000 during the same period, boosting total spending on its barely successful campaign to more than $1.4 million. Among the other big givers in the latest report were Southwestern Bell with $100,000, McLane's RDM Enterprises with $85,000 and BMC Software with $60,000. Helping wash it all down was Coca Cola, which poured in a $25,000 contribution, and Budweiser's Silver Eagle Distributors, which tapped its coffers for a $35,000 gift. Natural gas giant Enron, whose chairman, Ken Lay, helped spearhead the pro-stadium effort, already had given $100,000 but is listed as forking over another 100 grand in the latest report. According to PAC organizers, the most recent offering was in the form of a loan to smooth the campaign's cash flow. It will be paid back before Citizens for Proposition One finally closes its books, probably sometime this summer.

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