In Texas, the education system offers parents and students options that include public, charter and private schools and homeschooling.

However, misunderstandings about the distinctions between these options have caused confusion for many families, especially as interest groups lobby for change in the Texas Legislature.

Competition between charter and traditional public schools has occurred since the state passed a law allowing for the creation of open-enrollment charter schools in 1995.

As the number of charter schools has grown, cutting into the enrollment of traditional public school districts, that competition has intensified, with charters reportedly recruiting parents in the parking lots of schools slated for closure due to years of low enrollment and resulting financial distress.

Yet many public school leaders, both charter and traditional, have said they are not in a competition with each other.

“I have no issue with charters, because we can work collectively and educate children,” Edgewood Independent School District Superintendent Eduardo Hernández said. “This is still one big city, and until we realize the responsibility of that, that really defeats the purpose of working with children.”

Despite that, districts have made it a priority to attract students by creating innovative programs, building state-of-the-art campuses and connecting with students on social media.

Now private schools may be added to the mix of free or subsidized options for parents, as policies that would allow tax dollars to be spent on public schools are debated in the Legislature.

With a constantly growing field of competing interests and advocacy organizations vying for support and student enrollment, the difference in oversight, funding and operation at the different types of schools has become muddied.

Navigating the universe of school choice in the San Antonio area can be a challenge. But for parents willing to put in the time, the array of choices means they can find a school that is the best fit for their student, no matter where it’s located.
Local resources can help.

San Antonio’s education landscape

The San Antonio area is home to 19 public school districts, which oversee hundreds of schools, including some magnet campuses that offer a specific academic focus along with the standard core curriculum.

Jaime Puente, the director of economic opportunity for the Austin-based think tank Every Texan, said traditional school districts have the highest level of oversight, with a publicly elected school board and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) overseeing operations. Students are required to be taught to Texas Essential Skills and Knowledge (TEKS) standards, and are measured using standardized testing.

San Antonio is also home to more than 150 charter schools — tuition-free public schools supported by taxpayer dollars and open to all students.

These schools are considered “open enrollment.” That means there is no entrance exam and all students (within the grades offered at each school) are eligible. If an open enrollment school gets more applications than it has seats, it uses a lottery system to select students.

Unlike traditional school districts, charter schools don’t have locally elected boards, but are still held to the same accountability standards by the TEA. Puente noted that terms like “school choice” and “vouchers” are often conflated with charter and private schools, leading to misunderstandings.

“It’s easier to lump in charter schools [with vouchers], because that’s the ‘school choice’ … we’ve heard for the last 30 years,” he said. “Perception of charters, vouchers and ‘school choice’ are conflated.”

Puente said polling showing wide support for vouchers could be in part due to this confusion.

Texas passed a law in 1995 allowing for the creation of open-enrollment charter schools, but it does not currently have any type of school voucher program in place.

That could change. A recent poll found most voters would support using state funds for private school tuition. Republican state leaders have long fought to create such a system, while Democrats and rural Republicans have in the past opposed such efforts. Previous attempts to create voucher programs in Texas have failed.

There are over 700 public charter schools across the state that offer a variety of programs, such as STEM education, fine arts or college prep. These schools have more autonomy than traditional school districts and are held accountable for their performance by the state.

Much of the flexibility, including shorter or longer days, different class sizes and different teacher certifications, has been extended to school districts under a law that allows them to apply to be “Districts of Innovation.”

In San Antonio, families interested in private schools have more than two dozen to choose from, most with religious affiliations. Other schooling options include online learning, which has expanded since the pandemic began; homeschooling and micro-schools, also known as learning pods

Where to look for help

Resources are available to help families understand each choice school’s unique features. They can learn how districts and individual campuses score in reading and math, how many of a school’s graduates go on to college and whether schools offer sports, free transportation and free or reduced-priced meals.

The TEA issues interactive accountability rating reports each year (ratings resumed for the 2021 school year after a two-year pandemic hiatus), which offer detailed reports for each district, campus and open-enrollment charter school in Texas.

But while these reports are searchable, the filtering requirements can mean users miss schools, and it can be difficult to compare options.

One of the most comprehensive local resources is San Antonio Charter Moms’ School Choice Guide, which lists all the “public schools of choice, including open-enrollment public charter schools, in-district charter schools and district-charter partnership schools” in the San Antonio area. 

The guide even has its own app, allowing users to filter schools by grade level, location and school quality. Users can receive notifications about particular schools, including reminders about open enrollment deadlines and lottery dates. 

Launched as a blog in 2012 and a Facebook group soon after, San Antonio Charter Moms was founded by Inga Cotton, whose son had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Cotton was trying to understand the education landscape at the time to find the best school for her son.

She said that choice is really a personal one.

“There’s no ‘best school,’” she told the San Antonio Report. “It’s what is best for your student, for your family.”

Today, San Antonio Charter Moms is a foundation-funded 510(c)3 that regularly updates its school choice guide, boasts 10,000 members in its Facebook groups and hosts School Discovery Days, a series of monthly events that allows families to meet with school representatives from dozens of local charter schools in one location, ask questions and fill out applications. 

Charter schools in public districts

The San Antonio Independent School District is the largest provider of school choice options in the city. Its offerings include what are known as in-district charter schools as well as charter-district partnership schools, in which SAISD partners with nonprofits to offer a variety of learning opportunities, including International Baccalaureate, Montessori, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), project-based learning, fine arts, single gender campuses and more. Many specialized programs are also dual-language.

Karen Galvan, SAISD’s special projects coordinator in the Office of Access and Enrollment Services, said many parents across San Antonio don’t know that they don’t have to live within the school district to enroll in an SAISD choice school

“This is for everyone,” she said. “We’re always trying to make that clearer. It doesn’t matter where you live.” She said SAISD choice schools also include free transportation options. “We don’t want transportation to ever be a barrier.”

While SAISD choice schools have a rolling enrollment process and will take students as long as there are open seats in its schools, other choice and charter schools’ enrollment process is shorter and more defined.

Inga Cotton stands outside the School of Science and Technology where her children, Nicholas, 15, and Annika, 12, attend school.
Inga Cotton stands outside the School of Science and Technology, where her children, 15-year-old Nicholas and 12-year-old Annika, attend school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Charter Moms website has articles on the enrollment process for many local charter schools as well as overall guides. It includes stories of local parents and their efforts to find the right school for their kids. A recent story featured a mom who created a spreadsheet to compare more than 60 schools

For those who might be unable to dedicate that amount of time, Cotton said parents can use the Charter Moms Facebook group to get questions answered by other parents. She said many join while they’re searching for the right school for their children, but then stick around to help others.

Parents and caregivers “can get a lot of what they need with our enrollment guide,” Cotton said, including insights into school culture and how to apply. “But if they have additional questions, like, who allows early drop-off, for say, parents in health care or the military? You can crowd-source that.”

Story editor Tracy Idell Hamilton contributed to this report.

Isaac Windes is an award-winning reporter who has been covering education in Texas since 2019, starting at the Beaumont Enterprise and later at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A graduate of the Walter Cronkite...