July 11, 2018

KIPP’s four charter networks merge into single statewide group

By Jacob Carpenter

parents wait to sign up for the KIPP charter school
In this 2015 file photo, parents wait to sign up for the KIPP charter school system lottery in Houston. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Texas’ four KIPP charter school networks, which have operated independently for 15 years, have consolidated into a single statewide organization designed to streamline operations and clear the path for opening more campuses, the group’s leadership announced this week.

The merger will make KIPP Texas Public Schools, as the organization will now be known, the second-largest charter school network in Texas, behind IDEA Public Schools. The four KIPP networks served about 25,000 students last year in about 50 schools throughout the Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio areas.

KIPP Texas leaders said the change will foster greater collaboration between the regions, each of which had independent governing boards and local leadership teams. They also expect the merger to provide more financial flexibility as KIPP continues to expand its footprint.

Sehba Ali, who served as superintendent of KIPP Houston for the past six years and now is CEO of KIPP Texas, said leaders from the four regions have been contemplating the move for about 18 months. The merger became official July 1.

“We realized our organizations wanted to improve student success across the state and we wanted to create an environment to serve more KIPPsters,” Ali said. “We landed on coming together as one organization in order to achieve those things.”

Ali said the reorganization, which has earned approval from the Texas Education Agency, is not expected to dramatically impact classroom activities when school resumes in August. Some jobs will be consolidated, but that will impact less than 1 percent of the workforce, KIPP Texas leaders said.

Ali and Mark Larson, KIPP Texas’ chief growth officer, said they do not expect to ramp up expansion of KIPP campuses or spread to other regions in the state immediately. The charter operator has been relatively measured in its growth over the past two decades, often adding no more than a couple campuses per year. A few other Texas charter networks, including IDEA Public Schools and International Leadership of Texas, have grown more aggressively in recent years.

“A lot of these decisions are very market-dependent,” said Larson, who had been CEO of KIPP San Antonio since 2009. “We want to make sure we leverage the benefits of scale, but be nimble in our four markets.”

The first KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) campus opened in Houston in 1994, a one-off school co-founded by two Teach For America alumni. KIPP gradually grew into a national charter school powerhouse, boasting about 210 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Although they share the KIPP name, KIPP charter networks are divided by regions, with local nonprofit governing boards overseeing each network’s finances and operations.

KIPP has attracted roughly 90,000 students to its schools nationwide by promoting its no-excuses attitude toward education, setting high standards for students and parents and, in many regions, boasting higher-than-average performance outcomes. KIPP schools are almost exclusively located in high-poverty areas home to predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Critics of KIPP and other charter organizations often argue charters drain funding from traditional public schools and serve fewer students with special needs.

KIPP’s Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio networks all opened in the early 2000s, growing at slower rates than the Houston organization. About 14,400 students were enrolled in KIPP’s Houston network last year, compared to about 5,200 in Austin, 3,300 in San Antonio and 2,300 in Dallas-Fort Worth.

KIPP Texas will boast combined operating revenues exceeding $260 million next year and assets totaling more than $400 million. A governing board comprised of members from all four of the previous Texas networks will oversee finances and chart KIPP’s growth plans. Ali said regional boards will continue to “heavily weigh in and help us determine strategic oversight.”

Older charter school networks in Texas traditionally sought multiple, independent charters when they sought to expand, even if they fell under a similar organizational umbrella, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said.

“There was a grant incentive for charter holders to apply for multiple charters in the past,” Callahan said, adding that federal and state lawmakers since have removed those enticements.

KIPP Houston operated 28 local schools last year. Immediate expansion plans call for a Sharpstown-area high school this year, an East End high school in 2020 and campuses in southwest Houston at an undetermined date.