The prekindergarten classroom inside the child care center on East Redd Road looks like most others in the region. Three- and 4-year-olds gathered around miniature tables on a late December morning as they colored phonics worksheets with crayons. Two teachers hovered nearby keeping them focused on the activity.

But unlike other classrooms filled with the region’s youngest learners, these students aren’t enrolled in an El Paso County school district. Instead — though physically in El Paso — they attend one overseen by a district in South Texas, almost 700 miles away.

The Benavides Independent School District contracted with the nonprofit Public School Partners in 2022 to run the early elementary education program at Flying Colors Learning Center’s four El Paso locations. Juan Cabrera founded the nonprofit during his controversial tenure as superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, and serves as its executive director.

This unexpected arrangement was made possible by Senate Bill 1882, a 2017 state law that encourages traditional public school districts to partner with outside entities to manage campuses, known as in-district charter schools. This is the first instance of the law being used to run such a campus outside of a district’s boundaries or home county.

The school, known as El Paso Early Learning Language Academy, has drawn criticism from El Paso education leaders, who say it pulls students — and hundreds of thousands in state education dollars — away from local districts, while skirting public academic accountability benchmarks.

It also goes against the original intent of the law, according to a former Texas superintendent who was part of conversations surrounding the bill during the 2017 legislative session.

“This is as much a money grab as it is anything else,” said HD Chambers, the former Houston-area Alief Independent School District superintendent who is now executive director of the Texas School Alliance, a school district member organization of 45 Texas districts, which includes El Paso and Socorro.

But Cabrera defended Benavides’ partnership, saying it aligns with the law’s goal of fostering “innovative partnerships” and was approved by the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education.

In fact, more districts, Cabrera said, should look to partner — with or without using SB 1882 — with day care centers to offer high-quality prekindergarten, something he believes would transform public education in the state.

A day care center seeks a new model

Children can enter Flying Colors Learning Center’s doors as early as 6 a.m. and stay for 12 hours until it closes for the evening. Executive Director Michael Hicks long envisioned a setup in which the child care center’s school-aged children could remain on-site for the entire day, rather than being shuttled back and forth to an area elementary school.

Each of the districts where Flying Colors’ four centers are located — El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro ISDs — offer universal full-day prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.

Since 2019, Texas has required districts to provide free, full-day pre-K for any 4-year-old who meets eligibility requirements, which are largely tied to low family income, limited English proficiency or having military parents. Districts must only offer free, half-day pre-K for eligible 3-year-olds, and no El Paso County district has gone beyond that requirement because the state only provides funding for eligible students, making it a costly initiative.

Michael Hicks, executive director of Flying Colors Learning Center, in his office on Dec. 19, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Half-day prekindergarten, Hicks said, is “just completely a waste of time.” He also believes it’s harmful to young children for them to spend the day in two places.

“They got two sets of teachers, two sets of kids (classmates), transport back and forth,” he said. “What that does is it provides stress in their life. Stress means their learning curve goes completely downhill.”

Hicks, who served on the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees from 1992 to 1994 and who later sought, unsuccessfully, to fill a board vacancy in 2017, said he approached multiple El Paso districts about his idea to have them provide instruction to the children in his care. None were interested.

The current El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro superintendents said they have not been contacted by Hicks. Canutillo’s superintendent confirmed that he wasn’t interested, saying via a spokesperson that “the proposal was not in alignment with the district’s protocols for enrolling and serving students.”

But Hicks found a supporter in then-Pawnee Independent School District Superintendent Michelle Hartmann. The Texas Coastal Bend district, which is about 640 miles from El Paso, was working with child care centers in the state to offer prekindergarten.

Pawnee ISD was able to do this under section 11.167 of the Texas Education Code, which allows a district to operate a school or program outside of its boundaries.

“These partnerships recognize that some parents would like to keep their children in a child care system,” Hartmann said, adding that they provide access to early childhood education in regions where districts may not have the facilities or staff to offer it.

Children in a pre-K class at Flying Colors Learning Center’s East Redd Road location work on letters on Dec. 19, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

This section of the code was also a way that Pawnee — a property wealthy district with a single school — could enroll more students and thereby lessen its recapture payments to the state, Hartmann said.

In the 2021-22 school year, 100 children in Flying Colors care enrolled in pre-K and kindergarten through Pawnee ISD, according to data the district shared with El Paso Matters. Most of these students, Hicks said, were already part of his day care center.

Crystal Luna, like several other parents interviewed outside Flying Colors’ Montwood Drive location, said she likes the hybrid elementary school-day care center concept. She has a 4-year-old enrolled in kindergarten and 6-year-old in first grade.

“The younger one is learning so much that he is already doing first-grade work,” Luna said. 

Her children were originally enrolled in Flying Colors when it only offered day care.

“When they proposed the school concept, I jumped on it,” Luna said, knowing full well that Flying Colors was not going to be affiliated with a local school district. “My kids are learning so quickly, they are like sponges — absorbing everything. Every day they learn more. That’s all you want as a parent.”

A South Texas district takes over

When Hartmann departed for Texas A&M University in June 2022, where she is associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, the Pawnee school board decided to discontinue working with Flying Colors. That left Hicks in need of another way to continue offering early childhood education.

When Hicks called Cabrera about the predicament, Cabrera — who had initially helped connect Hicks with Hartmann — connected Hicks to Marisa Chapa, the superintendent of Benavides Independent School District, located about 100 miles south of Pawnee. Both Pawnee and Benavides are in the same Texas Education Agency service region near Corpus Christi, Texas.

Public School Partners was already working with Benavides ISD to run a Pathways in Technology Early Collegiate High School, or P-TECH, program at its secondary school. Benavides ISD applied with the Texas Education Agency in March 2022 for Benavides Secondary School to become a Senate Bill 1882 partnership.

SB 1882 allocates additional state education dollars to traditional school districts that contract an outside partner — whether a charter school operator, nonprofit, university or government agency — to manage all campus operations.

Benavides ISD later applied for an 1882 partnership for Public School Partners to operate a “Dual Language Academy,” according to a revised application that TEA released to El Paso Matters via an open records request. The county and campus information was left blank for the academy.

“The Dual Language Academy will serve students in PK-Grade 2 and will enable students to master reading and math expectations and develop both English and Spanish language proficiency,” the application reads.

Chapa said El Paso Early Language Learning Academy benefits El Paso because its goal “is to keep families together” at Flying Colors Learning Center while placing 3- and 4-year-olds in a formal education program.

“We want them in school and giving them the opportunities — the tracking, being able to do progress monitoring to ensure they’re ready,” Chapa said. “Because research tells us if they’re not reading on grade level by third grade, then later in life, they’re going to have difficulties.”

The “bottom-line reason” behind SB 1882, Chambers said, was to provide districts additional opportunities and funding to help turn around schools that had been historically under-performing.

A district with a failing campus could avoid state sanctions, including having the state shut down the school, by entering into a partnership. In exchange, the district and its locally elected school board would cede control of all campus operations, including employees.

SB 1882 also enables districts to enter into an “innovation partnership” as a way to offer more choice options (regardless of whether a school is failing), such as magnet or single-gender campuses. A district similarly cedes control of the operations of these campuses to the partner.

Both Benavides Secondary School and the “Dual Language Academy” were listed as an “innovation partnership,” according to the application.

None of El Paso County’s nine traditional school districts have entered into an SB 1882 partnership since lawmakers approved the bill in 2017.

A review of the 121 SB 1882 partnerships that TEA has approved to date reveals that El Paso Early Learning Language Academy is the only non-local partnership that exists either outside of a district’s boundaries or home county.

“In my mind, 1882 was to create innovative partnerships; it didn’t talk about where they’d be located,” Cabrera said. “Probably this wasn’t anticipated, but it’s within the bounds of the law and it’s approved by TEA. … There’s never been a restriction for a district to have to operate within their boundaries.”

In 2022, Texas Monthly Magazine reported on a potential partnership between Central Texas’ Wimberley ISD and Texans for Education Rights Institute to open a school, “which would exist only on paper … to place K-12 students from around the state into private schools of their choice at ‘no cost to their families,’” the magazine wrote.

That partnership never materialized, as Wimberley’s school board voted against the proposal.

“I think what’s going on right now in El Paso is an example — Wimberley was another example — is an attempt for people to take advantage financially of a piece of legislation that was not intended for people to make money off of,” Chambers said.

“It was intended to provide resources to a school to help improve so that the students in that school got better outcomes — in the district, not in a district 600 miles away.”

El Paso students generate state revenue for Benavides

The operating contract Benavides ISD provided to El Paso Matters does not indicate how much money Cabrera or his organization will earn through the partnership. Public tax records for the organization weren’t available.

The five-year agreement the district entered into with Texas New School Accelerator, which does business as Public School Partners, in June 2022 notes that the organization will “provide facilities in the form of classrooms, office furniture, equipment, and storage areas for the School … and provide utilities.”

Benavides is allowed to terminate the agreement if, at the end of the third year, the El Paso Early Learning Language Academy fails to meet attendance or Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress, or NWEA MAP, goals. The MAP is given to students in grades kindergarten and above.

Though districts may be eligible for additional state dollars for each student enrolled at an SB 1882 partner campus, this does not apply to Benavides ISD on account of it not receiving “less per-pupil state funding than they would receive if they were a state-authorized charter school,” a TEA spokesperson said.

“It’s probably not going to be very successful financially this year,” Cabrera said of the partnership, noting that it would make more financial sense for the organization to partner with a larger, urban district that would qualify for 1882 funds. The academy would also need to enroll more students to be profitable, he said.

Older children play games at Flying Colors Learning Center during a holiday day camp on Dec. 19, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

While El Paso Early Language Academy doesn’t receive the additional funds, it still generates average daily attendance, referred to as ADA, for Benavides ISD, which is how Texas funds public schools.

Districts receive a baseline annual payment of approximately $6,200 per student in grades kindergarten and above, a number that increases if students meet certain criteria, like being English-language learners or from a low-income family. Districts only receive partial ADA for eligible prekindergarten students.

The contract estimated that the “Dual Language Academy” would generate nearly $1.85 million in revenue based on a projected enrollment of 154 students and would have $1.6 million in expenses, thereby generating about $207,500 in “net income” for Benavides ISD.

A total of 168 students are enrolled in El Paso Early Learning Language Academy, according to numbers Chapa shared. Of those, 94 are in pre-K 3 and pre-K 4; 51 are in kindergarten; and 23 are in first grade.

Those students in kindergarten and first grades — who would otherwise enroll in a traditional school district, charter school or private school to receive this instruction — will generate a minimum $455,840 in ADA this school year. In Texas, 6-year-olds are required to be in school.

Chapa said she anticipated the partnership bringing in up to $150,000 this year for her district of about 200 students.

“For a small district like mine, that’s very beneficial,” she said.

Hicks defended taking away students from area districts, including the one he once served, because his child care centers pay property taxes to the local districts.

The East Redd Road location paid $31,600 in property taxes in 2022, about $14,000 of which went to EPISD, according to El Paso Central Appraisal District records. The Park Ridge Drive location, which is also within EPISD’s boundaries, paid about $19,300 in property taxes to the district.

Cabrera also expressed no qualms with the arrangement because he said the state’s initial expansion of prekindergarten starting in 2017, paired with El Paso districts’ unwillingness to partner directly with child care centers, hurts area small businesses like Flying Colors, which has been in business for nearly 60 years.

“You’ve got to look at both sides of this,” Cabrera said. “His premise wasn’t, ‘I want to take kids from the district.’ Initially the reason he wanted to do Pawnee or anybody else was, ‘I don’t want to lose kids because the districts are trying to take them from me.’”

Every district in Texas should be partnering with their local child centers, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, to offer prekindergarten at the center, he said. “If you did that for five years, the third grade (math and reading) scores would go way up because a disproportionate number of kids that do poorly on STAAR come from these neighborhoods.”

Third grade is the first time that Texas public school students sit for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, which are given annually to students in grades three and above. Student performance on the STAAR largely determines the public letter grade TEA gives individual schools and districts.

Benavides ISD only decided to offer kindergarten and first grade at Flying Colors at Hicks’ request in order to keep families together, Cabrera said. And, if a local district was to express interest in taking over the partnership, Benavides and Public School Partners would gladly step aside, he added: “I think it makes more sense to do it with your local partner because then a kid can matriculate into that school district — that’s really how the model should work.”

Education leaders express concern

Georgina Pérez, who represented the El Paso region on the State Board of Education from 2017 to 2022 and was staunchly against charter schools, made a point of asking Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath about this partnership in one of her final meetings. She was one of the first people to become aware of El Paso Early Language Learning Academy.

Morath denied having any knowledge of the arrangement, telling Pérez he would need to look into it and get back to her.

That “non answer,” she said, didn’t surprise her. Rather, it was evidence to the point that she was trying to make: that charter schools and what she calls “the 1882 charter-light or charter-ISD partnerships” lack accountability.

Pérez said she found Benavides and Public School Partners’ partnership to be “infuriating, gut-wrenching and disgusting.”

“Now it’s the people who you thought were in the foxhole with you who are now gunning to bankrupt you — the ISDs — and bankrupt the public education system,” she said.

Students’ backpacks and coats hang in a classroom at Flying Colors Learning Center on Dec. 19, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Ysleta ISD Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said SB 1882 has created an environment in which “education entrepreneurs” develop relationships with districts who need to, or are, interested in working with an outside group.

“At some point people realized that the public school system is a multi-billion-dollar industry and that those monies, under certain structures — new laws, new Senate bills, etc. — could be privatized, could be made available to investors and others and so that’s what’s happened,” De La Torre said.

The privatization of public education to create more choice options weakens traditional school districts, he said because “we’re trying to run two parallel and redundant systems instead of investing in one 100% to try to make it better.”

Of El Paso’s three largest districts, Ysleta and El Paso are experiencing declining enrollment, each losing thousands of students in the last decade. The subsequent reduction in state funds requires staffing and facilities adjustments in order to preserve co-curricular and extra-curricular offerings like music classes and sports that attract students to a traditional school district and set them apart from charter school chains, De La Torre said.

Asked for her take on El Paso Early Language Learning Academy, EPISD Superintendent Diana Sayavedra questioned how Benavides ISD can ensure that the academy’s students — some of whom may eventually enroll in EPISD — are receiving the best quality education when the district is located across the state.

“If I’m going to entertain a partnership like that, I want to be collaborating on a regular basis,” Sayavedra said. “I want to be walking through those centers.”

Whereas De La Torre said partnering with a day care to provide early childhood instruction would be off the table for him, Sayavedra expressed a willingness to consider the idea, but said she would need to study it more closely. Her priority would be finding a way for EPISD to be able to rework its budget so it could afford to offer full-day pre-K 3.

Revising SB 1882 unlikely to be on lawmakers’ agenda

It would take a legislative fix for districts to be prohibited from using Senate Bill 1882 to open in-district charters outside of their boundaries.

If SB 1882 remains untouched, it could also “open up a Pandora’s box of school district boundaries not meaning anything anymore,” Chambers said. “And local voters, taxpayers, parents and community members are going to lose complete control of the education that their students and the children in their community are receiving.”

Pérez doesn’t see state lawmakers making any changes to the law.

“It’s the lawmakers that allowed this situation to occur,” she said. “As much as we might like to blame Commissioner Morath for ‘allowing’ this, Commissioner Morath serves at the pleasure of the governor. And if this kind of arrangement weren’t acceptable to the Legislature and to the elected leadership of this state, it wouldn’t occur.”

De La Torre also isn’t holding out hope for a change to the law under Gov. Greg Abbott, who is a proponent of expanding school choice through vouchers and charter schools.

“The idea (is) that if you want to keep families and children in your program you have to get up every day and compete,” De La Torre said. “If anything, I could see it getting even a little more aggressive over the next four years with the current leadership.”

“It’s a new day for the public school system,” he added.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.