Educators push back on charter school expansion

Educators push back on charter school expansion

By Kate Alexander  (American-Statesman Staff)


Leaders of traditional public schools pushed back Thursday against efforts by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to throw open the door for more charter schools in Texas.

Patrick’s Senate Bill 2, if approved, would be the first comprehensive rewrite of Texas’ charter school law since it was enacted in 1995. The committee heard several hours of public testimony Thursday, but a vote on the bill is not yet scheduled.

At the onset of the hearing, Patrick said he expected opposition from school district officials, but warned that his primary concern was for students and parents who want an alternative to traditional public schools.

“I want you to understand that when you testify, you’re not testifying against a bill,” Patrick said. “You’re testifying against 100,000 families who are are on the wait list who are desperate for their children to have choice.”

The measure would lift restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, which are privately managed schools that receive public dollars, and create an appointed board to authorize and oversee the schools.

All told, about 3 percent of Texas public school students attend charter schools, which are exempt from certain state education laws so that they can try different educational approaches. Current law limits the number of charter operators to 215.

Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said now is the wrong time to expand charter schools with traditional public schools struggling from billions in budget cuts.

Critics also have said the state should crack down on low-performing charter schools before allowing for a major expansion. But Patrick dismissed that suggestion.

“We should not hold students and families hostage today for mistakes” by state officials who allowed the poor performers to open, Patrick said.

Some of the sharpest criticism was directed at elements of the bill that would help charter schools secure classroom facilities. The bill would allow for funding of charter school facilities at a cost of nearly $46 million in the 2014-15 budget.

Traditional public school leaders balked at the cost given the tight budget situation for schools. They had also objected to a provision in the initial draft of the bill that would have required school districts to turn over a school building to a charter operator for $1 if the state education commissioner deemed the facility underused.

Patrick said Thursday he would change the bill so that a charter school would have to pay market rate to lease or buy a school district building. But he was less willing to budge on giving school districts discretion to choose whether to make the buildings available.

He said there seems to be a hostility toward charter schools from their brethren in traditional schools. One charter operator in San Antonio testified that a local school board had voted to prohibit the superintendent from even discussing leasing an unused building to the charter school.

“So far we have not seen a lot of successful charters get much cooperation from schools,” Patrick said.