Texas' Charter School Law Gets a "D"

The National Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter-school advocacy group, today gave Texas a "D" for its charter school law, citing its lack of financial support for facilities, a state cap on the number of charters, and a restrictive regulatory environment. 

The Center called the state's law the "16th weakest" among 40 charter laws nationally. "Texas's law is poor and should be overhauled," Jeanne Allen, the center's president, is quoted as saying in a release. 

The grades are based on the center's own ideas of what makes a strong charter law — with the ability to expand charters at the center of its notions. And that's in part why the state got dinged for its charter school cap. 

But that's a false issue, said Linda Bridges of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which generally has opposed charter schools, as do most teachers unions. Though a cap on the number of "charters" remains in place, recent state policy interpretations have allowed higher performing charter operators expand the number of campuses they operate under a single charter agreement. Further, some types of charters are exempt from the cut, including those approved by local school boards, rather than the state, and those run as partnerships with universities. 

Bridges cites a different reason why the charter law, or at least its enforcement, is "weak." 

"it’s weak on accountability," she said. "We have charter schools that traditionally have not performed well, and there doesn’t seem to be a consequence." 

Because charters, by definition, are afforded freedom from most bureaucratic mandates, they should be monitored more aggressively and shut down more quickly when they fail students or mismanage money. In Texas, that rarely happens, she said. "Frankly, they could take charters away from poor-performing charter operators and give them to high-performing operators," Bridges said.

Others maintain charters face at least as much accountability as traditional public schools - but shouldn't have to meet a higher standard. David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, believes charters should have the same "due process" rights as regular public schools when it comes to getting shut down by the state. And though the state has not formally closed many charters, some 20 or 30 charters have been returned to the state, most voluntarily, and because of financial problems, Dunn said.

The low marks given to the Texas law by the national group didn't surprise Josie Duckett, also of the state charter association. The legislature had an opportunity to correct many of the cited weaknesses last session in SB 1830, but allowed the measure to die for lack of a vote because of a procedural issue. She hopes next session affords a better opportunity to strengthen the statute.

"We have charter friendly Commissioner (of Education, Robert Scott), but we don’t have a charter-friendly legislature," Duckett said. "I definitely think they’ll warm up. We’re going to meet with as many legislators as we can, and meet with grassroots organizations across the state to build the most durable bipartisan coalition possible." 

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