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Texas Lawmakers Mixed on Charter School Proposal

At an education hearing on Thursday, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, brought in national experts in an effort to build consensus around an ambitious plan to reform the state's charter school system.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at a Senate Education Committee meeting on June 2, 2011.

At a Thursday Senate Education Committee hearing, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, continued his push for school-choice reform by attempting to build consensus around his bill to expand charter schools.

Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 would overhaul the state's charter school system by creating a new state board to authorize new charter schools and lift the cap on the number of these schools that can exist in the state. Current law sets a limit at 215 charter schools, which are overseen by the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency. It would also allow an allotment for state facilities funding for charters, which along with the state cap on charter school contracts, is a primary focus of a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick, the committee's chairman, faced concerns from other lawmakers over that lifting the cap would reduce quality and creating a new authorization agency would reduce accountability to voters.

The bill was also opposed by various public school advocacy groups, including Raise Your Hand Texas. The current cap, CEO David Anthony said in a statement, assures “quality control." Patrick’s current bill, he said, would weaken the standard for renewing charter and be “fundamentally at odds with the goal of producing more high-performing charters to benefit students and families.”

“The cap creates a pressure on low performers,” state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said at the hearing Thursday.

“It’s a pretty crude tool to use that as your quality strategy,” responded Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, explaining that creating an authorizing body, another provision of Patrick’s bill, will do far more to ensure quality.

“Approve the good proposals, don’t approve the bad ones,” Richmond said.

Patrick brought in a panel of national charter school advocates to bolster his arguments. Deborah McGriff, chairwoman of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, touted the ability of charter schools to prepare students for college, and said that roughly 18 other states do not have a cap on the number of charter schools. Ref Rodriguez, CEO of the California-based group Partners for Developing Futures, said the innovations in charter schools often benefit traditional public schools.

The proposed “Charter School Authorizing Authority,” Patrick said, would handle the new workload and include seven members appointed by state leaders, including the governor, lieutenant governor and education commissioner. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, worried this would mean that “un-elected people” would “govern the schools.”

Patrick responded that they would be appointed by elected officials and that he envisions allowing teachers and school administrators more latitude. “Set them free and let them perform and hold them accountable,” he said.

“How do we make sure the individuals on that board are answerable to the same voters we’re answerable to?” asked state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Outside panelists offered suggestions. McGriff recommended allowing the State Board of Education, which is elected, to have “ultimate authority” if the authorizer’s decision is appealed. 

After Patrick filed the bill on Monday, opposition came from the Houston Independent School District over one provision that would require districts to sell under-utilized classrooms and other facilities for one dollar. To address this concern, Patrick proposed an amendment that would raise the cost to market value. “This would actually be a revenue stream for school districts,” Patrick said.

Similar bills overhauling the charter school system — though none proposing a new oversight board — made it out of committee during the last two sessions but did not pass the full chambers.

The legislation is a signature piece of Patrick’s efforts to make big changes to the state’s education system this session. These goals also include changing graduation requirements to make courses of study more flexible, reducing student assessment and creating a private school scholarship program. He has yet to file legislation detailing a plan for the latter.

Charter schools currently receive state money and serve 135,000 of the roughly 5 million public school students throughout the state. Another 100,000 students are currently on waitlists to attend the schools, according to the Texas Charter School Association.

“We have families whose children cry when their lottery number doesn't come up,” Patrick said. "We should not hold families and students hostage."

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