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Charter School Expansion Effort Faces Big Hurdles

Sen. Dan Patrick's Senate Bill 2 is the most ambitious attempt to expand the state’s charter school system since it was established in 1995. It will have to pass a Legislature that defeated more modest proposals two years ago.

Education consultant and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, l, visits with Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, before the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 27, 2013.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told Texas lawmakers recently to “go big or go home” on education reform, he offered advice that state Sen. Dan Patrick had already embraced.

In his new role as Senate Education Committee chairman, the Houston Republican has championed the reforms — robust virtual learning, unrestricted charter school growth and private school vouchers — advanced by national leaders like Bush.

Conservative, business-friendly Texas, where Republicans have controlled the House and Senate since 2003, would appear to be fertile ground for policies based on the philosophy that low regulation and high competition encourages innovation. But in the state that gave birth to the accountability movement embodied in the federal No Child Left Behind law, other key policies linked to that philosophy have struggled to take root.

Senate Bill 2, the centerpiece of Patrick’s plans for the session, is the most ambitious attempt to expand the state’s charter school system since it was established in 1995. To succeed, it will have to pass a Legislature that defeated more modest proposals just two years ago.

The graveyard for such measures has typically been the House, whose 150 members represent much smaller districts than the 31 state senators. That means the influence of local power players can override party politics — particularly in rural areas where those players are often school boards and superintendents, two groups that have traditionally had a tense relationship with charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

“In Texas, it’s often the interests of rural, the interests of urban, the interests of suburban. In other states, it might be two factions instead of three,” said former state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, a former House Public Education Committee chairman who is now working as a lobbyist. “The Legislature has a strong hand, but that that hand could be tied when you have seemingly similar but different goals.”

It is a dynamic that threatens to materialize again. The chairman of the House’s education committee, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has said he favors a more limited approach than Patrick’s legislation.

“Senator Patrick and I have had conversations about it, and he knows I’m not comfortable with that large a jump,” Aycock said. “That reflects the nature of the committee, if I am reading the committee right, and I think the House as a whole as well.”

Patrick’s proposal would eliminate a law that caps the number of contracts the state can grant charter operators at 215, and would create an oversight board to handle the approval process. It would also provide an allotment for state facilities funding and require that school districts offer to sell or lease under-utilized classrooms and other facilities to charters.

Patrick has said the authorizing board, whose members would be appointed by state leaders, including the governor, lieutenant governor and education commissioner, is needed to ensure that only high-quality schools make it through the application process. It would operate on an estimated budget of $2 million a year.

A new layer of state government might be another tough sell for the considerable number of legislators elected on their fiscal conservative bonafides — a dilemma that Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, recently referenced in a hearing when he asked how the measure squared with the “less government” philosophy that Patrick typically espouses.

The legislation has also drawn objections from superintendents and school board members, who argue that in a time of limited resources, charter schools that serve only 3 percent of the public school population should not received additional state funding — and that before looking to expand charters, the state should move to shut down the poor-performing schools.

In 2011, a bill from Patrick that would have increased the charter contracts the state could offer by 10 a year, as well as measures addressing the facilities shortage, were part of a slate of charter school legislation that failed.

But despite past difficulties, there may be room for compromise this time around. Aycock said that he would support a “reasonable” increase in the number of charter school contracts available with proper oversight.

Patrick, who did not respond to requests for comment, is expected to offer a committee substitute for his legislation at a Tuesday hearing. On Friday, an aide said the details of that proposal were still being worked out.

With an easing of the economic pressures that caused lawmakers to eliminate $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and a turnover in state education leadership, there is also renewed energy from outside groups to tackle the issue during the current legislative session

Two new organizations, with the backing of political and financial heavyweights in the state, have emerged to aid Patrick’s efforts. His predecessor at the helm of the Senate education committee, former Sen. Florence Shapiro, has joined the newly founded Texans For Education Reform, an advocacy group whose board also includes Richard Weekley, who leads a tort reform organization that is a powerful force in state politics, and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. In January, Patrick announced the formation of Texans Deserve Great Schools, a nonprofit coalition that includes the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has invested millions in Houston and Louisiana charter schools, and the San Antonio-based Brackenridge Foundation, which is part of a $50 million campaign to bring more charters to the city.

For the Houston-based Arnold Foundation, which according to 2011 tax records has roughly $834 million in assets, a new oversight board and unlimited charter school contracts are close to a prerequisite for any more investment in Texas, said Caprice Young, the foundation’s vice president of education and a spokeswoman for Texans Deserve Great Schools.

“We want to make sure that when we do make contributions that money is going to be used well and lead to the creation of high quality schools,” she said.

 Young said she believed the state had not strengthened its charter school laws sooner because the high-quality charter operators in the state are only now encountering the barriers posed by the cap on contracts and lack of facilities funding.

“I just think that the charter school movement hasn’t demanded it in Texas,” she said, referring to the reforms in Patrick’s legislation.

In the past decade, charter school enrollment has increased steadily to about 155,000 students at about 500 different campuses. After the latest round of approvals in 2012, only six charter contracts remain of the 215 available. An estimated 101,000 students are on waiting lists for the schools, though there are questions about whether that number adequately accounts for students on waiting lists for multiple schools.

While acknowledging the challenges posed in part by what she called the state’s “not invented here mentality” that has at times caused suspicion of policies reflecting best practices elsewhere, Young said that she remained encouraged by the depth of lawmakers’ engagement in the issue.

“In an awful lot of states, charters can’t get a hearing at all,” she said. “In Texas, we kind of have a high-class problem in a sense, because we are talking about how are we going to create high-quality charter schools.”

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Public education 83rd Legislative Session Dan Patrick Education State Board of Education