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Plan to Expand Charter Schools Clears Senate

A significantly altered version of Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick's legislation expanding the state's charter school system quickly passed out of the upper chamber Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Dan Patrick R-Houston, speaks during budget bill SB1 discussion on March 20th, 2013

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick's efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state's charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-H0uston, said Senate Bill 2 accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

"The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I'm real proud to be a member of the Senate today," he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

The lone dissenter, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, did not explain his reasons for doing so from the floor but later issued a statement saying he could not vote to expand charters until the Legislature adequately addressed the issues of over-regulation and inequitable funding in traditional public schools.

"In my district, most public schools receive less funding per student than charter schools statewide. Additionally, public schools have more rules and state regulations than charters," he said. "Until the playing field is leveled and school funding is addressed, I cannot support further charter expansion."

Talking with reporters afterward, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it "the most important education bill of the session," he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed "some of the biggest reforms in education that we've passed in a long time."

Patrick originally intended to lift the state's 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state. 

Some superintendents and school board members objected to the proposal, saying 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 for facilities. Other critics said that before adding more new charter schools, the state should focus on closing those that perform poorly.

On Thursday, Democrats in particular commended Patrick for his effort to be inclusive and bipartisan in drafting the bill, which has undergone many changes since it was originally introduced.

"I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick," said West.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said that because of Patrick's leadership, the upper chamber had been able to move legislation that "otherwise would have never passed."

The measure now continues on to the House, where charter school proposals have faced challenges in the past. In 2011, Patrick bills that would have added 10 charter contracts a year and also addressed the facilities shortage failed in the lower chamber.

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Public education 83rd Legislative Session