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Charter Bill Brings New Faces to Education Debate

As lawmakers work on charter school legislation, lobbyists better known for their work in other areas have been showing up regularly at education committee hearings.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen listens to HB5 debate in House on March 26th, 2013. There are currently 165 amendments to the bill and debate is expected to go well into the night

As lawmakers hammer out the terms of charter school legislation, political operatives better known for their activities in other venues have popped up among the usual cast of characters in education committee meetings.

Most notable among those new faces has been Texans for Lawsuit Reform co-founder Dick Trabulsi, who is now lobbying for Texans For Education Reform, a newly formed advocacy organization headed by former Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and whose priorities aside from charter school policy also include teacher quality and virtual education initiatives. The group also keeps several other prominent Republican consultants — Anthony Holm, Mike Toomey and Jordan Berry — on payroll.

Trabulsi’s organization has played a key role in advancing Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2, which would expand the number of charter schools in the state. But despite the high-profile support, the Houston Republican’s bill has undergone a significant transformation since it was initially proposed, primarily in response to the opposition of a more established education advocacy group, Raise Your Hand Texas.

Founded in 2006 by San Antonio grocery mogul Charles Butt, the group has deployed its own team of high-powered lobbyists against the provisions they believed threaten the well-being of the traditional public schools serving a majority of the state’s students.

Patrick originally intended to completely lift the state's 215-school cap on charter contracts. Now, his legislation would incrementally increase the contracts available to 305 in 2019. As the bill made its way through the Senate, Patrick also 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. Another deleted proposal would have created a new state authorizing board focused solely on overseeing the charter school system.

Even with those changes, if successful, SB 2 will be the largest piece of school choice reform the Legislature has passed since 1995. After the upper chamber’s thorough negotiations, it has a better chance of passing than a similar slate of charter school bills that languished in 2011.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, was the bill’s lone dissenter on the Senate floor. He issued a statement saying he could not vote to expand charters until the Legislature adequately addresses the issues of overregulation and inequitable funding in traditional public schools. Some of his colleagues in the lower chamber, which has been the graveyard for charter measures in the past, might share his sentiments.

During a recent House Public Education Committee meeting, Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, told members he intended to move quickly with the bill, indicating they would take a vote on it during Tuesday’s meeting. Questions about the legislation's transfer of approval authority from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency dominated the hearing, which also included an unusual appearance by Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri in support of the legislation.

Trabulsi gave committee members an overview of the negotiation process in the Senate.

“All of the mechanisms and procedures have been well thought out,” he said, adding later, “My perception is that a lot of people have done a lot of work to get to where we are today.”

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