Updated, May 16, 5:02 p.m.
A measure taking aim at Harmony Public Schools, the state's largest charter school network with 36 campuses, was added onto major legislation from Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, as it cleared the Texas House on Thursday.
Senate Bill 2, which would increase the number of available state charter school contracts by 10 a year, passed the lower chamber 105-34 after an attempt from state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, to derail the legislation on procedural grounds failed.
But before they approved the legislation, lawmakers adopted an amendment on voice vote from state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, that would require a majority of a charter school's board to be "qualified voters," or U.S. citizens. The Cosmos Foundation, the nonprofit organization focusing on math, science and technology education formed by a group of professors and businessmen from Turkey, runs the Harmony network. It opened its first campus in the state in 2000.
Some conservative activist groups, including the Eagle Forum, have targeted Harmony, saying its schools use taxpayer dollars to promote Islam and anti-American ideology. Harmony's supporters, which include the Texas Charter School Association, vigorously deny that claim, and point to the schools' popularity and success in the state.
During the floor debate, lawmakers also approved an amendment that would prevent a rule that prohibits charter operators from hiring family members from applying to existing schools.
A group of lawmakers, both Republican and Democrats, opposed the amendment, saying that if nepotism was indeed a problem, there was no reason to grandfather currently operating charters.
"It is about the public trust — when we use public dollars, we erode the public trust when we hire our nanny or our grandpa," said Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney.
The amendment's author, Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, argued that family charter operators shouldn't lose their jobs if the Texas Education Agency already had the oversight to close down charters if they were poor-performing because of nepotistic practices. It passed 105-37.
SB 2 will now head to conference committee because the version that passed the House differs significantly from the legislation that has already passed out of the upper chamber. During those negotiations, which will involve represenatives from both chambers, Texas Association of Charter Schools President David Dunn said his association would push to increase the number of contracts available.
In an email he said that while overall SB 2 strengthened the state's charter network, the state has currently been approving nine contracts a year and that had not been enough to keep students off of waitlists.
"We think 10 a year is not enough to meet the demand," Dunn said.
The state’s charter school system could move closer to its first expansion in nearly two decades on Thursday, as the House is set to take up an education reform measure that passed through the Senate earlier this session.
Senate Bill 2, authored by Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, would increase the number of available state contracts for the schools that are publicly funded but privately operated by nonprofit organizations.
Charter school advocates say the state's current limit of 215 charter contracts is preventing high-quality charter operators from coming to Texas and keeping a large number of students wanting to attend charters on waitlists. Entering the legislative session, Patrick, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made overhauling the charter school system a priority. And two new organizations, with the backing of political and financial heavyweights in the state, emerged to help Patrick in his efforts.
But the House has rejected similar measures in the past, and intensive negotiations have followed SB 2 through the legislative process amid questions about whether the state has the resources to adequately oversee such an expansion.
Patrick’s measure, which also updates charter closure, consolidation and renewal laws, initially proposed completely lifting the cap on contracts. The compromise legislation that passed the Senate leaves the cap in place, though it would incrementally increase the number of contracts available to reach 305 by 2016.
The version that passed out of the House Public Education Committee at the end of April offers an even more moderate increase, from 15 extra contracts to 10 a year. The House bill also removes language that would prevent dropout recovery charter schools from counting toward the cap, a move that would have freed up additional contracts.
"It will be interesting to see if the House members believe this is a reasonable approach," said state Rep. Diane Patrick, an Arlington Republican and charter school supporter who added that in the past, it has been clear that her House colleagues did not support eliminating the cap on contracts entirely.
Diane Patrick’s proposal to lift the cap by 10 a year was incorporated into SB 2 in the House committee. She said she understood concerns about properly managing growth in charter schools. But she said the revised bill would promote financial and academic accountability while still allowing charters to grow in the state.
"My whole angle is to ensure that we have high-quality charter schools, and I thought it was better to be more cautious to ensure that would happen," she said.
In a House committee hearing last month on the bill, Texas Charter School Association Executive Director David Dunn said his organization had estimated that a more streamlined consolidation process would open up 20 to 30 additional contracts as charter operators who hold multiple contracts combined.
Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, testified in the same hearing that even with the improved consolidation and closure language freeing up new contracts, the incremental increase would still probably result in "very little growth in high-quality public charters" above the existing rate because the Texas Education Agency is currently approving about nine new operators a year.
There are signs that even a modest increase in charter schools may encounter detractors Thursday on the House floor.
"It's a large bill with a lot of complexity to it, so I'd be surprised if there weren't a long debate," said House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who added that he aimed to keep the measure as close to what passed out of his committee as possible.
State Rep. Abel Herrero, the Corpus Christi Democrat who has played a vocal role in education policy debates this session, said he questioned the wisdom of adding charter schools when the Legislature had failed to restore last session's funding cuts to traditional public schools and existing charters.
"In order of importance, I think our priority should be to first fully fund public schools, then focus on charter schools," he said. "I think we are getting ahead of ourselves."
Herrero's argument is one that could attract members of both parties. When SB 2 passed the Senate, the lone dissenter, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he voted against it because he could not support expanding charters until the Legislature adequately addressed the issues of overregulation and inequitable funding in traditional public schools.
At a Capitol rally last week, hundreds of charter school supporters from around the state cheered wildly as Sen. Patrick told them that the Legislature would pass a bill addressing charter schools for the first time in nearly 15 years. He reminded them that the Senate had made similar attempts in 2009 and 2011 only to be stopped by the lower chamber.
"A student's future should not depend on a name being brought out of a hat," he said.