The Texas State Board of Education on Friday denied an Arizona-based charter school's request for a Dallas campus, despite previous approval from the state's education commissioner.
The 15-member board voted 9 to 6 to veto Great Hearts Academies' application because of concerns about the school's commitment to serving low-income students and teaching Texas curriculum standards.
"I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization," said board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, who has led opposition to the school.
This is the first charter application cycle under a law passed during the 2o13 that shifted the primary responsibility of approving charters from the state board to the Texas Education Agency commissioner. Great Hearts was the only application the board denied out of the four recommended by the commissioner.
Before the vote, board member Ruben Cortez Jr., D-Brownsville, commented on the attention board members had received during their consideration of the charter school applications: "Members of the governor's office are calling SBOE members asking how they are going to vote on this."
Great Hearts, which offers a classical liberal arts curriculum in an elite college-prep environment, received approval last year for a San Antonio campus that will open in fall 2014. It is one of six out-of-state charter operators courted by Choose to Succeed, an effort backed by a coalition of the city's philanthropic foundations that aims to establish by 2026 a minimum of 80,000 new seats in charter classrooms, or more than 20 percent of Bexar County’s public school population.
"The goal for Great Hearts is to graduate thoughtful leaders of character to contribute to a more philosophical and just society. That goal speaks to me," said board member Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, who voted against the veto."This is a strong college preparatory program."
But since the board's approval of Great Hearts' initial Texas campus, doubts about its model have grown. While tuition-free like a traditional public school, it does not provide transportation to its campuses and charges fees for uniforms, field trips, extracurricular activities and athletics. Parents are also encouraged to assist the schools financially through personal donations.
Critics have pointed to the disproportionately white and affluent student body of Great Hearts' 16 campuses in the Phoenix area as evidence that those practices keep low-income students out of the school. In a city where nearly 60 percent of public school students are Hispanic or black, 69 percent of the nearly 7,000 students are white. Only two of Great Hearts’ Arizona campuses participate in a federal program that offers free and reduced-price meals for low-income students. That concern led the Nashville school district to deny Great Hearts' charter application last year because of what one official described as “serious and persistent questions about their definitions of excellence, and reliance on selectivity and mission fit for success.”
Addressing the board Friday, Great Hearts' chief academic officer, Peter Bezanson, defended the school's record, saying it worked to make sure financial need did not keep students from its campuses. He emphasized the school's outreach efforts in San Antonio, saying it had spent $50,000 on a direct-marketing campaign in the city.
He also reassured members that its Texas schools would follow the state's curriculum, known as TEKS.
"We are incredibly proud of our academic success," he said. "I pledge to this board that we will not just be a TEKS-aligned curriculum, but we will embrace TEKS. We will be a fully Texas school."
Later on Friday afternoon, Great Hearts issued the following statement:
Though we respectfully disagree with the State Board’s decision to veto the Commissioner’s recommendation to approve our charter application for North Texas, we greatly appreciate those Irving, Dallas and San Antonio Great Hearts parents and supporters who traveled to Austin this week. Great Hearts remains 100 percent committed to Texas, to our new campuses in San Antonio and to building momentum for future high-performing public charter schools in North Texas. Our desire to open a Great Hearts campus in North Texas remains unchanged.