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SBOE May Get Private Funds to Visit Out-of-State Charter Schools

A proposal under consideration by the Texas State Board of Education would allow private foundations to pay for elected officials on the 15-member board to visit out-of-state charter schools whose applications they approve.

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Charter school operators looking to open campuses in Texas may soon have new help making their case to the elected officials charged with overseeing their expansion into the state.

At its Austin meeting this week, the Texas State Board of Education is set to discuss whether to allow private foundations to pay for SBOE members to travel to out-of-state operators under review for approval in Texas. The proposal comes after a 2013 law gave the 15-member board the power to veto operators recommended by the Texas Education Agency and authorized the state’s first expansion of charter schools in the state since they were established here in 1995.

The details of how the policy would work are still unclear, said board member Donna Bahorich, the Houston Republican who chairs the panel that will make recommendations to the full board on the travel proposal.

“This is the first time this has happened, and I’m not quite sure what people are and aren’t comfortable with,” she said, adding that she did not know how her fellow board members might vote.

The topic has come up, Bahorich said, because of a possible grant from Choose to Succeed, a philanthropic effort to expand charter schools in San Antonio backed by a coalition of private foundations in the city.

During the last application cycle, board members voted to deny one of the four charters recommended by the state's education commissioner. That school, the Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy, is one of six out-of-state operators courted by Choose to Succeed, which aims to establish a minimum of 80,000 new seats in charter classrooms by 2026 — more than 20 percent of Bexar County’s public school population. Another out-of-state operator that Choose to Succeed hoped to bring to Texas, Rocketship Education, also failed to make it to the final application round last year.

Currently SBOE members receive funding for up to one out-of-state trip a year, money that is not limited to charter-school-related business. Under state ethics rules, prospective charter school operators must report whether they have made political contributions to state board members on their applications.

Bahorich said she believed site visits could be a valuable way to collect information about the quality of prospective charter schools. She said that any funds from private foundations used to pay for them would have to come without restrictions on how the money might be used.

"There can’t be any strings on it as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to donate money for out-of-site visits, then it’s totally up to us as far as what we think is an appropriate visit," Bahorich said.

SBOE member Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat, also said that visiting the out-of-state campuses of prospective charters could provide a fuller picture of how they might succeed in Texas.

“I think there is value seeing operating schools in action. We can visit our local applicants, but there is a financial obstacle in seeing those from out of state,” she said.

But the arrangement drew criticism from Craig McDonald, the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based money-in-politics watchdog group. He said private funding should not pay for any part of a process used to evaluate whether entities should receive taxpayer money. 

“There needs to be more independence in a fact-finding mission, and accepting private money to underwrite the travel threatens that,” he said.

The proposal also comes after complaints by some SBOE members about aggressive lobbying on behalf of charter operators during the most recent application process. At the time, Ruben Cortez, a Brownsville Democrat, reported that he had received phone calls from Gov. Rick Perry’s office asking why he was not voting in favor of certain applicants. 

As for the current travel proposal, Cortez said the board’s priorities should be developing state curriculum standards and providing school districts with the guidance they need to teach them. 

“That’s what we should be focusing on, not going out of state on fact-finding missions,” he said. 

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