With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
David Dunn is the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. He most recently served as chief of staff to the U.S. secretary of education. He was also chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards and counts 15 years in education and fiscal policy analysis in Texas.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: The debate over charter schools, it seems, is more heated than ever. Has that made it more difficult for you to state the case for charters in general?
David Dunn: Well, actually, to be honest with you, I challenge the premise of the question. I’m not sure the debate is more heated than ever. I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the course of the last five years or so in terms of raising the overall quality of the charter sector. But, also, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of working with and dealing with folks who might have been critical or skeptical of what the charter movement was all about a few years ago. We’re seeing more and more school districts willing to partner with charter schools. The bottom line is that we’re all in this for the same reason and that’s improving outcomes for kids. ... On the political side, I think the debate is less heated there as well. In fact, if you look at the passage of SB 2, which is the first significant rewrite of the charter statute since they were first enacted in 1995 … [it was passed with] overwhelming bipartisan majorities, over 100 votes on the House floor several times. That would never happen before. Anyway, I’m not sure it is more heated.
Trib+Edu: Fair enough. So you would say charter schools are really part of the mainstream conversation in K-12 education?
Dunn: Absolutely. The Legislature has made clear that charter schools are an integral part of the way public education is delivered in this state and an integral part in the way the Legislature has chosen to provide that constitutionally required education system. So I think, yeah, I think we’re definitely mainstream. We’re still small, educating about 180,000 kids. It’s hard to say that’s small but in Texas, everything is relative, right? [That] is a little bit less than 4 percent of the overall public education enrollment, but yeah, I think we’re very much a core and vital piece of the education conversation.
Trib+Edu: You mentioned earlier SB 2, so I wanted to ask you an open-ended question here. How is the implementation process on SB 2 progressing?
Dunn: Relatively slowly. I don’t mean to be critical about that. As I said, it is the biggest substantial rewrite or strengthening of the charters' education code since it was first enacted in 1995. The transition from the state board of education to the commissioner, in terms of authorizing, happened very quickly and, I won’t quite say seamlessly or flawlessly, but I think it went very well. As you know, one of the things SB 2 does, it tightens up the parameters by which the TEA makes revocation decisions. The commissioner has essentially said that, based on the automatic revocation provision, he’s going to revoke six charters. So implementation is going fairly well in that regard.
But the bill also requires that the agency write new rules on — it seems like it’s 19 or 20 different areas — where the agency has to write rules. And that part of it is going more slowly. Again, I know the agency is understaffed and underresourced. We’ll be pleased to work with the commissioner and the agency in developing those rules and developing the rollout of implementation.
In fact, one of the big things that the bill requires is that the agency create a set of performance frameworks that is based on national best practices, and it requires that the agency seek stakeholder input in that process. TEA has been very forthcoming. They’ve established the process, worked closely with us and the National Alliance for Charter School authorizers who’ve helped a number of other states develop these frameworks. We’ve got a working group that’s met three times, I think. So we’re going systematically. And it’s sort of soup to nuts framework around academic accountability, financial accountability, operational framework as well as governance.
Charter schools are subject to the same accountability that school districts are in terms of academic performance. Charter students take the same assessments that traditional school districts do. Charters are subject to the same financial accountability or not quite the same, it’s tweaked a little bit to recognize some of the differences in charters, but essentially the same financial accountability as traditional school districts. ... We recognize the bargain in charter schools is greater flexibility for greater accountability ... Sometimes you hear folks say, “Well, charter schools are not held accountable in the same way.” Exactly, they’re held more accountable than traditional public schools.
Trib+Edu: Is this move to revoke based on accountability standards, is this something that helps the public have more confidence in the charter school system?
Dunn: We think it will over time. We were a very early adopter in the charter school movement. I think Texas made a mistake in the late '90s in sort of letting "a thousand flowers bloom" approach and didn’t thoroughly vet and review all of those initial applications. ... I think that’s hurt the overall sector. Some of those charters probably never should have been granted. And with a more complete vetting — that’s occurring now, by the way — both the state board of education and now the commissioner are doing a much more thorough vetting. So I think the overall perception of charters is going to be strengthened. And overall quality of charters is going to be strengthened.
Trib+Edu: Charters, of course, are also involved in the latest round of school finance litigation. What impact do you think that charters’ presence will have on Judge Dietz’s final ruling?
Dunn: Charter schools get about $1,000 per weighted student less than traditional school districts on average, largely explained by the lack of direct funding for facilities. But there’s also a discrepancy in maintenance and operations funds as well. And it’s our contention that violates the efficiency clause in the state constitution. … The Supreme Court has a couple of different times said that an effective, efficient school funding system can’t only ensure the instruction in the classroom but must also pay for the buildings or space where that instruction occurs. And so it’s our contention that the fact there’s no direct support for facilities renders the system inefficient in that regard.
Trib+Edu: So this would be the main aspect you would like to see addressed in a final ruling, if major changes are coming to the school funding system?
Dunn: Yes, we think the Legislature needs to step up and provide direct support to charter schools. We did a survey of our members a couple of years ago. Charter schools, on average, have to take $830 out of their instructional or operational budget in order to pay the rent or pay the mortgage. And that’s just not fair. So we’re asking the court to rule that the Legislature must fairly fund charter schools.
Another thing that SB 2 did was lift the arbitrary cap on charter schools. There’s a huge demand, and there continues to be a huge demand with 180,000 kids attending charter schools and over 100,000 on a waitlist. And that 100,000 maintained this year even though an additional 30,000 kids were enrolled in charter schools. So there’s clearly a demand, and we’re grateful and appreciative that the Legislature responded and increased that cap going forward.