With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Heather Mauzé is the Texas Education Agency's director of charter school administration. A native of Orleans, France, Mauzé has been at the TEA since 2009, beginning as a specialist and then a program coordinator for the Division of NCLB Program Coordination. After a short stint in Oregon, she returned to Texas to take on her current duties.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Though SB 2 is in effect, a draft of the commissioner’s rules for the law has yet to be released. When is that expected? Is it an issue that the new charter application cycle has already begun without the new rules?
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Heather Mauzé: The rule writing has been pretty extensive. The new statute called out at least 26 definite areas for commissioner rule. We are at the final stretch of that rule writing and are anticipating getting that finished in the next month. As far as the second part of your question, the statute stands alone, and so the strength of the statute is really what has provided us our impetus to move forward. Although the rules would be nice to have in place right away, they really just provide additional clarity on the statute. And in some spots the statute is very clear.
Trib+Edu: How has SB 2 shifted TEA’s role in the charter monitoring/application process?
Mauzé: We’ve worked historically very extensively with the state board. And with SB 2, the authority transferred to the commissioner of education. We are working very closely with the commissioner of education now, but there were also some other provisions in the statute that outlined four areas for standards that we have incorporated into the application. That was the impetus for addressing some changes in the application itself. The work that we’ve done with the national entity looking at some best practices, I think that has really helped solidify our application.
We know how very important the performance of charters coming out of the gate is. Although you could say monitoring, I like to think of it more as support. We are really looking at providing our new charters with supports in terms of on-site visits where we can really identify areas of weaknesses and also areas that they are really excelling at. We have two Generation 18 charters that are just doing a phenomenal job. In fact, we have a charter schools summer summit that is coming up in June [16-17], and we’ve asked them to be on a panel so that they can share best practices. Part of that monitoring is going on site, looking at what they’ve got in place, and providing them support either through TEA staff or we’re in a partnership with ESC 11 and [Texas Charter Schools Association] and really providing intentional supports in their areas of weaknesses.
Trib+Edu: In this new role that TEA has, what has been the biggest challenge for the agency?
Mauzé: Senate Bill 2 has offered us some sweeping legislation in terms of charter law. So I think part of the challenge is incorporating all of those changes and trying to be very intentional about it and trying to implement them well but be aware of the timeline as well. That timeline and really wanting to do a good job has provided some challenges for us. But I think so far we are on the right track and our partnerships are providing us some resources that are helping us to further those endeavors as well.
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Trib+Edu: Does the agency have enough resources to take on these new responsibilities?
Mauzé: Resources are an interesting question. There historically has been some changes that have impacted where we are right now today, obviously, I think, across the entire agency. And to not speak to it would be probably remiss, but we are working on getting the resources that are necessary and we are currently in the process. We’ve been hiring staff and are currently in the process of continuing to interview, so we’ve had new staff coming on on a graduated basis as well as continuing to interview. Going back to the challenge question, it’s hard when you’re trying to focus on building your staff to meet the new mandates as well as trying to carry out those new mandates. It’s a real thing that we are trying to address.
Trib+Edu: The 2013 review from the Sunset Commission on TEA reported this to the Texas Legislature:
TEA lacks sufficient tools to address schools with serious academic and financial accountability problems, in particular the chronic poor performance of a few charter schools… TEA does not have sufficient regulatory tools to ensure charters meet minimum academic and financial performance standards or to revoke a charter without lengthy and protracted litigation, during which time students may continue to receive a substandard education. Another practice of some charter schools, nepotism, is an exception among publicly funded entities and can place public funds at risk.
Has SB 2 remedied those problems? Has it gone far enough?
Mauzé: SB 2 obviously addressed all of those things that you’re talking about, and we have tried to incorporate in our policies and in our actions those things. It is difficult to implement those policies and, as I said earlier, to then turn around and go monitor. We have 205 charters that we’re looking at and over 650 charter campuses across the state. I like to highlight the fact we have 6.7 percent of charters in this state that earned the top distinctions. If you’re looking at percentages, they outperform by a couple of percentage points traditional districts. And so in those regards, there’s a lot of good things going on.
There are a lot of things in the sunset report and in the legislation that we were welcoming. There are some charters that are not delivering on their contracts, and those things need to be addressed. But we do have wonderful ways to look at the accountability and the financial accountability of charters. We are working on a performance framework that hopes to tell more of that charter narrative so we get a fuller picture of the performance of that charter. At the end of the day, we’re really interested in knowing that charter has delivered on quality for our kids who opt for that school choice and that they’re delivering on innovation also for those kids. We’re addressing those things that were outlined in the sunset review, and I think that was a good first step. I really do.
Trib+Edu: We’re now about 20 years into the charter school era. As someone who’s been working so closely on this, do you sense that the public’s perception of charter schools has shifted appreciably in the last few years?
Mauzé: I think that there are a lot of external indicators that you can look at that would support the fact that this school choice option is something that the public wants and supports. And then of course you hear the individual narratives that those schools are really making a difference for some of those kids and they are delivering on that quality and they are delivering on the innovation. And they are making a big impact. So both quantitatively and qualitatively, I think the support is there. Charter schools do offer a good choice option for those parents and students who for whatever reasons elect to pursue them or don’t fit into a traditional ISD setting.