Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has used his waiver authority to effectively overrule a vote by the State Board of Education to deny an Arizona-based charter school's expansion into the Dallas area, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.
In December, the 15-member elected board voted 9 to 6 to veto Great Hearts Academies' application to open a new school in Dallas, citing concerns about the school's commitment to serving low-income students and to teaching Texas curriculum standards. The organization had already received approval for a campus in San Antonio, which is set to open this fall.
"I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization," board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, said at the time. She has led opposition to the charter school.
Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, has issued no official statement on his decision. Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, confirmed that the commissioner had approved additional campuses in Dallas and Irving. Because the state had previously approved a charter contract for a San Antonio campus, Ratcliffe said, Great Hearts was able to apply for an expansion even after the SBOE vetoed its application for a new Dallas campus. In approving the new campuses, Williams waived a Texas Education Code requirement that charter schools must have been operating for at least four years, or hold "acceptable" or higher ratings under the state's accountability system before they are granted an expansion.
"New charter campuses can get created through two different routes," she said. "They can apply for a new charter and start the equivalent of a new school district, or they can ask for the expansion of an existing charter and add new campuses that way."
Ratcliffe said that "no one should be surprised that [the commissioner] thought this was a strong school," because it had been among four he recommended for approval by the SBOE during last year's charter application cycle.
And the organization, which has said that it is committed to serving low-income students and to following the Texas curriculum, said after its application was denied that it would not abandon its efforts to open a campus in North Texas.
"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," the organization said in a public statement after the SBOE veto.
The 2013 application cycle was the first under a new law passed during the 2o13 legislative session that shifted the primary responsibility of approving charters away from the state board to the Texas Education Agency commissioner. Great Hearts was the only application the board denied out of the four the commissioner recommended.
"I certainly think it flies in the face of legislative intent," Thomas Ratliff, a Republican SBOE member from Mount Pleasant, said of Williams' decision. "Republicans are critical of this president for doing executive orders around an elected Congress, and it looks like Michael Williams decided that playbook looks okay."
In an email to a Texas Education Agency staff member and fellow state board members, Knight said she learned of Williams' decision on June 30.
"Please advise the board that through the waiver process the Commissioner of Education has granted this charter entity permission to open in the central Dallas and Irving areas. Apparently the waiver process nullifies the veto power of the board," Knight wrote. "While the Commissioner did pay me the courtesy of a call in order for me to reiterate my opposition, it has taken me until June 30, 2014 to find out the result of the decision operating through my normal communication chain."
Ratliff said that he expected the development to be a topic of "robust discussion" at the next SBOE meeting, which is scheduled to start on July 15.
"If they had a track record in Texas, I feel like the level of angst around this would be way less. But for some reason, there is a big hurry to give these people an expansion," he said.
Before the December 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 the San Antonio campus that will open in the fall. 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 students.
"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 SBOE 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, questions about its model have grown. While its schools are tuition-free like traditional public schools, 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' campuses in the Phoenix area as evidence that those practices keep low-income students out of the school. In Phoenix, nearly 60 percent of public school students are Hispanic or black, but 69 percent of the nearly 7,000 students are white. Only two of Great Hearts’ 16 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 in December, 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 board 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."