Updated, 12:22 p.m. Wednesday:
Speaking to members of the State Board of Education on Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said that when he approved an Arizona-based charter school's expansion into the Dallas area, he was following the spirit of a 2013 law intended to encourage high-quality charter operators to come to the state.
"There is a strong articulated policy from the Legislature that is engulfed in SB 2 that we want to extend the word to out-of-state, high-performing charters that our doors are open and we want you to come here." Williams said. "I wanted them here. I sought a way to have them come here. I found it. I approved it."
Board members asked Williams why he went around their November vote to block new campuses from Great Hearts Academy in the state. At the time of the vote, members had cited concerns about the organization's commitment to serving economically disadvantaged and minority students.
Williams defended Great Hearts’ track record in its home state, adding that the charter school had done an excellent job at 14 out of the 15 campuses it operated.
"The one campus, the only campus that they have is predominantly minority, is rated C, which in their accountability system is average. Is it as good as the other 14? No, it is not. Can they do better? Yes, they can,” he said. “But this campus is performing consistent with and maybe even above what they are doing statewide in Arizona.”
When the state board vetoed a new contract for Great Hearts in November, the charter operator was able to use a provision in state law to apply for an expansion instead because it had previously received approval for a San Antonio campus. That process falls under the authority of the commissioner, not the state board.
"If this was going to happen to begin with, it would have been nice to know that this was the plan all along," said Marisa Perez, a San Antonio Democrat. "That way we wouldn’t be sitting around this board room for hours at a time deciding whether to allow the expansion."
Mavis Knight, the Dallas Democrat who has led opposition to Great Hearts’ expansion, said she was "extremely disappointed" that the commissioner had not given more consideration to the objections of board members. She also said she was seeking clarification from lawmakers as to what authority they had intended to give the state education board in the charter approval process.
"What did the legislative body mean when it gave the State Board of Education the authority to veto a charter school’s application?" she said. "When is a veto a veto?"
After Wednesday's discussion, Great Hearts spokesman Roberto Gutierrez said in an emailed statement that the organization was responding to North Texas families who wanted "more educational achievement options."
"We are approved for and are planning for Dallas-area schools located in diverse neighborhoods – places like Irving and Old East Dallas or North Oak Cliff — close to the hard-working families who most want great public schools for their children," he said.
After the approval of an Arizona-based charter school’s expansion into the Dallas area, the role of the state’s education chief in the charter school application process is under scrutiny.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams is expected to take questions Wednesday from members of the State Board of Education over his decision to effectively overrule their vote to deny additional campuses for Great Hearts, the charter operator.
The 2013 application cycle was the first under a new law passed during the 83rd legislative session that shifted the primary authority over approving charters away from the 15-member state board to the state education commissioner.
Board members, who still have veto authority over new charter applications, had concerns about Great Hearts' commitment to serving low-income students and meeting the state's curriculum standards. They voted 9 to 5 deny a new charter contract for the organization in November.
"I feel certain we will give [Williams] an ample opportunity to answer a great many questions” at the board's July meeting, said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who was among those who voted against allowing new campuses.
Ahead of the November vote, the state board had already approved a contract for Great Hearts to open a campus in San Antonio. Because of that, the organization was able to take advantage of a provision in state law that allows charter schools with existing contracts from the state to apply for new campuses even if the State Board of Education has denied them a new contract.
Charter schools seeking to expand under that provision must have been in operation for at least four years or hold "acceptable" or higher ratings under the state's accountability system. Because Great Hearts will not open its first Texas campus in San Antonio until August, it did not qualify in either case. In June, Williams waived those requirements for Great Hearts.
Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2012, did not issue an official statement when he made his decision. But Debbie Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman, told The Texas Tribune that "no one should be surprised that [the commissioner] thought this was a strong school," because it had been among four he had recommended the State Board of Education approve during last year's charter application cycle. Great Hearts was the only application the board denied out of the four Williams recommended.
Ratliff said he wanted to know why Williams would allow more campuses for the charter school in Texas without having evidence of its performance with the state's students. He also said a “public dialogue” was needed to clarify the commissioner’s authority to waive state accountability requirements.
Roberto Gutierrez, a spokesman for Great Hearts, said he could not comment on state board members' concerns over the role of the commissioner in the charter application process. But he said that in approving the waiver, Williams “saw fit to include our nearly 10-year record” of providing quality education at its schools Arizona.
“Our desire is to want to respond to the needs of families and to provide more options of excellence for them,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve done everything possible within the rubrics of the existing law to make this happen.”
When it was first proposed, the shift in charter-approval responsibilities from the state board to the education commissioner drew opposition from some lawmakers and members of the state board. They questioned the consequences of moving the purview of charters from elected officials to a politically appointed commissioner.
At a state board meeting last summer after the law had passed, Williams told members he hadn’t pushed to take away their power in the charter application process and wanted to keep the board’s involvement “as close to what’s it’s been in the past.
“We didn't ask for it. We didn't choose it,” he said. “But given this authority, we will accept it and carry it out with the fidelity that folks at the state of Texas would demand of us.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said the State Board of Education vote denying Great Hearts Academy's charter application took place in December. It took place in November.