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The Texas State Board of Education Friday vetoed three out of eight new charter school operators seeking to open schools across the state. They voted to take no action on the other five, effectively approving them.
Heritage Classical Academy, CLEAR Public Charter School and Rocketship Public Schools will not be able to open schools in Texas, after traditional public school leaders and advocates argued the state could not afford to fund new charters during a destabilizing pandemic. The board's actions are just the latest in a longstanding political debate in Texas over the growth of charter schools, funded by the state but managed privately by nonprofits.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath recommended the eight charter operators at the end of an in-depth process, including mandatory public meetings in target communities and interviews with state officials. The other five —Brillante Academy, Doral Academy of Texas, Learn4Life-Austin, Prelude Preparatory Charter School and Royal Public Schools — will be allowed to open schools next academic year, unless Morath or the board takes further action within the next 90 days.
"I would say now is definitely the time to see some more innovation," Morath told the board Wednesday. "This set of applicants ... would likely result in better outcomes for kids academically and otherwise."
The vetoes came after the board spent Thursday grilling the leaders of the proposed schools, questioning their records in other states and hearing testimony from advocates of traditional school districts that Texas could not afford to fund charters during a pandemic. The board also heard testimony from parents who said they looked forward to sending their children to the new charter schools and desperately need high-quality educational options in their communities.
"We support Rocketship because we want an excellent education," said parent Perla Vidales, addressing the board virtually in Spanish Thursday.
The board did not vote entirely along party lines, with some Republicans joining Democrats to veto certain charter schools and Democrats joining Republicans to approve others.
"A denial and a veto in most cases is a delay ... and maybe you're coming back 365 days from now and maybe getting it approved," said Lawrence Allen, a Houston Democrat, before voting to veto Heritage Classical Academy, which proposed opening in his district.
COVID-19 underscored the debate, from charter operators' arguments on why their schools would be good for the children in target neighborhoods to school district superintendents' pleas that the state reject all new applications.
"When crises like the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, we don't want to be left behind again," said Aaron Brenner, superintendent of Brillante Academy, a proposed pre-K through eighth grade dual language school in McAllen.
Unlike traditional schools, charter schools cannot levy local taxes, and they receive all their funding from the state — bolstering cries that Texas cannot afford to spend even more money on them, as the pandemic rocks the economy. And charter critics have pointed to the state's largest charter district, IDEA Public Schools, spending $2 million on a luxury jet — culminating in the resignation of its CEO Tom Torkelson — as proof that the privately managed schools need more state oversight.
"This is not the time to move forward with the approval of eight more charter schools. It's time for restraint," said Jim Chadwell, superintendent of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District.
Texas is one of the largest charter authorizers in the country, with 171 charter districts in operation as of June. Texas caps the number of charter operators, but doesn’t cap the number of schools each operator can open.
While the number of new charter districts has slowed significantly in the last few years, existing charter districts have been rapidly opening new campuses around the state. Recently, Texas expedited the approval process for charters with high-rated schools to open new schools, while also preventing those with low-rated schools from expanding.
Many superintendents, board members and teachers' associations at independent school districts see state-spurred growth of charter schools as a threat to their student enrollment and state funding. Traditional public schools can lose millions of dollars due to declining enrollment as students leave for nearby charters.
But charter advocates argue that traditional public schools are not doing a good job at educating the state's most disadvantaged students, meaning more innovative options and competition is needed.
"I see a strong need for more high quality school options on the south side of San Antonio," said Inga Cotton, founder of San Antonio Charter Moms, in support of Royal Public Schools Thursday.
Most Democrats on the board, as well as Republican Matt Robinson, were adamantly against allowing any of the charters to open.
"I'm failing to see what additional ... choice is being offered to parents when you've got within eight miles of the proposed Brillante Academy, you have 23 existing charter schools already," said Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez, in a heated exchange with the charter's leaders.
Rocketship's application to open in Fort Worth appeared sure to tank Thursday afternoon, when Democrat Aicha Davis revealed that a board member of the proposed charter personally reached out to her during the process, in violation of state rules.
"The rule doesn't say anything about intent. It just says no communication. It was a violation regardless of his intent," Davis said Friday, encouraging board members to join her in vetoing the application.
The board's decision not to veto five charter schools angered some charter critics Friday afternoon.
"The State Board of Education dealt a blow to Texas school children and taxpayers with its approval of five new unneeded charter school applications that we can ill-afford, particularly during a pandemic-driven financial crisis," said Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina in a statement.
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and IDEA Public Schools have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.