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 December.
"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 December 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.”