A shift in power from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency is among many changes brought by sweeping charter school legislation lawmakers passed in May.
For the first time since the state's charter school system was created in 1995, the 15-member state education board will no longer play a central role in determining which charter school applications get approved.
It’s a provision that the author of the legislation, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, pushed for because of concerns that the elected, unpaid board that meets five to six times a year did not have adequate resources to oversee an expanded application process.
But it has earned critics among both lawmakers and state board members who question the consequences of moving the purview of charters from elected officials to an appointed commissioner.
“You've vested all the power into one individual. It's an appointed position by the governor of Texas,” said David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont who was first elected to the state education board in 1996. “If you want to see a political selection process that is going to create great stories for reporters, hang tough.”
Senate Bill 2 is the first major update to the state’s charter school system in almost two decades. It contains many reforms that charter school advocates have backed for years, including an increase in the number of charter contracts the state can award and a streamlined process for charter operators who want to add new campuses.
The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year from the current 215 — up to 305 by 2019. In the next five years, the TEA is expected to hire 17 new full-time employees to help vet new schools and to keep closer tabs on them once they open, which will come at a cost of about $1.9 million a biennium. In addition to the new staff, those funds will also pay for training and travel costs associated with monitoring the schools.
For many lawmakers, one of the bill's selling points was that it strengthened oversight of charter schools, which are publicly funded but subject to fewer state regulations than traditional public schools.
“This bill lets good-performing charter operators replicate,” House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said on the night the measure passed the House. “And very importantly, it closes down those low-performing ones.”
Part of that strengthened oversight will come through the application process, said Heather Mauze, director of the TEA's charter school division. She said the agency is currently revising that process to include a more holistic view of applicants, including more detailed information about their finances and educational plans.
Mauze said she envisions the agency’s charter school staff having much closer contacts with charter school administrators in the initial vetting of proposed schools and beyond.
“When you look at an applicant from the very beginning, this is a great opportunity to walk with them through different stages,” she said.
She added that the shift in approval authority from the SBOE would allow the agency to restructure the application timeline to be more closely aligned to the school year and federal grant-making rather than the board’s meeting schedule. Board members would still be invited to sit in on interviews and give their input.
To make sure the public knows their position on applicants, board members will likely opt to adopt formal resolutions stating which charters they approve of, Bradley said. Such a measure would not bind the commissioner’s decision.
At a recent state board meeting, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams told members he hadn’t pushed to take away the SBOE's power in the charter application process; the board will be able to veto any application he approves. He said the agency 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 chose 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.”
Bradley said while he appreciated Williams’ support of the board, he was not sure that would continue with future agency chiefs.
“I have served under six commissioners, and not all of them would have been so generous in relinquishing their authority over to the board,” he said. “And he serves at the pleasure of the governor and we are going to have another governor in 2014.”
New Charter School Campuses in Texas
Senate Bill 2 streamlines the application process for existing charter operators hoping to add new campuses. In July, the state approved more than 30 charter school sites. To use the map, click on a school or cluster of schools and view the charter group, school district and location. For more information on charter operators, check out our Public Schools Explorer.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/08/15/sboe-will-no-longer-approve-charter-applicants/.