Texas Education Officials Weigh New Rules to Fast-Track Charter School Expansion

Amid protests from teacher's groups and public school advocates, Texas education officials are rewriting the state's rules for approving new charter schools to speed up the process and allow some charter operators to expand more quickly and with less state oversight.

The Texas Education Agency solicited comments at a hearing in Austin Monday on proposed changes that would create a new scoring system to fast-track expansion of the highest-performing charters while prohibiting the lowest-rated ones from opening new schools.

A coalition of advocacy groups and teachers associations argued at the hearing that the state should instead put up more roadblocks to slow expansion of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits but funded by the state.

They argued that letting some charters open new schools almost automatically would eventually burden the state financially and siphon taxpayer money and students from traditional school districts. They also criticized the proposed scoring system, saying it could allow the proliferation of charter schools that lure the most promising students from public schools but fail to serve students with disabilities and language needs.

“[TEA officials] don’t have the ability to effectively process and take responsibility for all of these expansions so they’re creating some simple spreadsheet thing that lets them make a decision without thinking about it, when the question of what’s in the interest of all the kids in the community ... really takes a lot of work,” said David Anderson, policy analyst for Raise Your Hand Texas and former general counsel for the TEA.

Starlee Coleman, chief executive officer of the Texas Charter Schools Association, dismissed those criticisms as thinly veiled attacks on the existence of charter schools in Texas. In recent years, education groups that had been occupied fighting other political battles have coalesced to fight the growth of charter schools in nearly every venue they can.

“We are in a place where ... the coalition on the other side wants to fight about everything. They want no more new charters and I think it would be helpful if they would just say that out loud,” Coleman said.

While the number of new charter operators has slowed over the last few years, existing charters have been rapidly opening new schools, especially in urban and suburban Texas. Texas caps the number of charter operators in the state at 305, as of last September, but doesn’t cap the number of schools each operator can open. As of 2019, 172 charter operators ran more than 700 charter campuses, a number that is likely to keep rising.

Currently, charter districts whose students consistently score well on standardized tests can already expand without much oversight. The agency's proposal would open that fast-track process to a broader group of charter operators. The scoring system would use a long list of academic, financial and operational measures to divide charters into three tiers: high-performing, average performing and watch list.

"High-performing" charters would be able to notify the state of their plans to create new schools and receive near automatic approval, with the commissioner having no discretion to turn them down. The “watch list” charters would not be able to add new schools at all and could have their charter revoked. And the "average performing" districts would need commissioner approval to expand.

Opponents argue the proposed scoring system will allow charters with relatively few special education students or English language learners to move ahead and expand, instead of receiving extra scrutiny. They say the new system would give charters points simply for fulfilling basic minimum requirements like maintaining their nonprofit status.

“Since we’re opening up the rules, why not put provisions in place to improve the current status quo?” said Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “There should be boxes that should be checked for someone to try to expand.”

But Coleman said the proposed scoring system would allow more certainty for charters wanting to expand. "If you are doing well, you can grow. If you are not doing well, you cannot grow."

Monday's public hearing was one of the last scheduled steps in the process. The agency could approve a final version of the amended regulations as early as Feb. 23.

Disclosure: The Texas Charter Schools Association and Raise Your Hand Texas 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.

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