AUSTIN — Texas could have 100 more charter schools by 2019, and state officials could more easily close them if they perform poorly, under legislation adopted Thursday with broad bipartisan support by the Texas Senate.
"This raises the quality level," said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. "We aren't going to accept anything but the best."
By creating more school competition, Patrick, chairman of the Texas Senate Education Committee, said he hoped all 5 million Texas public school students would "have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream."
The bill slowly raises the number of Texas charters from the current 209 to 305 possible schools by 2019. Schools operated by districts - like Spring Branch's cooperative agreement with charter operators KIPP and YES Prep - would not be included in the cap, nor would charter schools that exclusively serve school dropouts, he said.
At the same time, the legislation sets out strict grounds for closing schools that fail to meet state accountability standards. Specifically. the education commissioner must revoke the charter of any school that receives the lowest performance rating in the state's accountability system for three out of five years.
Patrick's original bill would have allowed an unlimited number of charter operations, but he agreed to a compromise with Democrats who did not want to expand too quickly out of a fear of possibly approving low-quality operations.
The bill also initially proposed allowing charters to lease public school facilities for $1 a year; that provision was amended to permit school districts to charge fair market value.
West offers praise
"Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick," said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. Commending Patrick - a conservative radio talk show host - for his inclusive negotiations, West said, "You have worked with all the stakeholders. I know the best is yet to come as we work on other issues."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called Patrick's proposal a "landmark charter school bill."
"The Texas Senate today sent a clear message that Texas is willing to look at innovative solutions to improve education," he said. The proposal "lifts the caps on charter schools, improves accountability and transparency, and gives education officials the tools necessary to shut down under-performing charter schools."
David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, called the bill "an important victory for quality, accountability and measured expansion of charter schools in Texas."
Anthony, former superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, said the legislation "strikes the appropriate balance in encouraging the growth of high-quality charter schools while ensuring that the Commissioner of Education has the necessary tools to provide effective quality control and oversight. Raise Your Hand Texas congratulates Senator Patrick for his leadership in balancing these interests, and in passing a strong bill for the benefit of Texas."
Some public school advocates, though, said the Texas Legislature should focus more on restoring budget cuts inflicted on public education last session than on expanding charter operations.
Clay Robison, communications director for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the lawmakers should have spent their time finding a solution to the school finance issue.
A state district court judge earlier this year ruled that the Legislature has not provided adequate funding to its public schools.
Funding still an issue
"It's not the time to expand charter schools right now when the Legislature hasn't restored funding to public schools," he said. "The majority of children will continue to go to traditional public schools."
Catherine Clark, associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards, said her organization initially opposed Patrick's bill, which in its original form would have required them to lose money on leases or property sales to charter operations. TASB, Clark said was pleased that Patrick changed that provision, and also that he strengthened the ability of the Texas Commissioner of Education to close poor-performing charters.
Former Sen. Florence Shapiro, who now leads the new Texans for Education Reform, said the legislation addressed a current problem in Texas charter operations in which bad ones are allowed to operate for too long.
"We are not closing the bad ones fast enough," Shapiro said. "The current law does not afford us that opportunity. Really good charters should flourish."