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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Texas Legislature Places Restrictions On Charter Schools

Texas Legislature Places Restrictions On Charter Schools

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Eager to make adjustments in the Texas charter school system, state legislators wrapped up their session by approving a compromise bill that tightens control over the independent public schools and places new constraints on their growth.

The measure would make it easier for colleges and universities to obtain state charters to run schools, and would place no limits on their number. But the total number of charters granted to everyone other than higher education institutions would be capped at 215—about two-dozen more than the state's current crop of charter schools.

Scandals and failures involving a handful of schools in the past few years have grabbed headlines and put Texas legislators under pressure to increase oversight of charter schools, which are more numerous in Texas than all but a few other states.

Yet views on the schools were divided during the five-month session, with some Democratic legislators calling for a moratorium on new charters, and some Republicans, including Gov. Rick Perry, warning against too much tampering with the state's approach to the schools.

A crucial element of the compromise was the decision to cap the number of charter schools that can be run by most kinds of charter school operators, including nonprofit groups, local school boards, or for-profit companies in conjunction with nonprofit boards, while at the same time refraining from limiting the number of schools that can be run by colleges and universities. In Texas, charters can be granted only by the state board of education. Mr. Perry is expected to sign the legislation this month.

Lawmakers had an easier time agreeing to give Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson more power to oversee the management of charter schools with serious problems and to shut down schools that he deemed to be failing. That authority would be backed by a coming increase in the budget of the Texas Education Agency's charter school office, agreed to earlier in the session.

"There are people who wanted to see the charter movement stop in its tracks; others wanted it to go full steam ahead like a locomotive," said Sen. Teel Bivins, the chairman of the education committee in the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP. "What we ended up doing was striking a compromise between those two positions."

Governor Pleased

Democratic Rep. Jim Dunnam, who had originally championed a moratorium, agreed the measure represented a compromise between competing concerns. "We needed to slow down and take a deep breath," he said. "But this is not anywhere close to an anti- charter bill."

Mr. Dunnan's moratorium bill passed the House of Representatives, where Democrats are in the majority. The final legislation was worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Gov. Perry has been a strong backer of the charter school program, which was signed into law five years ago by his predecessor as governor and fellow Republican, President Bush.

"He's pleased by the part of the bill that adds a new type of charter for the universities," said Kathy Walt, the governor's spokeswoman.

Under the bill, the number of charter schools run by any of the state's 35 public four- year colleges and universities is not subject to the legislature's cap, and the institutions of higher education are to be given preferential treatment by the state board in their applications for charters. So far, only a few charter schools are university-run.

Along with creating the option for university charters, the bill does away with an existing distinction between "open enrollment" charter schools and "at risk" charter schools, along with limits on the number of the former. Charter schools for "at risk" students—about a third of all charter schools in Texas—are supposed to have enrollments in which at least 75 percent of students are deemed in danger of academic failure.

Requirements Added

The final legislation slaps some additional requirements on charter schools, but stops short of requiring that their teachers have bachelor's degrees, a mandate that was part of the House bill. Under the compromise, charter school teachers must hold at least a high school diploma.

The bill also would require all employees of the schools to undergo criminal-background checks before beginning work, as is already required of employees in traditional public schools. In addition, the legislation would prohibit conflicts of interest and nepotism in charter schools; hold the schools to the state's open-meetings and open-records requirements; and mandate that they adopt the state's rules for awarding contracts or file their own with the state.

Meanwhile, a sign of the debate swirling around charter schools in the Lone Star State came with the recent release of two reports that reach very different conclusions.

A study commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a San Antonio-based group that strongly supports school choice, found that charter schools serving students at risk of failure seem to be more effective in fostering academic achievement than traditional public schools, while other charter schools seem to be at least as effective.

The other study, by an arm of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization formed to counter the political agenda of Christian conservatives, noted that just five charter schools received the highest possible rating from the Texas Education Agency, which rates all public schools on their students' performance, and called for an overhaul of the system.

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 14

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