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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Texas Charters Win Big In Facility-Grant Competition

Texas Charters Win Big In Facility-Grant Competition

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While charter schools in most states are struggling for facilities aid, in Texas they have reaped the benefits of a multimillion-dollar grant program for school renovations and repairs.

Even though those largely independent public schools educate only 1 percent of the students in Texas, such schools received nearly 40 percent of the funding from the $72 million program, financed with federal aid from a Clinton administration facilities initiative.

The one-year program provided $1.2 billion in grant money nationally.

Although the names of the grant recipients were released last fall, the Texas Education Agency did not release until June the actual amount—up to $1 million—each grantee won.

Those figures, especially the hefty share claimed by charters, drew strong reactions from administrators and advocates for regular public schools.

"I was extremely angry, and I thought it was extremely inequitable," said Graham Sweeney, the superintendent of the 500-student Boles schools near Dallas.

Mr. Sweeney believed his district would get a grant because it is the poorest in the state. However, state officials rejected his application, explaining that the proposed projects would take too long to complete.

Boles was not alone. Of the 344 applications the TEA received from public school districts, only 16 percent, or 57 districts, were awarded the facility grants.

By comparison, 47 charter schools, more than half of those that applied, received grants.

"That situation is probably pretty unusual," said Robert P. Canavan, the president of Rebuild America's Schools, a Washington-based coalition of school districts and organizations from across the nation that lobbies for school facility aid.

"States were conscious of the fact that they should include charter schools," he said. But, he added, most states granted money to charter schools in proportion to public schools.

The legislation that funded the program gave states significant latitude to implement their own criteria as long as they favored rural and low-income schools.

In Texas, preference was given to charters "because charter schools do not have a tax base, and that made them eligible for a lot of this," said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the TEA.

She pointed out that, unlike school districts, charter schools cannot hold bond elections to raise money for facilities. In addition, the local districts where the charters are located have no obligation under state law to help provide facilities money for charter schools.

Nationwide, charter school operators cite facilities needs as among their greatest and most expensive challenges.

Still, critics contend that too much weight was given to charter schools. "This is a heavy-handed attempt to funnel money intended for public schools into the hands of quasi-private schools," said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers.

Troubles Cited

The facilities-aid flap is the latest dust-up involving the charter school system in Texas, which has been plagued by contention in recent years.

"A number of schools have closed down or have been closed down by the state after confirmed reports of inflated attendance, of overpaying board members, of nepotism and of suspicious contracts," said Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group based in Austin.

But even with their problems, charters are still doing good work, said Patsy O'Neill, the executive director of Texas Charter School Resource Center in San Antonio. "There are many success stories in the charter school movement," she said.

Ms. O'Neill added that charter schools needed the federal aid for school repairs and renovation more than the state's school districts because it is difficult for charter schools to get funding for facilities.

"Traditional financing is difficult because most lending institutions like to lend to an organization with a track record," she said, and most charter schools are newly formed nonprofit organizations.

Meanwhile, fewer charter schools will be in danger of closing in the future because the state board of education, which grants the charters, and the TEA have refined the application process, Ms. O'Neill said. The facilities aid will also help keep those schools viable, she said.

This fall, 200 Texas charter schools should be up and running, Ms. O'Neill added. "The Texas charter school movement is thriving and rapidly expanding," she said.

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 20

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