Published Online: July 17, 2014

Texas education board scolds state commissioner

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Board of Education members sharply criticized the state's top education official on Wednesday for overriding a board veto and allowing an Arizona-based charter school to open campuses in suburban Dallas despite concerns that doing so may do little to help poor and minority students.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams defended his decision during unusually candid exchanges with board members, saying the Legislature had shown it wants more out-of-state charter school networks in Texas and that charter schools are under no obligation to help at-risk youngsters.

"You vetoed my decision, I wanted them here, I sought a way to have them come here," said Williams, who routinely speaks at board meetings, but usually without so much contention. "I found it."

At issue is Phoenix-headquartered Great Hearts Academies, which sought a charter to open Dallas-area campuses in the future. Williams recommended granting the charter, but the board's 10 Republicans and five Democrats voted 9-6 against it in November.

Opponents said the operator had a history of cherry-picking high-performing students from affluent, largely white areas. They pointed to Nashville, where the school board defied a recommendation from Tennessee's Department of Education and rejected Great Heart's charter application amid fears that its school could be located in an area beneficial to wealthy families.

But Williams, who is appointed by the governor, not elected like board members, overrode the veto this month. He unilaterally approved Great Hearts' Dallas campuses via expansion of an existing charter the operator obtained in 2012 for San Antonio, rather than the new charter the board blocked.

Democratic board member Mavis Knight, of Dallas, said she was "extremely disappointed."

"Though I recognize it was your authority and I said I'd have to accept it, I never said I'd go quietly in accepting it," Knight said.

Charters are privately operated schools that get public funding and don't have to meet some state academic standards. They have long been championed by Gov. Rick Perry and other conservatives as an alternative for students from rough areas who are desperate to leave poor-performing, traditional public schools. Conservatives also tout expanding charter schools because they can hire non-union teachers, and teachers unions typically back Democrats.

The board used to have sole responsibility for approving charters, but a law approved last year now lets it only veto the commissioner's recommendations for new ones. That law also gradually increases the cap on how many charter licenses Texas can issue from 215 to 305.

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, pointed to Great Hearts' performance in Arizona, where schools it has run with mostly minority and poor students have received lower ratings compared to its other campuses. Also objecting was Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez, who said that though he didn't oppose Great Hearts, he was worried it would pick Dallas locations catering to rich kids.

But Williams noted that charters "have to serve all comers."

"There is nothing, absolutely nothing in Texas law, nothing in the public policy of this state, that says that one cannot have a charter ... that serves kids who are not poor and are not minority," he said.

Great Hearts' San Antonio campus isn't yet operating, but the expansion clause Williams used was only possible because of changes being implemented under the 2013 charter law. Going forward, such an override wouldn't be possible.

Robert Gutierrez, a spokesman for Great Hearts, said in a statement Wednesday, "We are approved for and are planning for Dallas-area schools located in diverse neighborhoods ... close to the hard working families who most want great public schools for their children."


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