New Texas Policy Cracks Down on Charters

State to Act Sooner on Low-Performing Sites

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Charter schools in Texas be warned: State officials are tracking you more closely than ever. And if your students’ scores on state exams are consistently very low, you may be shut down.

Shirley Neeley, the Texas commissioner of education, is imposing new and more stringent regulations on the state’s 201 charter schools, most of which operate independently from school districts.

A high school student walks the halls of West Houston Charter School in December after a final exam. The high school portion of the campus closed after the school's operators said there was not enough money to keep it running.
A high school student walks the halls of West Houston Charter School in December after a final exam. The high school portion of the campus closed after the school's operators said there was not enough money to keep it running.
—Dave Rossman

The commissioner has oversight authority for charter schools, but the new rules allow her to intervene immediately in dire situations.

Amid consistently low student-achievement at some charter schools and the fast enrollment growth in others, some Texas lawmakers and education policy observers have begun clamoring for tighter state oversight of the nontraditional public schools.

“We wanted to spell it out in a straightforward way so that charter holders know exactly what the situation is,” Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said of the new regulations.

The state’s school accountability law already allows Commissioner Neeley to close charter schools in dire academic straits. Oversight of regular public schools is different, and requires reconstitution—a complete makeover—for habitual low performers rather than closure, Ms. Ratcliffe added.

Changes to the state’s charter school regulations, which take effect March 1, include more established timelines and grounds for hearings when the state takes action against low-performing charters.

New rules also affect charter school expansions, limit the number of state audits of charter schools to one a year, and raise training requirements for leaders of low-performing and new charter schools.

Currently, 28 charter schools face possible sanctions for falling into the state’s lowest test-score category, “academically unacceptable,” for two straight years through 2004, Ms. Ratcliffe said. The stakes could rise for those and other charters in May, after the scores from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, the state’s new set of standardized tests, are released.

State and national charter school advocates generally support the Texas crackdown, arguing that poorly managed charter schools should be culled from the ranks of more legitimate and successful schools.

Support for Changes

Patsy O’Neill, the executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools, a privately funded statewide group based in San Antonio that trains charter school educators and board members, said she agrees with the pending rule changes.

Ms. O’Neill lauded the new rules for reducing the training requirements for leaders of charter schools that earn satisfactory test scores—and for bolstering requirements for those in low-rated and new charters. “That is a significant improvement,” she said.

No charter school advocates opposed the new rules at a public hearing on the changes Jan. 10, Ms. Ratcliffe noted.

Other charter school operators said the lines between successful charter schools and ones that struggle can blur—and that state oversight of the entire system has been inconsistent.

While most charter school advocates in Texas appear to support the tighter rules, some say they’re already tangled in bureaucratic red tape that prevents some charter schools from succeeding.

David Smith, the founder of Valley Intervention Projects Inc., in Harlingen, on the southern tip of Texas, said state officials seem to have blocked every attempt by his nonprofit charter school organization to keep its schools afloat.

“What the state has essentially done is financially drown” his schools, said Mr. Smith, who was the superintendent of the group’s Valley High School and its elementary and junior high schools.

The charter schools served up to 560 students in grades 1-2 and 7-12 before they were closed 19 months ago. Many high school students were dropouts or former gang members, Mr. Smith said.

Bureaucratic Obstacles

In 2002, Mr. Smith’s charter campuses were among five charter schools Texas education officials closed for academic reasons.

Mr. Smith said the closing came after his schools mistakenly tested pupils in special education and others learning to speak English. After months of revisions and appeals of the test results, Mr. Smith said state officials refused to inspect his campuses or talk with students and parents, and even lost important student documents he had brought to Austin.

New rules overseeing charter schools will not help the situation, he argued.

Mr. Smith, who awaits a hearing to see if he can reopen his schools wondered whether there will be any charter schools for kids “other than the elite ones” once the state is finished with its charter-school overhaul.

But state officials want to guard against chronically low-performing charter schools, Ms. Ratcliffe said. Charter schools will determine their own fates based primarily on student achievement, she said.

Nelson Smith, who has studied charter schools in Texas for the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, said the state probably has some of the most—and least—successful charter schools in the nation. He praised state officials for trying to monitor the schools’ performance more closely.

“The important thing to remember is that most charter schools in Texas are doing well, and they’re getting better all the time,” said Mr. Smith, the president of the Charter School Leadership Council, a national organization in Washington that promotes charter schools.

Vol. 24, Issue 20, Pages 22, 27

Published in Print: January 26, 2005, as New Texas Policy Cracks Down on Charters
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