July 4, 2014

Bad optics for Dallas charter school waiver

The TEA commissioner did no favors for the charter movement.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has sparked questions about the new charter school approval process passed by the Legislature last year by granting Great Hearts Academy permission to open campuses in the Dallas and Irving area.

His action effectively overrides a State Board of Education decision in December.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, the SBOE expressed concerns over the Arizona-based charter school’s commitment to serving low-income students, pointing to the disproportionately white and affluent student bodies at its campuses in the Phoenix area.

While its 16 rigorous and highly successful existing academies are tuition-free, critics worry that the lack of school-provided transportation, as well as its fees for uniforms, field trips, extracurricular activities and athletics can prove to be obstacles for families of limited financial means.

Those concerns seem reasonable and presumably are the cause for the board’s 9-6 vote to deny Great Hearts a Dallas charter — notably the only charter the SBOE denied of the four recommended by the commissioner during last year’s charter application cycle.

But the state had previously granted Great Hearts a charter in San Antonio — its website says it plans to open six K-12 campuses beginning this fall — and that allowed its operators to apply for a campus expansion, even after its setback at the hands of the board.

That’s where the process seems to break down.

In what looks a lot like nose-thumbing, Williams waived a state requirement that charter schools be operational for four years or hold at least “acceptable” ratings under the state’s accountability system before they can be granted permission to expand.

According to the Tribune, the issue will be a topic of discussion at the SBOE July meeting.

In granting Great Hearts a waiver, Williams may have been acting within the recently expanded bounds of his authority.

But that doesn’t instill confidence in the approval process, nor do any favors for the charter school movement.

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