Texas charter schools flexing their muscles

12/05/2013 5:44 PM

12/05/2013 5:46 PM

Texas charter schools are getting more respect these days — look no further than the support they got from lawmakers who this year approved the most significant rewrite of charter legislation since they authorized the concept in 1995.

A key part of that rewrite was to lift the 215-charter limit that had been in effect since 2001, when a few poorly run and insufficiently regulated schools dragged down the reputation of the entire movement.

Expect today’s brighter outlook to be center stage next week when the Texas Charter Schools Association holds its statewide conference Wednesday through Friday at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Charter schools get state financial support like other public schools but are given greater flexibility on some aspects of their operations. They must meet state accountability standards and nondiscrimination requirements.

David Dunn, a Benbrook native and 1975 graduate of Western Hills High School, is the Austin-based association’s executive director.

In a Wednesday interview with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board, Dunn said this year’s legislation, primarily Senate Bill 2 by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, included more efficient regulation as well as lifting the 215-charter limit.

Legislators would not eliminate the cap, but they agreed to raise it gradually during the next six years to a total of 305 charters.

The biggest reason for the change, accented by charter advocates during the January-through-May legislative session, was that 101,000 Texas students were on waiting lists for admission to charter schools.

Legislators also strengthened the education commissioner’s hand in revoking charters of poorly performing schools or merging them into better-run charter organizations.

Dunn said his association strongly supports those regulatory moves.

“We’re not about supporting schools that aren’t meeting the needs of students,” he said.

Or, as one charter operator put it, “Like it or not, we all have the same last name — ‘charter school.’”

The association is pushing on other fronts, too.

For the first time in the decades of litigation over the way Texas pays for public education, the association has joined in a long-running suit being heard by state District Judge John Dietz in Austin.

Dietz ruled the school finance system unconstitutional in February, but new legislation prompted him to reopen the case in June. He has scheduled a new trial to begin Jan. 6.

Charter schools are staking their claim to state facilities funding, something they have not had for almost two decades.

The state Supreme Court has said facilities funding should be a part of a constitutional public school finance system, but it hasn’t gone so far as to require changes.

Now charter schools are pushing the issue. They are public schools with some 200,000 students whose parents have selected them over other public schools, Dunn said.

“When they exercise that choice, that doesn’t mean they lose that constitutional obligation for the state to provide adequate funding for their children’s education,” he said.

Look for more from charter schools. Immediately ahead, Dunn said, is an emphasis on collaborative arrangements with independent school districts.

Some districts already have agreements with charter schools to focus on keeping at-risk kids in school or bringing dropouts back to complete their high school education.

Texas charter schools not only have new-found and hard-earned respect — they apparently intend to make the most of it.

About Mike Norman

Mike Norman

@mnorman9

Take an issue that's full of sometimes-complicated details like Texas public school finance, throw in an element of urgency like the need for better transportation solutions in Dallas-Fort Worth, add a healthy helping of local interest spiced with some controversy and you have the perfect assignment for Mike Norman to examine in depth. Mike is the newspaper's editorial director.

Email Mike at mnorman@star-telegram.com.

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