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Senate chooses consensus over gridlock in compromise on charter school bill

Austin American-Statesman
April 17, 2013

By Editorial Board

Charter schools are one of the best reforms to happen to public education because they provide competition and quality alternatives to regular public schools without charging tuition. Charter schools are detrimental to public education because they siphon money and higher-performing students from traditional public schools in an unfair competition that exempts them from costly state regulations governing their public school peers.

Those opposing views — as well as several inconclusive studies comparing and contrasting charter schools with traditional public schools — illustrate the strong divisions over the best ways to improve public education. And as we’ve witnessed at the Legislature, those divisions cross partisan lines, stalling movement in past years on reforms sought by supporters and critics of charter schools. Last week the Texas Senate — led by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Senate Education Committee — found consensus in a compromise that permits some expansion of charter campuses while bolstering the state’s ability to weed out bad actors.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, passing 30-1 in the Senate. Although Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 still must pass the House to become law, it is receiving a polite reception by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who said he expects members will be open to Patrick’s compromise. It’s pending in Aycock’s committee.

Consider that past attempts by Patrick to expand charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, failed in the Republican-controlled House in 2011. But the current bill is significantly better than those and the measure Patrick first introduced earlier this year. That is a big plus in boosting its chances for passing the Legislature this time around. The compromise expands charter licenses gradually, from its current limit of 215 to 305 by 2019. That is a far more reasonable approach than Patrick’s initial proposal, which would have lifted all caps on charter licenses.

In February, we noted that the current limit is a soft cap because an established charter operator such as IDEA Public Schools, Harmony or KIPP doesn’t have limits because the law allows them to operate multiple campuses across the state under a single license for each entity.

As a group, performance of charter schools has been a mixed bag since 1995, when the Legislature established them, despite the greater flexibility to operate more freely from state regulations.

State oversight also has been lacking, and there are plenty of horror stories about rip-offs by charter operators who awarded their staff lavish salaries or expense accounts. In some cases, children languished in charters with worse conditions or performance than their home schools or charters that left students in the lurch when they shut down without notice.

Clearly the state needs better tools to monitor charter schools, require improvements and shut down schools that repeatedly fail to meet standards. Weeding out the bad ones would make room for more good charter schools.

Some charters have outperformed public schools: According to ratings posted in November 2011 by the Texas Education Agency, 17 of 199 charter districts, or 8.5 percent, were considered exemplary during the 2010-11 school year. That compares with 4.4 percent of the 1,029 public school districts that earned the state’s exemplary rating.

But public schools had a far lower failure rate than charter schools, with 4.9 percent failing to meet standards. By contrast, 17.6 percent of charter schools — more than triple the failure rate of public schools — failed to meet state standards in 2011.

Patrick’s willingness to compromise with Democratic colleagues yielded a better bill that addresses serious flaws in current law. And by slowing down the expansion of charter schools, it gives the state time to improve oversight and do a better job in overseeing current charters as new ones come on board.