By Georgina Cecilia Perez
It’s time to talk about the Texas Education Agency’s unhealthy addiction to charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Originally intended to be “laboratories of innovation” for the public school system, charters have evolved into a vehicle for making big money off of taxpayers while skirting the oversight and accountability that come with running an independent school district.
Charter school chains serve 7% of Texas students yet take up 15% of Texas’ education budget. The number of charters in Texas has nearly doubled over the past decade, putting a strain on the state budget and wreaking fiscal havoc with education budgets in districts like Houston Independent School District. Most of this vast growth has occurred without the knowledge or consent of Texas voters.
The Texas Education Agency reviews charter applications, and finalists are presented to the State Board of Education, on which I serve. We are allowed to interview applicants and may either approve or veto each application. Whatever happens after that is out of our hands.
As the only elected representatives in the approval process, we have taken our job as safeguards of taxpayer dollars very seriously. What we’ve found has been troubling.
The TEA and Commissioner Mike Morath have routinely recommended awarding your tax dollars to applicants who lacked even the most basic plans for things like transportation, food service, and providing for students with special needs. Many finalists acknowledged they would offer nothing different from the school district in which they would be placed. Others would have imported unvetted curriculum while exporting our tax dollars to operators in California and New York.
I’m proud that the SBOE has fought to protect Texans’ hard-earned money; at the last board meeting, we vetoed four of the five finalists up for consideration. But that is where our authority ends.
The vast majority of charter growth in Texas has occurred through expansion amendments under which an existing charter chain is allowed to open additional campuses. Expansions fall entirely under the authority of the TEA and Commissioner Morath. That means a charter could expand to your school district and siphon away funding without you finding out until your taxes go up and bus routes and campuses begin to close.
Fortunately, the Biden Administration has issued new federal rules cracking down on fraud and deception within the charter school industry. Any new charter or expansion applicant must now reach out to the community and hold a public hearing before being granted federal funds. Charter schools must also explain their plans to ensure diversity and provide a community impact analysis.
These gains are significant, but the charter school lobby has already engineered a failsafe.
This past election cycle, charter school profiteers led by billionaire Netflix founder Reed Hastings and Walmart heir Jim Walton contributed nearly $2 million to pro-charter candidates in Texas – including candidates for the SBOE. One SBOE candidate received more than $250,000 and several others more than $180,000. Compare that to the $2,000 I spent on my first campaign, and you get the picture – charter tycoons have decided to literally buy the elected body that considers charter applications.
It’s time for an intervention.
The Texas Legislature must expand SBOE authority to include charter expansion amendments and must prohibit SBOE candidates from accepting political contributions from charter schools and organizations that represent them. Texas taxpayers deserve better. Our kids deserve better. Let’s break the addiction before there’s no public school system left to save.