Naked City

Chartered for Disaster

At a legislative hearing last Thursday on charter schools, state Representative Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, cast an exasperated look at State Board of Education member Judy Strickland of Plainview, and asked why the board continued to grant new charter licenses year after year. "We're casually talking about adding another 44 charter schools," Dunnam said, "While scandal after scandal is being reported in the papers, half the charters are low-performing, and the [Texas Education Agency] is so overwhelmed that they need a month just to figure out how many charter campuses there are."

In 1995, the Legislature granted the SBOE the right to grant licenses to charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of local school districts and most standard regulation. The conservative-leaning SBOE granted a license to almost everyone who applied, provoking the Legislature, under a bill authored last session by Dunnam, to cap the total number at 215. In the aftermath, by allowing charters to open separate "campuses," the board has managed to expand that number: According to TEA's hurriedly gathered figures, there are now 261 campuses.

But the state has been much more successful at opening uncertain charters than at closing bad ones. After more than a year of litigation, the TEA has been unable to close even the most flagrantly mismanaged charters, which have been plagued by corruption, incompetence, low accountability scores, and an overall 77% teacher-turnover rate. "The board needs to take a deep breath and ask itself if this experiment is fully developed before adding more," said Dunnam.

The SBOE, however, is known for neither deep breathing nor self-correction, so the 2003 Lege may well find itself tinkering with charters once again.

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