New Rules or New Roles for Charter Schools?
TEA proposes a crackdown on failing charters, but can it be enforced?
As the curtain rises on the 79th Legislature, a key element in the resumption of the debates over education charter schools is getting a well-timed touch-up by the state agency that oversees them. In a Monday hearing, the Texas Education Agency took public testimony on a new set of rules designed to make it easier to close low-performing, mismanaged, or fraudulent charters schools that are publicly funded but privately run. But because the TEA continues to struggle with insufficient staff to enforce the rules already in place, the new rules' most significant impact may be in shaping debates over the role of school choice both charter schools and private school vouchers in public education. "I think everyone is beginning to see that the problems of charter schools are calling into question the whole movement that voucher advocates call 'school choice,'" said Ted Melina Raab of the Texas Federation of Teachers.
"School choice" is based on the conservative notion that market forces can work just as well on education as they do on brands of toothpaste, to hone a product that pleases consumers. Just convert low-performing schools to charters, and the magic of the market will make their problems disappear, suggest conservative leaders like Gov. Rick Perry, whose Business Council advocated as much in a report released last fall.
There's one problem with that happy vision: Despite the handful of exemplary charters, as a whole Texas charter students have performed worse on state tests than their peers in regular public schools. Moreover, the Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviewed the agency this year, found that the TEA "cannot ensure charter schools effectively educate students or properly use state funds." That's not peanuts: In 2003, charters got $338 million. One of the most egregious examples of misuse happened in Austin, where the Texas Academy of Excellence continued to operate for six years despite chronically poor test scores and a history of incomplete financial reports dating back to 1998. When in 2004 the school finally collapsed into a bankruptcy proceeding that stiffed teachers out of months of pay, the school was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt; TEA and superintendent Dolores Hillyer are currently under investigation by the Travis Co. District Attorney's office for possible misuse of state funds.
But even if charters seem a bit miscast for the role of public education's knight in shining armor, their advocates hope the new rules can demonstrate that the kinks have been worked out of the system. The rules will make it easier for the TEA to close charters, either after two years of unsatisfactory academic performance, or immediately upon establishing a serious problem with a school's financial management or students' health and safety. At Monday's hearing, teacher groups applauded the rules, while charter operators expressed reservations. Superintendent Alan Wimberley of Eagle Academies, which runs self-paced online charters in 17 Texas cities, repeated the familiar refrain that as educators of the most at-risk students, charters shouldn't be held to standards as high as other public schools.
"Any school solely dedicated to the disenfranchised will run the risk of not meeting some standards as quickly as traditional systems," he said. In 2004 Eagle schools were among the 44% of charters that the TEA did not rate because they are now designated "alternative education" facilities, which the TEA just didn't have the staff to handle. (An alternative rating system will be in place by 2005.) But in 2002, the last time Eagle schools were rated, 12 of the 16 academies were low-performing, 11 of them for two years running.
However, not all in the charter community favor lowering the bar to keep struggling charters operational. Patsy O'Neill of the Resource Center for Charter Schools testified that charters should be held to as high a standard as possible. "For the health of the whole charter movement," O'Neill said, "we must close charters that should not be open." O'Neill believes high standards will help clean up what she sees as charters' unfairly bad reputation, a situation she blames on the 1998 decision by the State Board of Education to grant a charter to anyone who applied: 109 in all. Of the 33 charters that have been revoked, returned, rescinded, or expired, 25 were from this ill-fated "third generation" of charter schools. Because subsequent laws toughened application standards, O'Neill believes charters will soon start to shine. "The application process is now refined, and we don't anticipate that we'll have near as many low-performing charters in future," she said. For example, only five of 55 charter applications were approved last year. With these improvements and the new rules, O'Neill has hope that the new legislative session will pave the way for expanding the number of charters, currently capped at 215.
However, rules don't tell the whole story. In response to the Sunset Advisory Commission's recommendation of legislation to force the TEA to better monitor charters, the agency warned that after the loss of 200 staff positions in 2003 budget cuts, it simply doesn't have enough staff to handle the job. Therein lies the rub: If the TEA can't enforce the new rules, the changes may do little more than help make the case that charters' problems have been solved, sidestepping what the TFT's Raab says is the real issue surrounding charters: whether their role is as a supplement to public education or, as some conservatives hope, its eventual replacement.
"We think charters have their place, but their place is to be engines of experimentation, and to bring back ideas and methods that can be used to improve all public schools," Raab said. "But it seems that many of the people pushing charters are more interested in taking apart public schools rather than developing alternative models for improving public schools."
The public can comment on the rules via the TEA Web site, www.tea.state.tx.us, until Jan. 24. The new rules will take effect in March.