87th LegislatureEducationCharter School Advocates Ask Legislature to Ensure Charters Are Treated Fairly by Municipalities, Remove ‘Silent Cap’

State lawmakers discussed challenges faced by charter schools and Texas public education as a whole at a pre-session policy event in Austin this week.
January 14, 2021
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As legislators prepare to tackle an array of public education issues during the 2021 session, advocates are hoping for a resolution to a “silent cap” on public charter school expansions.

During an education panel discussion hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation on Wednesday, Texas Charter Schools Association CEO Starlee Coleman provided examples of how local government entities attempt to interfere with charter schools approved by the state.

In one instance, for 10 years local officials have denied building permits to a Dallas area public charter school seeking to build an approved second campus on adjacent property it owns. 

Coleman also described how a Houston official ordered charter operators within the city to remove signs advertising campuses as “public schools,” since he had determined that charters did not qualify.

“We are facing discrimination by city-level officials in big ways and small ways,” said Coleman.

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As public schools, Texas charter schools receive per-pupil monies from the state but do not have access to local tax revenue. First approved 25 years ago, the state legislature has gradually expanded a cap on charter operators to 305, and as of the last legislative session, there were 179 authorized according to Coleman.  

Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) noted he had introduced legislation during the 2019 session that would have required municipalities to consider open-enrollment charter schools as public school districts for the purposes of zoning, permitting, code compliance, and development. Approved in the House Public Education Committee, the measure failed to pass before the end of the session, but Deshotel says he will try again this year.

Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who has chaired the House Committee on Public Education since 2011, suggested that the state had learned a great deal during the pandemic and that cities and other local entities need to leave school districts and public charter schools alone.

“We had a county judge in Harris County who basically came in and tried to shut our schools down and tell us what we can and can’t do,” said Huberty. “And that was for all schools; that was for ISDs, charters, and everybody else.”

“I basically told her to piss off.”  

Not all charter schools have a contentious relationship with their local traditional school district, and newly elected Rep. Lacey Hull (R-Houston) described the successful partnership between Spring Branch Independent School District (ISD) and KIPP and Yes Prep charter schools in her district.

“It’s a perfect example of how it doesn’t have to be a competition; it can be a collaboration,” said Hull. “It’s just really great local control, community-driven, innovation.”

Regarding superintendents who have called on cities to block charter schools in highly-rated districts, Huberty asserted that cities and ISDs need to “stay in their own sandbox.”

Coleman noted that often highly-rated districts were dependent on their upper-middle-class white students to bolster ratings, while children within the same district attending schools populated with lower-income families were not performing well.

Huberty also noted that charter schools leasing space pay property taxes that in turn go primarily to traditional school districts.

“We’re giving them money to pay those property taxes because the funding comes from the state. It’s insanity.”

Huberty cautioned that there may not be time this session to address many problems outside of those posed by COVID-19 interruptions, and vigorously pushed back on those calling for an elimination of STAAR testing this year.  

Although the A-F School Rating System has been suspended, the Texas Education Administration has said students will still take the tests.

According to Huberty, state leaders have resources, including funds from 2019’s House Bill 3 and possibly CARES Act funding, to remediate students who have lost ground over the last year, but that testing will be crucial to determine need.

“I’ve heard some horror stories…especially the districts that did a lot of virtual stuff at the very beginning, and are still doing it, where more than fifty percent of the kids are really failing.”

“We need to know where these kids are at so we can put resources in to help them.”

Many school districts across the state are reporting missing 3-4 percent of the student population, with Houston ISD still unable to account for some 13,000 students, said Huberty. He is also particularly concerned about special education students, and last year had urged exceptions for such students during school closures.

Charter school students are also required to take the STAAR tests, and Coleman agreed with Huberty’s assessment.  

“You wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t use a thermometer. We cannot send kids to school who aren’t using tests.”

Regarding a question about getting better information to the public about the true nature of charter schools, Deshotel said other legislators needed better information as well.

“We need to start with our colleagues; our colleagues don’t understand. Our legislators don’t understand and that’s where we really need to do work.”

Panel moderator Emily Sass, Director for the Center for Innovation in Education, closed the discussion with a quote from the Texas Education Code.

“The mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to a quality education that enables them to achieve their potential and fully participate now and in the future in the social, economic, and educational opportunities of our state and nation.”

Correction: A previous version of the article misstated the year that an authorized number of charter schools was reported. We regret the error.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.