“We had no choice but to comply,” explained Trinity Basin Preparatory CEO Randy Shaffer.
Shaffer’s story is just one of many examples from around the state in which local municipalities seek to impose extra barriers or prohibit operations of state-approved charter schools.
According to YES Prep charter schools CEO Mark DiBella, there are two Houston schools still unable to obtain approval for signage because a city official has objected to the use of the word “public” in reference to charter schools. In other cases, charter school operators have faced extra difficulty in obtaining permits for the construction of additional buildings adjacent to existing schools, with one campus in Dallas being denied for 10 years.
Now a bipartisan group of state lawmakers wants to make sure public charter schools are treated just like other public schools.
During a virtual press conference last week, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) announced the introduction of new legislation to address situations faced by Shaffer and other charter school operators.
The Charter School Equity Act would prevent local governments from forcing charter schools to follow different rules than ISDs regarding zoning, permitting, and construction, and addresses disparities between traditional public schools and public charter schools in negotiating impact fees.
“Parents deserve to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the education of their children,” said Bettencourt. “This legislation ensures that public charter schools, which have a remarkably successful track record, can continue to give families access to schools that work for them.”
Dutton, who filed the house version of the bill and now chairs the powerful House Public Education Committee, asserted that charter schools were meeting the needs of families across the state.
“If all public schools matter, that means charter schools matter,” said Dutton. “I don’t have all the answers when it comes to public [education] but the question ought to be, ‘does it help students?’ and if it helps students then I’m for it.”
In addition to requiring municipalities to treat open-enrollment public charter schools like any other public school, the proposed legislation would also revise the role of the State Board of Education (SBOE) in approving charters.
Currently, even after charter operators have undergone a rigorous application and approval process by the Texas Education Agency, the SBOE can effectively veto a charter school at the last stage of the process.
“Texas has the most rigorous charter school application review process in the entire country; four out of five applications are denied before they even get to the SBOE,” explained Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA) CEO Starlee Coleman.
“The State Board of education has become so driven by politics that last year a new school was blocked from opening in a community where the only schools available to children today are rated as failing.”
On the senate side, Bettencourt noted that there were already 11 senators from across the state supporting the bill, many of whom were joint authors: Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), Drew Springer (R-Muenster), and Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) who also chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Lucio also joined the press conference and noted he had always supported “parents, not politicians or anyone else deciding which schools provide the best educational experience for their children.”
“When it comes to charter schools they should not be forced to jump over more hurdles than the public schools in the same district,” added Lucio.
Charter schools have operated in Texas for more than 25 years, and receive per-pupil monies from the state but do not have access to local tax revenues. Students are required to take the same standardized tests as traditional public school students, but many charter schools have proven to raise scores in underserved communities and closed achievement gaps according to the TCSA, which represents more than 300,000 Texas students and 20,000 educators.
The Texas American Federation of Teachers union has opposed charter schools in Texas, and some legislators such as Sens. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) and Reps. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) and Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) have all filed bills seeking to block charter schools in certain districts or give traditional district superintendents more input in approving charters in their districts.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten has come under scrutiny for possible opposition to charter schools in California.
But parents who have found charter options to be a better fit for their children say there should be more support for these public school options.
“My son with a disability wants to study business,” said Dolores Amaro, a mother of five in Houston who has sent three children to charter schools. “That is his dream. He is challenged but also very supported. His public charter school gives him the attention and care he needs to make his dreams a reality.”
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.