2022 was a particularly tight year for Texas charter growth. The board rejected four out of five proposed new charter schools at their June meeting, including a prospective classical school that had already played a role in the primary elections for some board members.
The Academy of Visual and Performing Arts (AVPA) was the only candidate to make it through the SBOE. The prospective school plans to educate students in sixth to twelfth grade once it opens in Fort Worth.
The board vetoed the other four charter candidates: Heritage Classical Academy, which hoped to open in Houston; One Collegiate Charter School, also planned for Houston; Patterns High School of Technology, slated for Austin; and Spelligent in San Antonio.
While the board vetoed the latter three candidates with near-unanimous agreement among the members, Heritage nearly split the fifteen-member board down the middle.
The final vote to veto Heritage and block it from beginning operations was eight to six, with two Republicans joining every Democrat on the board.
Members Georgina C. Pérez (D-District 1), Ruben Cortez (D-District 2), Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-District 3), Lawrence Allen (D-District 4), Rebecca Bell-Metereau (D-District 5), Matt Robinson (R-District 7), Aicha Davis (D-District 13), and Jay Johnson (R-District 15) voted to veto Heritage.
Heritage uses the Barney Charter School model of Hillsdale College, a prominent conservative-led private university.
Before the vote took place, Will Hickman (R-District 6) said he supported Heritage because it would bring new options to the area.
“Just as we’re making arts available to all in Fort Worth with AVPA, there’s no public classical education available in northwest Houston. Yes, there’s private schools, there’s hybrid, there’s homeschools,” Hickman said.
“I’m voting in favor to provide an opportunity to the parents and kids in northwest Houston who want a public classical option that’s not currently available.”
Hickman was the only member to speak on the item before the vote, since much of the debate over Heritage and the other prospective schools had already taken place in the previous two days.
SBOE approval has eluded Heritage for years. Friday’s vote was an exact repeat of the 2021 vote on Heritage, with each member voting the same way as last year against the charter school.
At a committee meeting on June 15, Cortez grilled Heritage Classical Academy CEO Oscar Ortiz about a politically charged five-year-old Facebook comment by the school’s board secretary that said, “Muslim America would have no place for Jews, or Christians, or atheists.”
Cortez called the overlooked comment a mistake the board could have fixed long ago in light of the company’s repeated applications for charter approval.
“Every time you’ve had an opportunity to fix anything that could have just seemed out of bounds for some of us, and each time you all come back and it just seems like you dig a deeper hole for some of us to be more outraged in what you think is acceptable,” Cortez said.
“Because if this is the type of leadership you have at the board level — I mean, forget about all the other questions I have at this point — but if this is what you think is acceptable at the governing level of this institution, what hope do these kids have?”
Johnson and board chair Keven Ellis (R-District 7) both called the post a “bombshell.” Ortiz said he was not aware of the comment before Cortez had it read aloud to the board.
Although Ortiz said the comment deserved serious attention, he said discussion about the five-year-old remark distracted from what the school would have offered the Houston area.
“If really the concern had been the children, then the attention of that board would have been on the data and the results that are possible from the program and the model that we are trying to implement in Houston. But, unfortunately, it was not. It was a Facebook post that was done five years ago that at the time we could not confirm or deny had actually happened,” Ortiz said.
According to Ortiz, Heritage leadership will meet this week to decide whether to apply for a charter a fourth time.
Although Heritage has yet to gain the board’s approval, the prospective school’s failures have resulted in political consequences that are already shaping the makeup of the board.
Robinson and Johnson will not return to the SBOE after their terms end this year, and some evidence suggests that their past votes on Heritage helped seal their political fate.
When the Texas legislature redrew the SBOE district boundaries last year, lawmakers paired Robinson with Allen so that they live in the same Democrat-leaning district, denting Robinson’s chances for reelection. Robinson told The Texan he believes the new maps were a “vindictive” response to his charter school votes.
Robinson has criticized the charter school system as redundant and opaque for collecting tax money per student like traditional school districts but without elected boards. He consistently votes against most charters on the board’s agenda every year.
Unlike Robinson, who was elected in 2018, the freshman Johnson did not have time to build up a reputation as an opponent to charter school growth. With the support of several high-profile Republicans, challenger Aaron Kinsey defeated Johnson in the March 1 primary for District 15 this year.
Generally, Kinsey framed Johnson as a jargon-fluent insider, calling him an “ISD guy.” But some of Johnson’s critics specifically cited his vote against Heritage as a reason why they opposed him in the primary.
Last year was the first time the SBOE rejected most charters on the table, vetoing four of the seven prospective schools.
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