On Monday, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the Texas Education Agency had approved five new public charter school operators to potentially open new schools as early as the 2020-21 school year.
The TEA’s approved charter list has been submitted to the State Board of Education (SBOE) for final approval.
Along with the expansion of previously authorized charters, which are opening additional campuses around the state, the new schools could help relieve the state’s waiting lists, estimated by the Texas Charter Schools Association to consist of 140,000 students.
An analysis conducted by TTM Analytics reported earlier this year that there are nearly 10,000 children on wait lists in the greater Austin area alone.
Charter schools, which are tuition-free public schools, have recently come under fire from union groups and a few Democratic presidential candidates, but charters remain popular with parents seeking education options, and backers come from both major political parties.
Colleen Dippel, founder of Families Empowered, a Houston-based non-profit organization that assists parents in understanding navigating available education options, has pushed back on the politicization of parents choosing charters or other schools.
“Parents choose schools not as a political act, but as a parenting act.” Dippel says, “They’re just doing what good parents do, and parents are looking for options.”
All five new charter operators on this year’s approval list are seeking to locate schools in urban areas with high numbers of at-risk students. The application for Royal Academy Public Schools, which plans campuses in both Houston and Austin, specifically references underperforming district schools and lengthy waiting lists for existing charter schools.
One of the Houston operators, Elevate Collegiate Charter School, is planning a K-5 campus in Houston’s Third Ward, where 70 percent of residents earn less than $21,000 per year. There are only two district elementary schools in the Third Ward; both have struggled to meet state standards, and a third closed in 2014 due to chronic underperformance.
Elevate Collegiate plans to address some of the unique needs of Third Ward children by offering an extended school day and school year, as well as intentional supports and character education.
Not all charter schools target high-risk students. Parents in highly-rated districts sometimes seek options due to bullying or safety issues, or because of a preference for a different educational approach, specialized focus, or desire for smaller schools.
One of the existing charter operators expanding next year is Aristoi Classical Academy, which reflects a growing parental interest in “classical education.” Aristoi and other classical schools offer traditional subjects such as history and Latin, and despite recent opposition to so-called “rote learning” among some educators, classical schools unapologetically teach younger children to memorize foundational knowledge.
Currently operating K-12 campuses in Katy, Texas, Aristoi will open a tuition-free charter school in the highly-rated Cypress-Fairbanks district in 2020.
State approved charter schools, often referred to as “open-enrollment charters,” undergo a lengthy approval process and must submit detailed education, operations, and financial plans to the Texas Education Agency. The TEA uses external reviewers to score applications, and only those earning above 85% proceed to the next stage of review and multiple interviews with the agency and state board of education.
The commissioner’s list of approved new charter operators will be reviewed by the Texas SBOE during the board’s quarterly meeting in Austin this week. The SBOE may veto a proposed charter operator within 90 days of the commissioner’s approval.
Of the four new charter operators approved last year, three plan to open initially with K-first grades in August of 2019: Rȇve Preparatory and Bloom Academy in Houston, and the Betty M. Condra School for Education Innovation in Lubbock. The latter, as with any public charter school, is open to all students but is also one of the first Texas charters to specifically offer services for students with “language-based learning differences,” ADHD, and those in need of Dyslexia intervention.
While California legislators have become increasingly hostile to charter schools, and nearly passed a moratorium on new charters this year, other states have been moving forward on giving parents education choices.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools, and West Virginia may authorize its first-ever charters later this month. Florida has moved to vastly expand public education options following a contentious 2018 gubernatorial election in which school choice likely played a decisive role.
State charter schools were included in the $6.5 billion public education funding increase passed by the Texas legislature this year, giving charter schools an average increase of $767 per student according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.
Due to legislation passed in 2017 charter operators are also now eligible for school facilities funding.
According to the TEA, there were 296,213 Texas students attending public charter schools in 2018, nearly 6 percent of the state’s students. As state population growth is projected to steadily increase over the next few decades, parental demand for education options is likely to grow as well.
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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.