The board voted against proposed charter networks S.H. James Preparatory Academy in San Antonio and Heritage Classical Academy, Red Brick Academy, and the Justice Hub in Houston. It approved Essence Preparatory Charter School in San Antonio, Thrive Center for Success in Magnolia, and Rocketship Public Schools near Fort Worth.
While the vote varied from school to school — narrowing the most around the contentious California-based chain Rocketship Public Schools — certain members stood out as consistent opponents or allies of charter schools.
Georgina Perez (D-District 1) was the only member to vote against all seven charters. Matt Robinson (R-District 7) and Ruben Cortez (D-District 2) voted against all but one: the proposed Thrive Center for Success for autistic children.
On the other hand, Tom Maynard (R-District 10) stood out as the board’s most optimistic supporter of charter schools, voting to approve six of the seven charters. Chairman Keven Ellis (R-District 9) only voted twice, and both votes were to approve charters.
Ellis was the tiebreaker vote on Rocketship. The 8 to 7 decision ended a long and somewhat heated discussion on Rocketship’s practices and the involvement of statewide officials in the charter chain’s expansion.
Aicha Davis (D-District 13), whose district includes the area where Rocketship will break ground on the two newly approved elementary school campuses, opposed granting the charter and said enough options already exist for families in the Stop Six neighborhood area.
“There are four schools within 5 minutes of the proposed location. So for us to think that either they go to [Fort Worth ISD] or nowhere, that’s not true,” Davis said.
“I spent the night calling elected officials in that area. And the three words they used to describe what had happened was that their community members were used, manipulated, and exploited.”
In response, Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-District 3) said parents don’t feel the same way and spoke in support of the charter.
“We had parents directly tell us that they were offended by being told that they were manipulated and that they were tricked into coming,” Perez-Diaz said.
“I haven’t been manipulated either. For me, what’s important is the needs of the families… For us to go to elected officials and ask them how they feel their communities are being served, I think there’s a gap in not going directly to the families.”
Granting the charter to Rocketship came with a contingency: the charter network must earn at least a B grade at each campus on their school report cards before expanding. Though Rocketship already boasts high academic performance, Rebecca Bell-Metereau (D-District 5) called the network’s achievement into question.
“There were percentages of students who had urinary tract infections from a regime that made the pupils stay in and work on those tests to do well on the tests. So any evidence of improvement that they had was really the result of forcing kids to stay there until they got the tests right,” Bell-Metereau claimed.
“They may well be able to get good results and turn into a B, but the methods that they use for that include coercion of the children and then dropping children from the schools if they don’t perform well.”
At times, the conversation broadened past the local two-campus proposal to encompass more general arguments concerning charter schools, especially the tension between funding traditional districts and providing parents with more options.
Maynard placed himself squarely on the latter side, calling for the board to allow more alternatives in Stop Six.
“When we look at the schools in Stop Six, we also understand that the numbers are not good… These things have been going on for a long time. And I think that we owe children our best shot,” Maynard said.
“And if somebody else can come in and give it a shot and give these kids a chance, and it’s very obvious that the parents of this community want that school… who are we to deny that?”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic left gaps in school data, the most recent reports show that schools in the Stop Six neighborhood lagged before the pandemic and almost certainly dropped further in the past school year. Maude I Logan Elementary earned an F in student achievement according to its 2018-2019 report card despite spending almost $2,000 more per student than the state average.
Alongside ongoing conversations about charter schools, arguments at the meeting eventually turned to another familiar source of tension in Texas politics: clashes between regional Democratic officials and statewide Republicans.
Cortez insinuated that Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath unduly swayed the board’s decisions.
“Some of the votes in this body might change as a result of the governor’s office reaching out to members on this board. I don’t know why the governor is so interested in these charter businesses, but I am very disappointed,” Cortez said.
“Governor Abbott may think he runs the legislature, but he does not run the State Board of Education. If these charters are approved, I want everyone to know that this is about power, not about children.”
In response, Ellis said Abbott had not tried to influence the board and added that no prohibition keeps Morath from communicating with members.
“Those allegations are not accurate,” he said flatly.
Charters in Texas
The Rocketship vote was only the narrowest of seven charter school decisions the board made Friday. The rest of the meeting saw far less discussion and near-unanimous votes for both granting and denying different charters. All but one member voted for Thrive Center for Success and against the Justice Hub, proposed charter schools for Magnolia and Houston, respectively.
Traditional public school advocacy groups praised the overall outcome but blasted the approval of Rocketship, with the American Federation of Teachers calling Rocketship’s success at the board the result of “moneyed Fort Worth interests.”
Texas has a cap on charter schools that has risen steadily from year to year. Currently, the commissioner can grant no more than 305 charters for the whole state. Each charter can authorize more than one campus.
The commissioner makes a list of recommendations and sends them to the SBOE. The SBOE then has 90 days to block those recommendations. For this particular meeting, Morath chose the seven proposed charters from a pool of 27 applicants after a vetting process.
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