I attended the public hearing held by the Senate Committee on Education on Friday, August 24, 2012. The hearing was called to address Interim Charges 5 and 6, which are as follows:
Interim Charge 5: Study the performance and accountability of charter schools, best practices of high-performing charter schools, and barriers to replication. Review policies and practices for authorizing high-quality charters and closing poor-performing charters. Study the benefits of and costs related to increasing the number of charters, as well as establishing additional authorization boards to grant new charters.
Interim Charge 6: Study the impact of school choice programs in other states on students, parents, and teachers. Explore the use of education tax credits and taxpayer savings grants, and examine potential impacts on state funding.
Based on the overwhelming propensity of witnesses in favor of “school choice,” this hearing was never intended to be a neutral fact-finding mission to address the interim charges. It was instead a propaganda session for “school choice.” The Austin American-Statesman article on Saturday, August 25, 2012, Page B1 states: “Proponents of ‘school choice’ encouraged members of the Senate Education Committee to open the door for public school students to use taxpayer dollars to go to private schools. And charter school advocates called for lifting a cap on the number of new schools.”
While there appeared to be widespread agreement that bad charter schools should be shut down, the state has yet done so. The Statesman article points out that in 2011 “about 11 percent of Texas charter schools were considered ‘unacceptable’ under state standards, compared to 6 percent among traditional public schools. In addition, about 30 percent of the ‘acceptable’ charter schools achieved that rating under a lesser alternative standard.”
One proposal for school vouchers “would reimburse parents for the cost of private school tuition up to $5,300, which is 60 percent of the average per student cost for public schools. “But state Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, expressed concern that low income families might not be able to take advantage of the program… We still end up having a gap between the haves and the have-nots in public education,” West said.
Private schools also don’t want to be governed by the State’s testing and accountability system, which includes the STAAR Exams. The Statesman article states: “The out-of-state advocates of private school vouchers cautioned against extending the state’s testing and accountability system to the private schools because it has failed to improve public schools.”
It was clearly established that charter schools don’t operate under the same rules as public schools. They pay their teachers significantly less than those in public school, they don’t have to provide transportation, athletics, or guidance counseling, and as one advocate noted at the hearing, they aren’t required to “do pest control.” As David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas noted in his testimony, the State really doesn’t’ know much about charter school operators when they are granted a charter. He advocated providing them with a license for three years which would be essentially a probationary period for the state to judge whether or not a charter should be granted. The video of a 60 Minutes Report on Harmony Schools and an interview with David Dunn, President of the Texas Charter Schools Association, raises serious questions about the lack of background information on charter school operators such as the owner of Harmony Schools.
The policy question really boils down to this: Why should the State of Texas be funding operators of privately run schools when public schools have a better track record, are far more transparent, and produce superior results when they are adequately funded? After public schools have been seriously underfunded for the past 6 fiscal years, it is amazing that advocates of “school choice” want to send enormous sums of our tax dollars to fund private entities that have very limited accountability to the State for their performance.