Morath pitches new charters to skeptical SBOE

The State Board of Education (SBOE) is meeting in person this week to tackle a packed scheduled that includes discussion of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards for science, physical education, and health. The board is also discussing whether to approve and spend state tax dollars on eight new charter school systems recommended by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The board spent Tuesday hearing from hundreds of people voicing their opinions about the TEKS up for discussion. After a 13-hour day of testimony, the board resumed business Wednesday with its regularly scheduled update from Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

Commissioner Morath began Wednesday with a status report on reading academies, which all kindergarten through third grade teachers must complete by the 2022-23 school year. There are 20,000 teachers in more than 500 cohorts currently participating in the academies through 38 authorized providers.

The commissioner focused the majority of his presentation on a preemptive defense of the eight new charter schools he is recommending the SBOE approve this week. The board holds veto authority over all new proposed charter organizations, but that veto does not apply to individual campuses or expansions once an initial charter organization is approved. A bipartisan collection of members sharply questioned Morath over charter policy and the numbers used in his sales pitch Wednesday.

In response to a question by Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence), the commissioner said the total number of charter schools has grown from 484 in 2017 to 553 in 2019. The commissioner downplayed the total cost of charter schools, which Member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) pointed out are completely funded by state dollars through the Foundation School Program (FSP). This makes charter schools significantly more expensive to the state than traditional independent school districts (ISD), which are funded by a combination of state, local, and other funds.

The eight new charters the commissioner is proposing are estimated to cost the state $12 million per year once they are operating at capacity. This does not include the additional cost once they expand to additional campuses. Charter schools have submitted more than 90 expansion applications to TEA this year alone, which could cost the state an additional $90 million per year. At least 62 have been approved so far.

Member Robinson also noted that Texas faces an $11 billion decline in state revenue as a result of the economic recession driven by COVID-19. This has placed unprecedented stress on the state budget, prompting state leaders to call for 5% across-the-board cuts at state agencies. Robinson pointed out that despite this fiscal crisis, Commissioner Morath has increased the number of new charter schools he is proposing to open at the state’s expense from five last year to eight this year.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) added that some of the charters currently up for approval are based in California and New York. Member Hardy asked the commissioner, “How do we talk to taxpayers about sending tax dollars out of state?” Morath replied that the economy is globally interconnected. Member Hardy also asked whether only the top-performing schools are approved for expansion, leading the commissioner to state that while D- and F-rated charters were allowed to expand in the past, he believes they are no longer being allowed to grow.

“Is this the right year to be playing Shark Tank?” asked Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), comparing the proposed spending of state dollars on additional charter school experiments to the well-known TV show where inventors of new products pitch their ideas to investors.

Many of the board members’ concerns about spending state dollars on new charter schools at a time when Texas school districts are needing additional resources to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mirror those of ATPE and other organizations. Back in April, ATPE joined a coalition of 18 organizations that wrote to Commissioner Morath asking for a moratorium on charter expansions this year.

During today’s discussion, Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) echoed previous concerns about the higher state cost of funding charter schools, which the commissioner’s presentation to the board omitted. Perez added, “There’s a lot of good information you could be sharing, but this just isn’t it.”

Member Pam Little (R-Fairview) raised the issue of charters schools sending students with disciplinary issues back to their local ISD, while money stays with the charter. Commissioner Morath disputed Little’s characterization of the process.

Finally, Member Lawrence Allen (D-Houston) asked the commissioner a separate series of questions relating to educators. Asked by Member Allen whether TEA is collecting data on teacher retention under the threat of returning to school during the pandemic, Morath answered that the agency will not have that info until next September or October of 2021. Asked about resignations outside of the no-fault window, Morath suggested there are “a variety of exceptions” that will be handled on a case-by-case basis through the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).

Following the commissioner’s comments, the board turned its attention to the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The board approved a $300 million one-time payment to the Available School Fund (ASF) via the real estate special fund account (RESFA) in order to support districts and cover the state’s obligations under last year’s House Bill (HB) 3. The board also tentatively approved a 4.0% distribution rate to the ASF for the 2022-23 biennium.

Members then spent the remainder of the day debating changes to the TEKS that were up for discussion on Tuesday. Any unfinished business from Wednesday’s meeting will be taken up following a public hearing scheduled for Thursday morning over the new charter applicants. Stay tuned to ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog for updates on the board’s actions this week.

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