Category Archives: charter schools

From the Texas Tribune: Are charter schools private? In Texas courts, it depends why you’re asking.

Texas charter schools are sometimes private and sometimes governmental — a legal framework that has helped them avoid costly lawsuits.

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.

Their claims did not make it very far.

The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.

Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”

Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.

But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.

The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.

“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”

“When do the rules apply to you?”

There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”

In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.

Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.

In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.

“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”

But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.

“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”

The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.

Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.

But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.

Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.

The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.

“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”

The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.

The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.

“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”

But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.

And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.

“Not a good place to be an employee”

The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.

Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.

And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.

That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.

Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.

But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.

But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.

“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

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Public Education committee looks at A-F implementation

The House Public Education Committee met Wednesday for an interim hearing on the implementation of school finance, accountability, and bullying legislation, in addition to an update on the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the public school system.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez kicked off testimony with an update on money given out as part of a two-year hardship grant program under House Bill (HB) 21, as well as additional facilities funding for charter schools. Associate Commissioner Monica Martinez provided a briefing on new autism and dyslexia grant programs under the bill. Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) noted that the hardship grants as well as the autism and dyslexia grant programs will expire without additional legislation. Additionally, the bill contained a one-time payment into the Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

House Public Education Committee interim hearing April 18, 2018.

A representative from Houston ISD testified that the district faces a $150 budget deficit this year and a projected $320 million deficit in the next fiscal year due to the district entering recapture. The district submitted a number of recommendations, including increasing funding weights for bilingual, English as a second language (ESL), and special education students, restoring the state’s share of funding to 50 percent, increasing transportation funding, and doing away with the recapture system.

A number of witnesses testified with respect to the hardship grants, warning that some small districts could face closure without further action to extend the grants or create an alternative source of revenue.

Lopez next updated the committee on the implementation of Senate Bill (SB) 179, or “David’s Law,” which addresses bullying and cyberbullying. The law requires TEA to work with the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to develop a website with resources for school districts. Huberty noted that more work must be done to inform districts, students, and parents of the various provisions of the new law.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath provided another update on the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the public school system. A total of 60 counties fell under the governor’s disaster proclamation, and 1.5 million students were in an affected school district. Morath noted that while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been an important source of long-term recovery funds, the agency has been slow in making funds available.

The agency has launched a variety of mental health services, and provided accountability flexibility to affected districts. This includes waivers from 5th and 8th grade math and reading exams for all students affected by the storm. At the school and district level, the agency collected information regarding full and partial facility closures or relocations, student displacement, and staff displacement. According to Morath, at least 112,000 students were displaced statewide. Those three sets of data will be used to develop a rule to determine whether an accountability rating is issued to a particular school. Morath indicated a proposed rule will be published in the Texas Register sometime in early June, and the number of exempt schools could number over a thousand.

Morath suggested the final rule for Harvey-affected schools will be “substantially more generous” than the rule developed following Hurricane Ike in 2008. State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) told Morath she would like to see a rule that provides for entire districts to be exempt from accountability ratings as well, though Morath offered no indication whether the agency is inclined to move in that direction. Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) asked TEA to help develop recommendations for additional revenue sources for public education. Chairman Huberty warned TEA to leave that work to legislators.

The storm caused some $970 million worth of damage to public schools. Morath estimated lawmakers would be faced with the need to pass a supplemental appropriation to cover an associated decline in maintenance and operations (M&O) property values of roughly $500 million to $1 billion.

Houston ISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones testified about the storm’s devastating impact on the state’s largest school district, and the associated financial difficulties. The district asked for a one-year accountability pause, such as was provided after Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, for all schools in a county that fell under the governor’s disaster declaration. State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) asked how the district’s ten worst-performing schools were impacted, all of which are labeled “improvement required” under the current state accountability system and face imminent sanctions. The district indicated those schools sustained damage as well, and contended that a pause would not prevent those schools from being subject to potential TEA takeover, since a decision on each of those schools is required by April 24.

Finally, the committee heard testimony on HB 22, which made changes to the forthcoming “A through F” accountability system. TEA released a framework of the new system last week. Morath summarized that framework, and testified that cut points are being based upon last year’s performance and will be set for the next five years. District A-F ratings will be released in August, while individual campuses will continue to be labeled “met standard” or “improvement required.” Campus A-F ratings will be released in August 2019.

Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers testified that the local accountability system provided by HB 22 could be promising. Under the first domain, Chambers suggested changing the weights for STAAR; college, career, and military readiness (CCMR); and graduation rates from 40/40/20 under the current framework to a more even 33/33/33 or 35/35/30. Chambers also lamented the lack of indicators other than STAAR for grades three through eight under the new system, which represents a regression from the previous system.

Chambers asked that a greater weight under the CCMR indicator be given to students who complete a concurrent sequence of career and technical education (CTE) courses. Critically, Chambers cautioned that policymakers will be disappointed with the results of any accountability system until resources are aligned with what is asked of students and schools.

Spring Branch ISD Executive Director of Accountability and Research Keith Haffey similarly testified to the complete reliance on STAAR at the elementary level, and suggested considering additional metrics. One such metric could credit schools that fully transition English language learners (ELLs) to English. Additionally, one of the flaws of the new system is that the scoring limits credit given to students who take college pathway assessments such as the PSAT, SAT, or ACT, which acts as a disincentive for districts to offer these valuable exams. Huberty engaged Morath and Chambers in a conversation regarding the feasibility of providing a state appropriation to cover the cost of providing these assessments.

Dee Carney, an associate with school finance firm Moak, Casey and Associates, introduced model runs under the new accountability system. According to the models, most schools are unlikely to earn an “A” rating under the first domain. Carney testified that the additional of non-test indicators helps raise scores. The remainder of the day’s testimony largely focused on the system’s heavy reliance on the STAAR test.

Commissioner update on STAAR glitches, SpEd plan, NAEP

The State Board of Education (SBOE) kicked off its April meeting Wednesday with an update from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath.

Morath informed the board that the agency will seek an amendment to the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in order to implement changes to the accountability system under House Bill (HB) 22 passed by the 85th Texas Legislature. The agency released its accountability framework on Tuesday.

Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting April 11, 2018.

With testing week underway, Morath updated the board on a recent glitch with the STAAR exam. According to the commission, the failure of a single server caused a roughly 20-minute disruption in the exam. No data were lost, although 40,000 students were affected and forced to log out, then log back in, while taking the exam online. Some 1,000 school systems had one or more students affected, and it appears the glitch was largely confined to those taking the English I end of course (EOC) exam, although exceptions have been reported. Roughly 460,000 tests have been taken online so far.

SBOE Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) suggested the board avoid scheduling meetings during testing week in the future, as it makes it nearly impossible for educators to get time off to attend board meetings or to testify before the board. TEA staff indicated they are aware of the scheduling conflict and are working toward avoiding such a situation in the future.

The commissioner next proceeded to run down the state’s recent results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Texas saw a slight decline in 4th grade math proficiency this year and has experienced a downward trend in 8th grade math since 2011. The state has been a middling performer in 4th grade reading and saw a slight recent dip. Scores on 8th grade reading have been similarly flat, with a slight recent decline. Morath called the NAEP scores “somewhat disappointing nationally.”

“It does appear that accountability matters a great deal, and resources appear to be a factor,” Morath added.

Member Hardy pointed out that Texas has different demographic challenges than other states; in particular, it is home to a high percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged. Hardy suggested this makes for apples-to-oranges comparisons to other states when it comes to national test scores. Morath conceded Hardy’s point, but noted that “life doesn’t grade on the curve.” The commissioner warned the real world deals in absolutes, and suggested it’s important to celebrate success where appropriate while continuing to pursue improvement.

Finally, Morath updated the board on the agency’s corrective action for special education. A January letter from the U.S. Department of Education found Texas was deficient in three areas of special education: Child find, providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and compliance monitoring.

According to the commissioner, the core corrective action response will be provided to the federal government for compliance purposes, while a strategic plan for the state will focus on broader reforms. The commissioner identified five key components of the strategic plan: State monitoring, identification, evaluation, and placement; training, support, and development; student, family, and community engagement; and support networks and structures. The final corrective action response is due to the federal government April 23.

Responding to funding questions from Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), Morath indicated the agency has already begun making staffing changes with federal funds available to the agency under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The agency has already hired 34 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in order to begin implementing the necessary changes. The nature of the plan calls for spending shifts in allocation. The state is allocated roughly $100 million in IDEA funds each year, all of which Morath said are being “re-tooled” concomitant with the corrective action plan.

Asked by Ellis how formula funding under the Foundation School Program (FSP) would be affected by the plan, Morath said the special education formulas are “quite sophisticated,” making it hard to give a specific number. As a ballpark estimate, Morath estimated the plan would add another $5,000 for each new special education student. The agency estimates another 200,000 students could enter the system, which would translate to about $1 billion in additional FSP funding. Morath noted the figures are only rough estimates, and actual funding would depend upon which services are provided to each child under his or her individualized education program (IEP).

Member Sue Melton-Malone (R-Waco) asked about training provided to educators under the plan. The commissioner said the agency is preparing to launch a statewide professional development network involving summer programs and ongoing training. This training will be primarily targeted at mainstream setting educators.

On a separate note, Member Lawrence Allen, Jr. (D-Houston) voiced concern to Commissioner Morath over the board’s lack of oversight of contracts between school districts and charter schools as a result of Senate Bill (SB) 1882 passed by the 85th Texas Legislature. This bill provides financial incentives and a pause in accountability ratings for districts to contract with a charter holder, nonprofit or higher education institution to operate a campus under a “partnership” model in which the district surrenders control entirely to the operator. As ATPE has warned, this has potentially troubling implications for school staff and students in the feeder pattern.

While the SBOE has the final authority to approve new charters, it has no formal input regarding these arrangements. Rather, each contract must be approved by the commissioner. Agreeing with Allen, Member Hardy warned that charters may be less faithful to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which are required curriculum approved by the board.

The board is scheduled to consider a variety of items Wednesday, including potential action regarding the creation of a Mexican American Studies class. Continue to check TeachTheVote.org for further updates from this week’s SBOE meeting.

School finance commission focuses on charters

The Texas Commission on School Finance met for the fourth time Wednesday in Austin. After a late start due to members trickling in the day after the state’s heated primary elections, the commission quickly launched into a debate about just how much of its activities will be open to members of the public.

Texas Commission on School Finance meeting March 7, 2018.

Chairman Justice Scott Brister began by informing members of the commission that commission subcommittees will be free to hold meetings without posting notice to the public. Brister gave members specific guidance in order to avoid having to comply with state open meetings laws, and led a vote expanding the number of members who can attend committee meetings out of the public eye.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, argued for greater transparency, suggesting members of the public have an interest in what the commission is doing behind closed doors. State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) joined in highlighting the importance of transparency. Arguing for more secrecy, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) noted members of the Texas Senate regularly hold secret meetings.

The committee also discussed logistics for the next meeting, March 19, when members of the public will be able to testify. Before public testimony, the commission plans to invite various stakeholders and interest groups to testify for up to five minutes. Brister stated the list of potential invited witnesses compiled by members and Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff numbered roughly fifty, and asked for help whittling down that number. He warned the March 19 meeting will be long, and members should expect to work well into the evening hours. Sen. Bettencourt asked to reduce the amount of time allotted to public witnesses to avoid a lengthy meeting, and Brister expressed interest in doing so based upon the number of witnesses who sign up.

The topic of Wednesday’s meeting was “efficiency,” with panels dedicated to efficiencies at the classroom, campus and district levels. The first panel featured witnesses from Cisco and Pasadena ISDs to discuss blended learning programs, which combine classroom time with self-paced digital learning incorporating technology such as computers and tablets. Todd Williams, an advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, asked whether blended learning would enable a single teacher to teach more students. Pasadena ISD Deputy Superintendent Karen Hickman indicated that may be possible, but had not been her district’s experience.

The next panel featured witnesses from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, along with Dallas County Community College and the Dallas County Promise program. College partnership programs allow students to earn industry credentials or college credits by taking courses through local higher education institutions. While praising the work of PSJA ISD, Williams suggested college completion rates in these programs are not always where many would like to see them. DCCC Chancellor Joe May testified that the Dallas program is an efficient way to get students to a four-year degree at a quarter of the typical cost.

The final panel on district-level efficiencies was led off by San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who highlighted new innovative campuses and advanced teacher training. Martinez made a compelling argument against basing too much accountability on end-of-course exams, pointing out that SAT scores have a far greater impact on the future trajectory of individual students. Martinez also laid out a nuanced way of tracking income demographics for the purposes of equalization within the district. More controversially, Martinez discussed bringing in charter operators from New York to take over a local elementary campus. These types of arrangements receive financial incentives from the state as a result of SB 1882, which was passed by the 85th Texas Legislature despite warnings raised by ATPE over the potential negative impacts on students and teachers. In consideration of these criticisms, Martinez suggested adding Dallas ISD’s ACE model or similar teacher retention programs as a third option under SB 1882. Martinez further acknowledged that charters are not interested in taking on the task of educating the most economically disadvantaged students.

The commission also heard from Paul Hill, a Washington-based policy consultant whose work has been affiliated with handing campuses over the charters and supporters of broader education privatization, including vouchers. Midland ISD Superintendent Orlando Riddick spoke of districts of innovation (DOI), and confirmed that districts are eager to waive requirements for maximum class sizes and teacher certification. ATPE has repeatedly warned of DOI being used to hire cheaper, uncertified teachers and assign larger classrooms.

The meeting ended with testimony from IDEA Public Schools charter founder Tom Torkelson. While acknowledging that well-trained teachers should earn more money, Torkelson also suggested that class size limits designed to protect students should be waived in order to place more students in a single classroom. Torkelson also suggested eliminating regional education service centers (ESCs), which were designed to increase efficiency by consolidating various support tasks in order to service multiple districts. Torkelson gave no indication what should replace the ESCs in his estimation.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, concluded Wednesday’s hearing by directing members to the task at hand: Finding a way to pay for public education for all Texas students. Anything short of that, he reminded members, will not help Texas out of its current predicament. The commission will next meet March 19, and members of the public will be allowed to testify.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 26, 2018

It was a busy week in the world of public education, with your ATPE Governmental Relations team keeping tabs on various business at the state level. Here’s a rundown of this week’s developments:


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote? There are just ten days left to register to vote in the upcoming primaries! Texans who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered to do so must sign up on or before February 5 in order to cast their ballot on March 6. Check the status of your registration here.

Also be sure to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. All candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Texas Legislature, and the State Board of Education have been invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey and have their views on education issues shared with voters through our website. New survey responses are being added to the site frequently as more candidates take advantage of this opportunity. If the candidates you are interested in learning about have not yet responded, please ask them to participate in our survey. Candidates or their campaign consultants may contact government@atpe.org for additional information about the survey.

Early voting for the March primaries begins Feb. 20. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos has issued a new proclamation naming the first Friday of early voting period (Feb. 23, 2018) to be “Student Voting Day.”  Secretary Pablos is calling on communities “to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in
their county of registration.” The Secretary of State’s office has been an important partner in efforts to promote voter awareness within our public schools, and we appreciate his support.

Since we last reported on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities spearheaded by ATPE and other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, more Texans are speaking out in support of our coalition and expressing displeasure with the not-so-subtle efforts of some elected officials to try to rein in politically active educators. The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg wrote an opinion piece on Saturday, Jan. 20, in support of ATPE’s and the coalitions efforts to increase voter turnout and awareness. Falkenberg wrote that voter apathy “doesn’t stop if we do nothing. Some folks in this state are trying to do something. We should let them.” Falkenberg concluded, “No opinion from the Texas AG, or from Bettencourt, has dissuaded me from believing their efforts are vital for the young voters, to the public in general, and to the future of this state we love.” Retired Superintendent Joe Smith also expressed support for Texas Educators Vote on his TexasISD.com website, and educator Danny Noyola, Sr., an ATPE member, similarly wrote an opinion piece for the Corpus Christie Caller-Times defending the coalition’s work. Noyola called AG Paxton’s opinion “an intimidating assault on teachers, administrators, and educational groups to stifle citizenship and voting learning opportunities for all students in a non-partisan, pro-education, creative hands-on way.”

ATPE is pleased that school districts are continuing to support our nonpartisan coalition efforts with additional school boards adopting the coalition’s model resolution on creating a culture of voting, even after the issuance of General Paxton’s opinion. We appreciate the support of school leaders to continue to encourage public school employees and eligible students to be informed and vote in the upcoming primaries.

 


Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, January 23, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance held its first meeting Tuesday in Austin following its creation as part of House Bill (HB) 21, which was passed during the 85th Texas Legislature’s first special session. The first meeting quickly established the divide between members of the commission focused on improving public school performance and those solely focused on finding ways to cut taxes. House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) correctly noted that school finance reform and property tax relief go hand-in-hand, and the Texas Senate abandoned a proposal that could have made progress on both fronts in order to pursue voucher legislation.

The meeting was restricted to invited testimony, which included a supporter of school privatization and the heads of a number of state departments, including Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. Read more about the meeting in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held a formal hearing today, Jan. 26, to take public testimony on rules pertaining to school district and charter school partnerships. The regulation being considered is Proposed New Commissioners rule 19 TAC Chapter 97, Planning and Accountability, Subchapter EE, Accreditation Status, Standards, and Sanctions, Division 2, Contracting to Partner to Operate a District Campus, §97.1075, Contracting to Partner to Operate a Campus under Texas Education Code, §11.174, and §97.1079, Determining Processes and Criteria for Entity Approval under Texas Education Code, §11.174.

The bulk of the testimony was provided by educators, administrators, and parents. While there were charter advocates in attendance, none offered testimony. All testifiers opposed the rules as currently proposed. Common themes among those who testified included: agency overreach in defining “enhanced authority” that a district must give to a charter in order to enter into a partnership, despite no statutory authority or even implication in the law to do so; a lack of acknowledgment of teacher protections and pre-agreement consultation, which is required under the law; and a general lack of specificity about the approval process, including what factors TEA will consider and the timeline TEA will work under in approving the partnerships.

ATPE has turned in written comments to the proposed rules which you can read here. The text for the new rule can be found on TEA’s website.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened its online survey this week to solicit feedback regarding the agency’s initial draft plan to correct inadequacies in special education services. This comes in response to a directive from the U.S. Department of Education that Texas correct systemic denial of special education services due to a de facto “cap” uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation. The initial draft plan includes four main actions, with explanations for each.

The agency has been ordered to seek input from stakeholders, including parents and educators, which will be collected through an online survey available on the TEA website since Jan. 23. The agency will accept public comment on this draft plan through Feb. 18, 2018, after which a new Proposed Plan will be released on or around March 1. Public comments on this new plan will be accepted through March 31. The agency expects to submit a Final State Corrective Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Education on or around April 18, 2018. You can read more about the plan and find a link to the survey here.

 


Legislative Update: ATPE submits testimony to Congress, Prime Prep Academy to close, “School Choice Week” rally fizzles, and more

As we have been reporting on Teach the Vote, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) is conducting a series of hearings on “Fixing No Child Left Behind.” The ongoing discussions are focused on efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Last week, the committee heard from a panel of witnesses about testing and accountability, for which ATPE submitted written testimony. Another hearing, on teachers and school leaders, took place this week, and the committee will convene next Tuesday for a discussion of “Innovation to Better Meet the Needs of Students.” Video broadcasts of all the hearings can be found on the committee’s website.


The U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce announced that next Wednesday, Feb. 4, it will hold a hearing entitled “Expanding Opportunity in America’s Schools and Workplaces.”  Watch the hearing live on the committee’s website starting at 10 a.m. EST. Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline (R–MN) also announced new assignments for subcommittees, including the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.


Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week that he’s adding House District 13 to the list of vacant legislative districts scheduled for runoff elections on Feb. 17. That date was already reserved for runoffs in House Districts 17 and 123, plus Senate District 26. The early voting period will run Feb. 9-13. View profiles of the candidates on Teach the Vote.


ATPE members interested in attending our Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day event next month can still register! By popular demand, the original registration deadline of Jan. 29 is being extended through Feb. 4. Lobby Day events will take place on Feb. 22-23 in Austin. Visit the ATPE website for complete details and registration, plus information on housing options.


Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials announced today the recommendation that the troubled Prime Prep Academy charter school be closed and offered transition guidance for affected educators and students. Revocation proceedings have begun this week against three other charter schools, according to the agency. In other news, TEA announced the availability of federal report cards for the state, school districts, and campuses. The report cards are required to be disseminated under the federal ESEA.


“School Choice Week” events took place this week in Austin and other parts of the country. A rally held today on the steps of the Texas State Capitol drew a much smaller crowd than its organizers were hoping when they billed it as the largest school choice rally in Texas history. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was interviewed about school choice by multiple media outlets this week.

Legislative Update: Senate sacks debate rule, Congress contemplates testing, Dallas ditches home-rule

On its first day of debate following yesterday’s inauguration festivities, the Texas Senate took historic action today, changing its rules for debating bills. New lieutenant governor Dan Patrick (R) presided over the action today as the Senate voted to adopt its rules for conducting business this legislative session.

In a move that was predicted by many after the 2014 election cycle, senators voted today to replace a long-standing tradition that had been unique to the state’s upper chamber – requiring a vote of two-thirds of the senators (21 of the 31 members) before any bill could be considered on the Senate floor. The two-thirds rule, which had been in effect since 1947, often forced senators to reach a compromise on controversial bills before bringing them up for contentious debates in a public forum.

Now, it will take a vote of only three-fifths of the senators (19 of the 31 members) to bring up a bill for discussion, which benefits the Republican majority in the Senate. All Democratic senators with the exception of Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) voted against the rule change; all Republican senators voted for the change with the exception of Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), who abstained from the vote.


The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing this morning in Washington, D.C., entitled “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability.” As we have reported on Teach the Vote, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), recently released a discussion draft of a bill to reauthorize the  Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which contains the federal government’s requirements for student testing and school accountability. Many have called for an end to the federal testing mandates in ESEA/NCLB. Today’s hearing (video available here) featured presentations by teachers and other education stakeholders. On Jan. 27, the committee will conduct another related hearing, entitled “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Supporting Teachers and School Leaders.” Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for continuing coverage of the efforts to reauthorize the federal law and ATPE’s involvement.


A commission tasked with drafting a plan to convert the Dallas Independent School District to the state’s first home-rule charter district has decided not to propose such a charter. The 15-member commission voted yesterday on a 10-5 margin to proceed with some non-binding reform recommendations for Dallas ISD, but commissioners stopped short of an agreement to write a charter proposal based on concerns that it would not be the right move for the struggling district.

The home-rule conversion effort in Dallas was spearheaded by a group calling itself “Support Our Public Schools,” which was funded by a wealthy former executive of Enron and supported by the mayor of Dallas. That group oversaw a successful petition drive that resulted in the creation of the charter commission, but members of the commission observed this week that the general public never rallied behind the idea of converting Dallas ISD to a charter district.

For many years, Texas has had a state law on its books that would permit school districts to convert themselves to district-wide charter schools and thereby avoid many of the regulations in the Texas Education Code, including laws pertaining to teacher contracts and student discipline. The move requires local voter approval of a charter drafted by a charter commission, and Dallas ISD was the first school district in Texas to attempt those steps.  At yesterday’s hearing, the chairman of the Dallas home-rule charter commission characterized the state’s home-rule charter enabling law as “a very bad piece of legislation.”

U.S. House passes charter school legislation

The U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution (HR) 10 today in a 360-45 vote. Members considered 11 amendments to the bill and adopted eight, each with a significant number of members supporting passage. The bill, known as The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, would consolidate two federal charter school programs and allocate $300 million in competitive grant funding for states to open, expand, house and replicate charter schools.

The eight adopted amendments were authored by both Republicans and Democrats and received bipartisan support. Among those adopted was an amendment to ensure that the collection and public dissemination of certain information that assists parents in making informed decisions about education options for their children. Additional amendments adopted include:

  • Reporting requirements to ensure the sharing of best practices.
  • Reporting requirements on states’ efforts to assist charter schools in fostering community involvement.
  • Requiring of the Secretary of Education to add comprehensive career counseling to the criteria considered when prioritizing grants to school districts.
  • Ensuring that no unnecessary barriers for foster youth in charter school enrollment, and the inclusion and retention of all students regardless of parent involvement.

The three rejected amendments were offered by Democrats. Those amendments would have increased charter school transparency at the benefit of taxpayers and parents. One of the rejected amendments was offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a representative from the Houston area. Her amendment would have required charter schools to publish publicly on their websites certain information including student recruitment, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes and parental contract requirements. The other two amendments would have developed conflict of interest guidelines for charter schools and required increased state oversight of charter school funds.

The bill will now be sent to the U.S. Senate for consideration. A group of bipartisan Senators released their own version of the bill, which is fairly similar, this week.

Let us know your thoughts on this piece of legislation, and stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more information.

U.S. House of Representatives debates charter school bill

The U.S. House of Representatives is debating House Resolution (HR) 10—the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act—this morning on the House floor. The House will consider 12 amendments and is likely to take a vote on the full bill by this afternoon; HR 10 is a bipartisan bill that is expected to pass. Watch a live feed of the debate here.

The bill would reauthorize the federal charter school program and provide $300 million in competitive grant funding to help states create, expand, replicate and house charter schools. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a mark up on the bill in April. As expected, the bill easily passed out of committee with bipartisan support.

The U.S. Senate filed its own version of the bill this week. The Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators on Wednesday and differs only slightly from the House bill. Read Senator Mark Kirk’s (R–Illinois) press release on the legislation here.

U.S. House markup of charter school and education research legislation

The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a meeting April 8 to mark up two pieces of legislation: House Resolution (HR) 4366, the “Strengthening Education through Research Act” and HR 10, “The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” Both bills easily passed out of the committee with bipartisan support. These bills will likely be up for a vote from the full House sometime after mid-April.

HR 4366 reauthorizes the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), which is the primary federal law governing education research. The ESRA was first enacted in 2002 and expired in 2008.

HR 10 rewrites the federal charter school law. The bill would authorize a program to support high-quality charter schools at the state and local level (which includes funding for new charter schools and expanding existing ones), a facilities aid program and a program to support successful Charter Management Organizations (CMO).

Click here to learn more about these bills or watch the archived markup.