Last November the State Board of Education vetoed a decision by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to give the out-of-state Great Hearts charter-school chain a license to set up shop in the Dallas area. A nine-member majority of the State Board found the Great Hearts charter application deficient on multiple grounds. They cited the sketchy overall academic record of Great Hearts’ existing out-of-state schools, significant community opposition to Great Hearts’ Metroplex expansion plans, and limited services proposed for economically disadvantaged students.
But the commissioner now has found a way to bypass the State Board and give the charter chain what it wanted anyway—by treating the Dallas expansion as merely an extension of the chain’s previously approved charter to open a school in San Antonio.
Commissioner Williams bypassed not only the State Board but also state law requiring charter entities to demonstrate high performance before they can expand. Williams contends that he has been granted discretion to waive such bothersome requirements, as reported in a July 2 article from the online Texas Tribune:
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has used his waiver authority to effectively overrule a vote by the State Board of Education to deny an Arizona-based charter school’s expansion into the Dallas area, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.
In December, the 15-member elected board voted 9 to 6 to veto Great Hearts Academies’ application to open a new school in Dallas, citing concerns about the school’s commitment to serving low-income students and to teaching Texas curriculum standards. The organization had already received approval for a campus in San Antonio, which is set to open this fall.
“I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization,” board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, said at the time. She has led opposition to the charter school.
Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, has issued no official statement on his decision. Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, confirmed that the commissioner had approved additional campuses in Dallas and Irving. Because the state had previously approved a charter contract for a San Antonio campus, Ratcliffe said, Great Hearts was able to apply for an expansion even after the SBOE vetoed its application for a new Dallas campus. In approving the new campuses, Williams waived a Texas Education Code requirement that charter schools must have been operating for at least four years, or hold “acceptable” or higher ratings under the state’s accountability system before they are granted an expansion.
Before the 2013 legislature convened, Texas AFT testified at the state Sunset Advisory Commission that lawmakers had delegated far too much authority to the commissioner over the years, increasingly turning this gubernatorial appointee into an unelected czar of state education policy, exercising broad discretion over state accountability measures, making judgments about the adequacy of state aid for struggling students without ever articulating a methodology to support his conclusions, and more. The sunset-review process for the Texas Education Agency was not completed in last year’s legislative sessions, so the 2015 legislature will have a new opportunity to rethink ill-advised transfers of authority like the one the commissioner claims to be acting under now to expand the Great Hearts charter chain into Dallas.
Texas AFT will continue to urge specifically that the legislature curb the commissioner’s discretion over charter expansion and set higher standards for approval of such expansion. Eligibility for expansion should be reserved for charter holders whose campuses—all of them—truly meet the highest standards. Charter expansion also should be within limits based on recognition of TEA’s severely limited oversight staffing and capacity.
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