TCCRI's recently published Education Choice & Workforce Reform Task Force Report explored the topic of public charter schools. What follows is an excerpt from the Report on that topic.
Texas has a robust public school choice program through the establishment of open-enrollment charter schools. Charter campuses are public schools. They are funded based on daily attendance, just like traditional public schools. They must comply with state and federal laws relating to special education and academic accountability. The two main areas in which charter public schools differ from traditional public schools are, first, that they do not receive funds from local tax revenue, and second, they have considerable leeway in operations and ability to innovate that traditional public schools lack.
Charter schools in Texas accept students on a first-come, first-served basis, using lotteries when school capacity is reached. While subject to the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools, charter schools have considerable flexibility in terms of operational structure, practices, and personnel. This flexibility provides charter schools with the ability to meet the needs of diverse communities and students. The charter model allows schools to react to market forces, creating schools that focus specifically on college preparation, high-tech and STEM-focused fields, or create campuses that focus more heavily on the arts, to name a few examples. Above all else, charter schools are important because they bolster the ability of parents to choose the best education for their child. The growing demand for public school choice serves as evidence that the traditional public school inside a district-drawn attendance zone is not always the best option for each of the nearly 5.4 million public school students in Texas.
A 2020 report from the Texas Charter School Association discusses the first “25 Years of Texas Public Charter Schools,” and its findings leave no doubt about how important charter schools are for children in Texas. Key findings from the report discuss how competition from charter schools has made all public schools better. Indeed, “[f]rom 2012 to 2019, as total charter enrollment nearly tripled, the average district raised its student achievement between 4% and 8%, depending on grade and subject tested.” More specifically, “[f]rom 2016 to 2019 . . . 82% of ISDs with charters in their attendance zones boosted their fifth-grade reading scores—compared to 67% of ISDs without any charters.”
Public charter schools in Texas are most popular among Hispanic students, who account for 62.8% of all public charter school enrollees. African American students are a distant second, making up 17.3% of enrollees, followed by White (12.3%) and Asian (12.3%) students. This strong minority majority student population cuts against anti-charter groups who claim charters lack the diversity of traditional public schools. In fact, public charter schools serve a strong majority of economically disadvantaged students as well, with 71.2% of the student population falling withing that category.
Opposition to policies beneficial to charter schools is only one side of the coin. Charter opponents in Texas aggressively push legislation to harm charters. One need only look at the legislative priorities of traditional public school advocates for evidence.
Charter school expansion in Texas has stagnated. Much of that has to do with the process of gaining approval, which has become so cumbersome that it is difficult to be granted a charter in the first place. As Adam Jones and Amanda List explain in a case study on Texas charter schools, “it has never been more difficult to be granted a charter in Texas than it is today.” Despite many positive efforts at TEA, and support from Commissioner Mike Morath, that statement remains true.
Policy Recommendation: Provide a Better Process for Out-of-State Charter Applicants and Eliminate the State Board of Education’s Veto Authority Over Charter Applications
The State Board of Education has shown an open bias against out-of-state charter applicants.viii An organization without an already established presence in Texas takes on considerable risk when applying for a charter in Texas. The process is cumbersome and expensive, which is discouraging enough, but the notion that a charter may be approved on the front end only to be vetoed on the back end must have a chilling effect on out-of-state operators with a desire to establish schools in Texas. Moreover, as Adam Jones and Amanda List explain, “the SBOE veto does not lead to better outcomes in charter authorization and increases the risk for any charter organization to try to operate in Texas.
The SBOE veto should be repealed from statute. The process for charter approval is extensive. In any given year, as many as 37% and as few as 9% of applications are ruled incomplete and discarded. Of those deemed complete, only a small fraction of applications is sent to the SBOE for approval. Any charter application sent to the SBOE should be given an opportunity to open a campus start educating children. Innovation produces both successes and failures. Charters that survive the application process, but still do not perform, can be revoked, but they should be given a chance to succeed.
Between eliminating the SBOE’s veto authority, modernizing the application process, and reforming the external review of charter applications to make it a less rigid stage, Texas could return to a system in which innovation and risk are highly valued components of the state’s most significant school choice program.
You can read this and the rest of the report here.
Note that citations have been omitted from this excerpt, but are included in the full report linked above.