New rules would close schools that fail to raise low state ranking
By KENT FISCHER / The Dallas Morning News
Charter schools that post abysmal test scores for two straight years could be shut down under new rules put forth by state education officials.
The new rules also give Commissioner Shirley Neeley more specific power to close charter schools that waste taxpayer money or endanger the health and safety of their students.
The rules announced Monday are expected to go into effect in March and could have an immediate impact on dozens of charter schools.
Although the Texas Education Agency is not saying how many charter schools could be affected, 28 last year received an accountability rating of "academically unacceptable," the lowest ranking and the threshold for closure set in the rules. Those 28 schools could be sanctioned if they receive a second unacceptable rating this year.
Under the state's current laws and rules, it takes much longer to close a charter school for low academic performance, according to state charter experts. There are loopholes in the law, ambiguities in the rules and a lengthy appeals process – all of which can make closing a charter school a complicated, time-consuming effort.
What is a charter school? A charter school is a public school, funded by tax dollars, that is operated outside the local public school system. Generally, community groups, businesses and nonprofit agencies are paid by the State Board of Education to run the schools.
Why do we have them? By creating new public schools, reformers hope to infuse competition and new ideas into public education.
How many charters are there? Texas law allows for up to 215 organizations to hold a charter. However, each charter holder can operate multiple campuses. There are 201 current charter holders operating about 275 schools.
How many students attend charters? About 63,000 students.
How much do charters cost? Texas spent an estimated $340 million on charters during the 2003-04 school year.
The new rules "cut to the chase," said Hanz Wasserburger, a TEA lawyer who helped write them.
"We're no longer going to have to sit around for three years and wait for bad things to happen," he said.
The question of what to do with low-performing charter schools has been brewing almost since their creation in 1996. Although the TEA has closed down five for lousy academic performance, the agency has been criticized for not closely monitoring the publicly financed schools and for failing to crack down on the chronic poor performers.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically conducts a review of all state agencies, recently blasted the TEA as having "very little ability to hold charter schools accountable."
The new rules should go a long way to remedying that problem, said Mike Feinberg, superintendent of KIPP Academy, a national chain of charter schools based in Houston.
"We have to have quality control," Mr. Feinberg said. The charter movement "needs to be able to look the governor and the Legislature in the eye and say 'We're doing an acceptable job.' We can't do that today."
On Wednesday, a Senate committee outlined a school finance bill that included similarly tough sanctions for charter schools.
Five of the 28 charters that received an unacceptable rating last year are local: Honors Academy in Dallas, the Academy of Dallas, Azleway Charter School in Arlington, Evolution Academy in Allen, Golden Rule Charter in Dallas, and Jean Massieu Academy in Dallas.
Honors Academy CEO John Dodd said he favors more accountability, but he hoped that the state would consider the efforts a school is making to improve before it shuts it down.
"We hoping for some reasonableness," he said. "If a school has two years of low performance, their head should be on the block – unless they can show that they're trying to change."
Mr. Wasserburger, the TEA lawyer, said the agency considers two years enough time for a charter school to prove that it can do that job.
The rules go beyond academic performance. Charters that fail to pass muster in an annual financial audit can be closed, as can those that "fail to protect the health and safety or welfare of their students."
The state allows for 215 charters. Two hundred one have been issued; they operate about 275 campuses.
Of those, 28 were labeled "academically unacceptable" last year; 101 others received a rating of "exemplary," "recognized" or "acceptable." The remainder received no rating, either because they served learning-disabled children, were too small or were too new to effectively evaluate.
The governor and some legislators have proposed that charter schools play a more influential role in Texas school reform. With only 14 charters left to be issued, the state would have to make more available to newcomers. Closing ineffective charters is one way to do that.
"It's true that as charters are revoked, those slots would be opened up to new charters," said Patsy O'Neill, the executive director of the Texas Resource Center for Charter Schools. "But the main reason [for the changes] is to close down the charters that aren't serving their students."
Although the rules would give state officials more power to crack down on low performers, they also would loosen state restrictions on successful schools.
A charter school that proves its mettle with commendable test scores could see itself freed of state hiring and training rules. The idea is to let successful schools innovate while keeping the others on a short leash, said Mr. Feinberg of KIPP Academy.
Even with the new powers the rules would give to Ms. Neeley, some, including Mr. Feinberg and Mrs. O'Neill, think the state could go even further.
"I commend them for the proposed standards. But if they need to be stronger, then make them stronger," Mrs. O'Neill said.