Rules call for greater scrutiny of scores, spending
State agency's plan would make it easier to close troubled schools
By Jason Embry
Friday, January 21, 2005
Efforts to close struggling charter schools are gaining momentum at the Texas Education Agency and in the Capitol.
Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley will consider rule changes over the next six weeks that would toughen the criteria that charter schools must meet to stay open. And all 31 members of the Texas Senate endorsed goals for education reform last week that included a similar proposal.
Critics have said for years that the state allows its 274 state-funded charter schools to languish, academically or financially, for too long before enforcing serious penalties. The proposed regulations indicate that state officials share those concerns.
The rules under consideration at the education agency would allow the commissioner to close a charter school if it has low academic ratings for two or three consecutive years. The rules, which do not require legislative approval, also flesh out the financial standards that charter schools must meet.
The commissioner now has the authority to close a poor-performing or dangerous charter school, but the proposed changes provide more specific grounds for doing so, agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.
Marchman said lawyers for the state and for charter schools proposed the changes as part of an ongoing evaluation of agency rules. They also took note when the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, a key legislative panel, reported late last year that the state could not hold the schools fully accountable for their academic and financial track records.
Open-enrollment charter schools, which use state money but are independent of local school districts, have struggled in the state ratings system.
Last year, 21 percent of the charter schools that received state ratings were deemed "academically unacceptable." Statewide, 1.4 percent of all public schools that were graded received the low rating.
Stories of severe financial mismanagement also have hobbled the charter system. At Austin's Texas Academy of Excellence charter school, which closed in May, about $57,000 in taxpayer money was used to buy a Lincoln Navigator that was parked at former Superintendent Dolores Hillyer's home two months after the school closed, according to the school's former accountant, and a school bank card paid for hotel rooms overseas.
Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the San Antonio-based Resource Center for Charter Schools, a group that provides services to charter schools, applauded the proposed rules.
"It strengthens the entire movement for charters that are fraudulent or consistently low-performing, and therefore not meeting the needs of their students, to be closed," O'Neill said.
The Governor's Business Council, a panel of advisers to Gov. Rick Perry, recommended last year that the state expand the number of charter schools in the state while expediting the closing of charters that perform poorly. Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors social conservatism in government and has criticized the charter system, said state leaders should focus on putting the new rules in place.
"Let's see if these rules help clean up the mess in the charter system before we expand that system any more," Quinn said.