Sunday, November 22, 2009

Charter schools could expand under rule change

Education commissioner seeks change and apologizes to Austin superintendent for the timing on Pearce announcement.

By Laura Heinauer
Wednesday, November 04, 2009

State Education Commissioner Robert Scott announced Tuesday that he intends to make it easier for high-performing charter schools to expand in Texas.

Scott made the announcement during a round-table discussion on education held by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. At the event, he also apologized to Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen for the timing of the closure of Pearce Middle School and discussed possible changes when dealing with districts about schools that have failed to meet state standards for multiple years.

"Dr. Carstarphen and I have had an interesting summer on our accountability system," Scott said at the meeting, which was attended by several elected officials and area superintendents — including Carstarphen, who was seated at a table across from Scott. "Unfortunately, I surprised her. ... And I apologize for that."

It was a different tone from the one Scott struck during an announcement of annual school ratings in July, when the commissioner lauded some districts but publicly criticized Austin for not taking failing schools seriously enough and not making enough of a commitment to improve.

News about the charter expansions comes as the federal government is set to announce eligibility rules for stimulus money under a newly established $4 billion innovation initiative called Race to the Top. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he will look more favorably on states without caps on charter school numbers.

Texas' 15-member State Board of Education has the authority to approve up to 215 charters, and Texas is at the cap. The commissioner, meanwhile, can approve applications for additional campuses under an existing charter.

Scott said Tuesday that he plans to streamline the expansion process for high-performing charters — those that have earned exemplary or recognized ratings under the state accountability system. He also said he thinks he has the authority to change the cap and intends to revisit the issue with the Legislature.

KIPP Austin founder Jill Kolasinski said she was pleased by the news. KIPP intends to expand from three to 10 campuses in Central Texas by 2016, she said.

"This would be a huge plus for us," she said. "Any time there is progress in the allowing for the expansion of successful charters, we're all for it."

Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said her organization would like to see the commissioner go through the legislative process before making any changes.

"Nothing really gives him the authority to do this, and, in fact, we found statutes and rules to the contrary," she said.

With regard to improving communication with districts facing possible campus closures, Scott said he hopes to give them answers before the end of a school year.

With Pearce, Austin school officials were notified of the closure at the beginning of July, weeks before the start of the school year. After an emotional community meeting, the district asked permission to revamp the campus. Pearce opened with a new principal and staff changes in time for the first day of school in August.

Carstarphen said she was pleased with the acknowledgment of all the district had to do to reopen the campus.

"I've moved past it, and I'm glad, at least from his comments, it seems like the commissioner has, too," she said. "Hopefully, it's a lesson for everyone that we need to be more sensitive to the experiences of our families and kids as they select and choose schools."

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