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Charter School Expansion is Not What Texas Needs During a Pandemic

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The Texas Education Agency recently decided to approve new charter schools for the next school year, which means the state will be redistributing some education dollars and resources to new schools during a recession that will already have a significant burden on existing schools. This is not what Texas school districts need right now.

The TEA commissioner has allowed 49 new charter campuses in 2020, including 12 for IDEA Public Schools. The reasoning for charter expansion during a recession and pandemic is surprising. The commissioner has the authority to approve charter expansion, but must consider “information relating to any financial difficulty that a loss in enrollment may have on a district” as well as “evidence of parental and community support for or opposition to the proposed charter school.”

Twenty Texas-based organizations that represent teachers, principals, school boards, rural and urban school districts, and superintendents expressed concern about charter expansion, claiming that the decision could “exacerbate the state’s budget crisis, harm school districts, and send Texas tax dollars out of state.”

These organizations are correct in raising concern about charter expansion. Superintendents and school leaders should be organizing resources and responding to new, emerging situations due to COVID-19, not spending significant time and resources planning to open new schools.

Student enrollment in schools is currently down as more parents keep children home, implying that Texas will be making a decision to open new schools while districts have fewer students. Charter expansion in this context does not make economic sense and is out of step with statewide elected officials’ fiscally conservative governing principles. New schools are not needed when so many districts are facing declining enrollment and budget shortfalls.

State law also requires the TEA to consider governance structure and the soundness of fiscal and administrative practices. IDEA Public Schools, a charter management organization operating in several states, has previously come under fire for questionable fiscal practices that include spending donor money to purchase a San Antonio Spurs luxury box and making a $900,000 payout to a former superintendent who resigned. The TEA also found that IDEA owed more than $130,000 to the Teacher Retirement System.

The Texas School Alliance indicated that this expansion will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years, some of which will go to organizations in California, Florida and New York. The money being spent to support charter expansion can instead be used to support existing schools and the multiple crises confronted on campuses. For example, about half a million rural households in Texas do not have access to broadband internet.

Rather than investing in charter expansion, Texas could ensure more rural students have access to internet and devices, which is a long-standing equity problem the state should have addressed years ago.

The TEA should also direct resources to curbing the disproportionate impact of school closure on students with disabilities, especially given that the state has repeatedly failed to monitor special education implementation and ensure adequate levels of funding per federal law. Expanding charters at this time is especially problematic, given that many charters in the state enroll fewer students with disabilities than would be expected based on natural proportions.

Finally, the TEA should be mindful of the human impact the pandemic and recession will have on teacher and principal pipelines. Some principals and teachers have already decided to retire early, and it is likely that a number of educators will become ill from COVID-19 as the coronavirus continues to spread. Rather than create more vacancies by opening new schools, the state should work with unions and teacher preparation programs to ensure the educator pipeline is sufficient to staff every Texas classroom with an effective teacher.

The TEA is simply trying to take a business-as-usual approach by keeping pace with annual charter expansion. However, 2020 is not a typical year, and existing schools have too many financial and educational concerns to ignore. The state should reconsider charter expansion and ought to enact fiscally responsible policies that prioritize existing schools.

David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.

Mary Grace McFarland is a master’s student studying education policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Austin American-Statesman.

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