PTA Mom Looks at Charter School Reform – a Fiscally Irresponsible Plan

English: Comparison of Charter school performa...
English: Comparison of Charter school performance to public schools. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kim Burkett, PTA Mom
(original post from February 21, 2013)

I should not be surprised by anything that happens in Austin. I’m one of those geeky political junkies. I’ve watched Texas education policy like a hawk for years. I have a degree in Political Science.  In short – I should know better. Yet, despite this understanding, I’m still somehow transfixed whenever a grown man and elected official is able to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. It’s a fascinating feat to behold.

This was the sense of amazement I found as I read Senate Bill-2 (SB 2), the omnibus charter school bill presented this week by Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston),  head of the Senate Education Committee and darling of the Tea Party. As a refresher, charter schools are privately managed schools that are publicly funded and free of many of the government restraints found in a traditional public school setting. Currently Texas caps to the number of charter operators (not campuses or schools – just operators) in the state to 215.

Patrick’s bill seeks not only to lift the cap on charters, but also change the oversight for charter schools from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and State Board of Education (SBOE) to a new political crony committee appointed mostly by a bunch of non-educators like the governor, lieutenant governor, and TEA commissioner. The bill also allows charter operators to purchase or lease school district (i.e. taxpayer-owned) facilities for $1 if deemed underused by the state. Additional details of the bill can be found here.

Ignore the fact, momentarily, that Patrick makes no apologies for his love affair with charters and blatant disrespect for traditional public schools. Also ignore that national research indicates a small number of charter schools outperform traditional public schools, a small number of charter schools underperform traditional public schools, and most achieve about the same performance levels as traditional schools. (In Texas specifically, almost 18% of charters were rated unacceptable by TEA in 2011.) Let’s also put aside the accusations that charter schools have high student attrition rates, weed out challenging students, and generally cherry-pick students in ways that make it difficult to compare achievement with traditional public schools that are forced to educate all students. Instead, let’s consider this bill from a purely fiscal perspective.

Make no mistake – there is nothing fiscally conservative about this bill and it’s quite shocking that a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative would present such a folly. I’m not sure how Patrick or other Tea Party-backed legislators that support this bill are going to explain the fiscally irresponsible aspects of his bill to their base.  I urge fiscal conservatives to consider the following implications of SB-2 and question their representatives on their position on this boondoggle:

  • Every charter operation in this state is essentially its own independent school district, with its own governing body, administrative functions, management, facilities, etc. and all of the expenses that come with it. In a state saturated with school districts (more than 1,000), do we really need to expand an already bloated system further?  From where I am currently sitting, I can drive five miles in any direction and be in five separate independent school districts. Those five school districts each have their own superintendent, their own human resources departments, their own accounting departments, their own legal departments, their own administrations … you get the picture.

A good example of this ISD explosion is McLennan County in central Texas. This county of 238,000 residents has 20 separate independent school districts and nine charter schools to support 42,000+ students. (As a frame of reference, Corpus Christi ISD supports a little more than 40,000 students.)

If a real fiscal conservative was looking to eliminate waste and inefficiency in public education, this would not be their approach. A fiscal conservative would instead seek to consolidate school district functions to perhaps a county-based system or co-operative system rather than expand an already excessive system. If it passes, SB-2 will exponentially expand the number of school districts (each with their own management, administration, functions, and costs) in the state of Texas. And, taxpayer, you’ll be paying for all of that redundancy.

This is not a fiscally conservative answer.

  • In a charter situation, public funds are provided to a privately managed entity with virtually no taxpayer input or oversight. In your local school district, you can express your feelings about how the district uses funding to your elected school board representative. Heck, you can even run for school board yourself if you’re so inclined. With charter schools, taxpayers do not have a voice in how their funds are used because there is no elected representation with oversight.  When was the last time you voted in your local charter school board election? Likely, the answer is never. Charter boards are appointed by the operator.

If Winfree Academy in Irving, Texas, serves as an indicator, some charter boards are apparently stacked with friends and family members.    As the Dallas Morning News reported in December 2012, the Winfree Academy and board was staffed by 10 family members of the school’s operator. They all enjoyed relatively lucrative salaries with few credentials or qualifications.

With this level of nepotism and without the requirements for competitive bidding processes and open records government that traditional public schools are subject to, charter schools can be a financial scandal waiting to happen. This was proven true with Winfree Academy as well, with the TEA report suggesting mismanaged funds and inappropriate use of school personnel were used by the operator and family for personal gain.

So how was Winfree Academy found out? Not taxpayer oversight. Not open records reporting. Not an audit by TEA. Rather, a disgruntled employee blew the whistle on them. Do you think Winfree Academy is the only charter school that has taken advantage of the autonomy and lack of regulation inherent in charter school administration?  A highly unaccountable system like this is prone to fraud and abuse.

This is not a fiscally conservative answer.

  • Under Patrick’s bill, the state will be able to deem a school district facility as under-utilized. If so deemed, the state can force the school district to sell the under-utilized facility (owned by taxpayers) to the charter operator for $1. With all due respect for my fellow Florida State alumni, is it really appropriate to allow Deion Sanders, former Dallas Cowboy star and NFL Network broadcaster, to purchase a public facility for $1 in support of his Prime Prep Academy charter (another charter that has been under investigation)? Does that truly reflect the will of the voters who in many cases approved the bond debt for a specific purpose for their local school district? Shouldn’t the voters and taxpayers determine who gets to own the buildings they voted for and financed? This notion is down-right laughable.

And it certainly is not a fiscally conservative answer.

How can a “fiscal conservative” present this bill with a straight face?  Will Americans for Prosperity and the Texas Association of Business take away Dan’s awards and accolades for fiscal conservatism when they read this bill? Will the Tea Party gather their pitchforks, march on Austin, and demand legislators considering SB 2 serve as better stewards of their tax monies? Or are they all adept at speaking out of both sides of their mouths?

Patrick’s bill is ill-conceived. Rather than fully funding and making improvements to the current traditional school district system that educates five million Texans each year, Patrick again turns his back on traditional public schools. Only this time, he’s going to open the state coffers like a gravy train to private entities – with no accountability, no oversight, and adding more waste and inefficiency to an already overbearing system.

This is not a fiscally conservative answer. And a real fiscal conservative would know better.

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