Burnam: New Charter School Approval Process Leaves Public in the Dark

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Great Hearts Academies
Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) is asking Education Commissioner Michael Williams to deny Great Hearts Academies' plans to expand into North Texas.

The latest round of charter school hopefuls are wrapping up their interviews with state regulators today, the first group to apply since Senate Bill 2 shook up the state’s charter school program. This year, for the first time, charter approval is up to Education Commissioner Michael Williams and not the State Board of Education—and one lawmaker says public input is getting shafted under the new system.

All the charter applicants are required to tell nearby school districts and lawmakers about their plans, but Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam says Great Hearts Academies—a school that’s faced opposition to its expansion plans across the country—waited till the last minute to notify him and Fort Worth ISD about its planned expansion to North Texas. In a letter to Williams, Burnam says Fort Worth ISD got notification from Great Hearts on Monday—the day of TEA’s deadline for input before this week’s interviews.

Burnam says his office hasn’t even heard from Great Hearts directly, and only got letters from two other applicants on Monday. “I know that other legislators and school districts across the state have also experienced this same limited time for comments,” he writes.

Burnam wants Williams to delay his decision on the charter schools so that lawmakers and school districts can weigh in.

Buried in the 200-plus-page charter applications, these “statement of impact” letters can look like technicalities, but it’s still easy to see why schools like Great Hearts might enjoy a quiet approval process.

The Observer wrote last December about the Phoenix-based chain’s expansion plans into San Antonio, and the school’s rejection in Nashville over concerns that Great Hearts’ schools create segregated student bodies catering to wealthy families. In its latest application to the state, Great Hearts proposes four campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with up to 3,440 students after five years.

For an area that big, Burnam complains in his letter, Great Hearts should have held more than a single meeting all the way over in Dallas. Burnam flat-out asks Williams to reject Great Hearts’ application, with a little dig at the Arizona chain’s lack of Texas bona fides.

“As Texans know, Ft. Worth is not Dallas,” he writes. “Conducting a hearing in Dallas is not sufficient to provide an opportunity for my Ft. Worth constituents to comment on a proposed school in their district.”

Attracting high-quality out-of-state charters is precisely part of the point of SB 2, the biggest set of changes to Texas’ charter school program since its creation almost 20 years ago. The changes also include raising the state’s cap on charter schools, which begins next year, and the new process for charter approval.

The bill also takes the authority to approve charters away from the elected State Board of Education and places it with Williams, a Rick Perry appointee. During yesterday’s charter interviews, TEA officials were ready with tough questions for charter applicants, questioning plans to charge mandatory fees for supplies, for instance, and asking another school about word-for-word similarities between their application and another school’s.

State Board of Education members still have sway, though: Under SB 2, they maintain the power to veto a school’s approval. Many of them were there to ask questions during the charter interviews yesterday too.

 

TEA now posts charters’ applications online, but if you want to read more about the dozen new candidates without downloading the giant files, you can find them all here:

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.