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Notes from the Texas Charter Schools Conference

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Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association's annual conference.

The Texas Charter Schools Association’s annual conference is wrapping up this afternoon in downtown Austin, with almost 1,200 in attendance (by the official count), covering topics as varied as competitive procurement laws and how to teach students to build airplanes. But more than anything else, convention-goers have been getting lessons in how to talk to lawmakers, community members and people in nearby school districts—in other words, to sell what they do.

Charter school enrollment is growing in Texas, but “the movement”—as charter promoters refer to it—would like to speed things up. And so they have a “wish list.” First they want the state to raise or lift its cap on charter operators, which stands at 215 today. They want money for facilities—which they don’t get today, per the initial bargain that first created charters in Texas in the mid-90s. They also want to the movement be known for the best of its schools, not the low-performing or fraud-plagued ones that tend to hog headlines—and spark protests.

For tips on selling the movement to lawmakers, the group invited a few state reps, and even new Education Commissioner Michael Williams, to offer their suggestions Tuesday.

Williams, just three months on the job, was deferential to a crowd he said knew details of school operations better than he did. “You can’t join a church on Wednesday and expect to preach on Sunday,” he said. He spoke in broad terms about running a regulatory agency (he’s the former chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry), and the need to be “customer-friendly.”

The most important thing charter schools can do, he said, was to tell lawmakers what they need for their schools. “The opposition has learned how to talk about what they believe about what you do and who you are, and how much money you take out of public schools,” Williams told the charter operators, “even though you’re a public school.”

Williams said charter operators need to police their own, to help prevent charters from failing, while the state starts cracking down harder to close charters that need to close. “Even though we’ve got to shut down poor-performing schools, the fact that we had to do it is a black mark against everybody,” Williams said.

To help develop a support network for charter schools, the Texas Education Agency announced earlier this year that it would contract with TCSA and a regional Education Service Center in Fort Worth. The two will split $500,000 a year from the state to answer questions from charter operators, run training sessions for new school officials and conduct site visits. As state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) noted later later in the day, it’s an important job TEA just couldn’t handle on its own. “We cut TEA’s funding every biennium, so they literally don’t have the capacity,” he said. “Which I think is why they outsourced to you guys.”

Strama was part of a panel of lawmakers asked to share tips on how charters can make their case to the Legislature, along with Paul Workman (R-Spicewood) and new state Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Round Rock), a former State Board of Education member. Don’t haul little kids into the Capitol like puppets, they suggested, and don’t mount a letter-writing campaign over the course of a couple days.

Workman said he planned to file a bill this session to raise the cap on charter schools—as he did in 2011—and both Farney and Strama said they’d support it if he did.

Strama said he hasn’t forgotten that one of the reasons charters were created was to spread lessons from the charter school movement into the larger public school system. “At some point, we have to translate the success of charter schools into schools that parents didn’t choose,” he said. He said he’d like to see folks running successful charters go back and try being principals and superintendents in neighborhood schools. “If you can solve those kids’ problems, solve it for all of them.”