Senate Passes Charter School Reform Bill After Compromise with Dems

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Dan Patrick
State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

The Senate passed Sen. Dan Patrick’s major charter school reform bill Thursday afternoon, in a version far different from what Patrick introduced earlier this session. A few compromises with Democratic members helped it along to broad approval on a 30-1 vote.

Senators congratulated one another before the vote and roamed the floor to pat each other on the back afterward, but the scene would have played out much differently earlier in the day, when the bill didn’t include the checks some Democrats wanted placed on charter school expansion. Patrick (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Education Committee, delayed the vote a few hours to talk behind the scenes with critics including Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas). Both West and Van de Putte had already complained they’d been left out as Patrick shaped the bill in committee.

Thursday afternoon, Patrick graciously endorsed West’s amendments to his bill, a cap on state-issued charters set at 305 by the year 2019. Patrick had originally proposed eliminating the cap altogether. His original bill also added new spending for charter school buildings, required public school districts let charters occupy their vacant buildings, and created a new board to approve and oversee charters. Patrick, one of the Legislature’s most strong-willed conservatives, compromised on all these points to see his bill through.

“Mr. President and members, I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick,” West said today. “I know that the best is yet to come in terms of the other issues that we’re working together on.”

West said the cap gives the state more control over charter quality. Democrats also pushed to ensure out-of-state charters to be subject to the cap.

Another skeptic of the original bill, Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), also lauded Patrick’s efforts.

“What we see, as a result of a bipartisan effort and your willingness to work across the aisle on this bill, is an excellent product,” Davis said. “It’s very, very different than it was when you first laid it out.”

Under SB 2, the Commissioner of Education will be brought into the approval process, but will leave final authority to approve charters with the State Board of Education, which handles it today. “This is going to give the commissioner the teeth he needs,” Patrick said.

After the vote, West told the Observer he voted for the bill because of those compromises, and the bill’s provision to revoke charters for schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

“The reality is we have got to have a better system in the state of Texas with dealing with charters,” West said. “I think this is a great improvement on it.”

SB 2 could face a tough fight for approval in the House, where previous attempts at charter school expansion have died in recent sessions. If it’s approved, though, differences between the House and Senate versions will be negotiated in a conference committee of a few members. In the midst of his high praise for Patrick’s leadership, West also secured a promise that the cap on charter schools—including those from out of state—would stay in the bill.

Underneath the feel-good congratulations for Patrick’s willingness to compromise, there was still a note of caution.

“I see it as our collective bill,” Patrick reflected at one point, “as members of the education committee in the Senate.”

“I want you to remember that,” West broke in.

“I won’t forget,” Patrick said with a smile.

After a beat, West replied: “I won’t let you, either.”