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Texas Charter Schools and Parents Sue for Their Share of School Funding Bounty

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Patrick Michels
Texas Charter School Association Executive Director David Dunn at the Capitol Tuesday, flanked by parents who've joined the suit over charter school funding.

For years, Texas charter school boosters have complained they get a raw deal from the state.

They say the state’s limit of 215 charters is arbitrary and unfair. Without any state funding for construction, they say, they’re left with far less—around $1,000 per student—than traditional public schools. That’s why charters, especially early on, tended to open in strip mall storefronts and old vacant schools.

Last year, Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 127, to lift Texas’ 215-charter cap by 10 each year, died without a House vote at the end of May, despite support from education reform boosters and the conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

So today at the Capitol, a handful of charter school parents—with a little help from the Texas Charter School Association and the San Antonio law firm Schulman, Lopez and Hoffer—announced they’d taken their beef with legislators to the courts, with a lawsuit in Travis County District Court.

The complaint says Texas’ school finance system isn’t “efficient,” as the state constitution requires, because they’ve been forced to cover construction costs with state money meant for teacher salaries and everyday expenses.

The suit says the cap on charters violates the same “efficiency” requirement. Charters pretty much embody efficient education, the suit claims, getting better results for less money. So what better than more charters to make Texas schools more efficient?

“The arbitrary cap on charter schools represents a limit on the number of schools that are the most efficient schools in the state,” said David Dunn, the Texas Charter School Association’s executive director. “All of these parents have opted to have their child attend a school that is right for them. … They did not opt to have less funding—in fact, zero funding—for facilities for their children.”

Now is a popular time to sue the state over school finance. Today’s suit is the sixth one before the courts now in Austin, and the second one from a pro-charter group asking a judge to define “efficiency” as “doing more with less money,” which charters say they do. Not everyone studying charter funding agrees.

Four of the suits are from traditional public school districts and parents who want more money and a smarter way to hand it out. The fifth is from charter school parents, and parents with kids who are waitlisted at charters, asking for the charter cap to be lifted. Today’s suit introduces charter school parents asking for more money and a higher cap on charters.

The first five suits will all be heard together in one thrilling week October. (I’ll be there with my popcorn and a pillow.) David Thompson, a lawyer for school districts in one of the first suits, says he won’t be surprised if the court lumps today’s complaint in with them too. “It’s not a surprise. We certainly welcome their involvement,” Thompson says.

To a point, maybe. All six groups may be happy enough with arguments that the schools need more money, but traditional districts probably won’t sit around and let the charter school crowd tell the court how much smarter they are than their local ISD.

The six parents named as plaintiffs in the new suit have kids enrolled in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas charters. One, Brooks Flemister, is a charter parent, a teacher at KIPP Houston and former director of the Texas Education Agency’s charter division. Others said they’re active parents who were asked by school officials to join the suit. (Dunn said the suit was prompted by a vote of the charter school association’s board.)

Today at the Capitol, they told stories about cash-strapped charters they love, with facilities that need to get better. They mentioned gyms two sizes too small, libraries either nonexistent or filled with donated books. San Antonio parent Christopher Baerga said his daughter’s school, New Frontiers, had to choose this year between paying for facilities improvements or paying teacher’s salary. They chose to keep the teacher.

That’s a decision that traditional school districts don’t have to make, because their funding is split between facilities and operations. With a bond election, districts can raise more local money for facilities, but there’s less wiggle room to add money for teacher salaries and other operating costs.

The school districts’ have sued the state over how its system IS funding those operating costs; today’s lawsuit from the charter parents is the only one targeting facilities funding. “Remember when charter schools were designed in 1995, facility funding was solely provided by the local tax base,” Dunn said, but since then the state has created a system to hand out money for facilities too. He says it’s time charters got a piece of that action.

Bob Schulman, the lead lawyer for the charter group, says he can’t suggest how the state should help fund charter construction—he just wants the courts to agree Texas’ system isn’t fair.

“There’s been 22 years of [school] finance litigation,” Schulman said. “Charters have been around for 16 years. Charters have never gotten a single benefit from any of the legislative fixes. Why? Cause they haven’t been a part of the party.”

Update: Morgan Smith at the Texas Tribune includes this important note in her story about the suit: “A $425,000 grant from the Walton Foundation will cover a significant portion of the legal expenses. The TCSA board has also agreed to pay $2 per student toward the lawsuit, Dunn said.”

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

  • I Am Me

    I disagree with charter school funding for
    facilities. The tax payer should not fund building that they will never
    own since many of these building are built and designed to serve other purposes
    other than a school buildings later. Such building can be used
    later as mosques, churches, temples, medical facilities and malls. So you
    see when the charter puts forth a cheep ineffective education in the first
    place and the charters fails to produce results, by the time the
    school is finally investigated and shut down ( 10 to 20 years later) the
    corporate charter school has already had its land paid off through public
    funding. So now the Charter corporation has a free building to boot that they
    can still make money off of later since the land and building can’t be seized
    in the school closer.

    This is further
    complicated by educational corporation especially form Asia Minor and Middle
    East regions. These particular charters that are allowed to operate in
    this country donate just like teacher unions, frequently to US
    politician. They also run charity organizations that support their
    religious preferences back in their own and other countries throughout their
    rejoin. They due this through providing their non-teacher certified staff
    easily attainable goals for bonuses. They then require these persons who in
    order to make a doctors pay comparable to what is make in their own country
    must agree to donate 1/3 of their pay back to the corporation. More
    damaging is the fact that these charter school corporations operating in the US
    at tax payer expense also use their funding to support oppositional political
    parties back in their own home countries and to some extent through their
    “charitable” efforts abroad in other nations. This is scary, since
    it may be and probably is leading to destabilizing foreign
    governments. Remember long after these charters close for not doing the
    job they were expected to excel at in the first place these foreign companies
    get to keep everything including land and buildings.

    On a personal note and in my own opinion I want to warn
    others and let you know my experience. I
    was a former educator attempting to work my way up in one of these charter
    school. I loved my employer and viewed them as attempting to make an
    effort to come into compliance with Texas state laws and regulations. I
    was ignorant as to how fund were being used and the pressure my charter school
    system was under to give the” appearance” of compliance. So now as a
    more educated individual, ex-employee and parent of a low incident disabled
    child (autism) I need to explain how both of our rights were violated at a
    charter school. I hold a very strong opinion on this matter since I was
    also made to feel like a women and a child first before and employee 2nd. The
    charter school administration acted as if they could not make a profit off
    education of mine and other SpEd students. It also seemed to fear losing its funding
    over its poor test scores as well.

    As a result of me brining my concerns over the matter to
    my administrators, not only were services and ARD’s delayed while
    documentation was invented to prove services might not really be needed ,
    I was demoted and later non renewed for
    calling administration on their discriminatory practices. My child
    was not the only low incident child affected in this case and I did pull my
    child from this charter as I could see I could not make any progress.
    There was an awful lot of lying going on too with people I once admired and
    look to for insight.

    I feel I was blamed for other low incident children
    showing up to my home campus that I didn’t even know prior to the beginning of
    the school year. The charter I worked for was a large chain … they could have
    afforded a good quality SpEd program. Instead they told me after my
    demotion to spend funds out of my own pocket for the SpEd classroom and I would
    be reimburse ( at their convenience and discretion of course)
    later. Again I loved my employer before this happened and touted them at
    the Regional Education Centers before my un doing. The TEA could only
    refer me to the Office of Civil Rights. However, by the time I reported I
    had just pulled my son out of the charter since he was losing ground. I needed
    to go through Due Process and a good lawyer to even be considered for
    representation. There wasn’t much I could tell the other parents, since I was
    still employed and could I nor they afford legal representation. These parents
    eventually left this charter as well. Since, my unfortunate experience has
    occurred I have run into parents with similar stories and it’s not fair.

    So in a nut shell there is only school choice for normal
    and higher functioning special education children. This has to be a violation
    of the ADA and IDEA. So my question still is where the money going if
    it’s not being spent for special education and other related services out of
    their vast resources. These schools have filed for grants galore and given
    endless opportunities to improve. Who is really getting ahead here? Is it
    the students benefitting from choice (only at a few flagship charters) or the
    owners of business’s who profit off little oversight in operating cost v.
    outcome. I still support school choice but, currently all I can say
    is” Houston we have a problem.”