Whitmire, West Ding Patrick on Charter Bill: “We’re Fixing to Create More Government”

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John Whitmire, Dan Patrick and Royce West
It wasn't all smiles this morning when Dan Patrick (R-Houston) got caught between John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Royce West (D-Dallas)

The Senate Finance Committee approved an extra $1.5 billion for public schools this morning, adding $1.375 million to formula funding and millions more for other education programs.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.” The Senate’s budget now also includes $14 million for the Student Success Initiative—a starved state program for helping at-risk students pass state tests—$40 million more for pre-kindergarten, plus millions more for Teach for America and the Texas Virtual School Network. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander has more.

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

“Sir, this isn’t expanding government,” Patrick said, before explaining why this particular expansion is so important. As it is, the SBOE approves four or five charters a year, he said, but if Texas removes its cap on charters, the SBOE and the Texas Education Agency can’t handle scaling up to “15 or 25 or 35 a year.”

“The truth is, you know, sometimes we have to do the right thing. And if people on the outside don’t agree, they don’t agree,” Patrick said. “We’re gonna give poor children in this state who have no hope for a quality education an opportunity to learn.”

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.