Above: Michael L. Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association annual conference in Austin, Tex.
When the State Board of Education reconvenes in Austin this week, a few members will have some choice words for Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who surprised many by approving a charter school over the board’s veto—something board members weren’t aware he could do.
Last December, the SBOE voted 9-6 to veto a bid by the Arizona-based charter school chain Great Hearts Academies to open four campuses in North Texas. Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight had pointed out that the chain’s campuses in the Phoenix area have much whiter, more affluent student bodies than nearby public schools. State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) had also complained that Great Hearts hadn’t told school districts in North Texas of its plans, as Texas requires applicants to do.
It was the first test for a system the Legislature created last year, which put charter approvals in the hands of the education commissioner and left the SBOE with only the power to veto his picks. Great Hearts was the only school the board voted to block.
But as the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith reported early this month, Williams found a way around the board’s veto anyway, by waiving a handful of rules and letting Great Hearts grow from one San Antonio campus—which hasn’t yet opened—to add new campuses in North Texas without SBOE approval. Knight complained she was blindsided by Williams’ decision. Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant, said Williams’ move “flies in the face of legislative intent.”
In granting Great Hearts a waiver, Williams may have been acting within the recently expanded bounds of his authority.
But that doesn’t instill confidence in the approval process, nor do any favors for the charter school movement.
The more general concern here is about whether charter schools are being held accountable for the public money they receive. Senate Bill 2 last year—the bill that reshaped the approval process—was meant to tighten accountability by making it easier to close lousy charter schools. But in approving Great Hearts’ expansion, Williams waived rules requiring schools to perform well before the state lets them expand. Board members who voted against Great Hearts last year wonder why the school is getting such special treatment.
Great Hearts was one of a handful of charter networks wooed to San Antonio from outside Texas in 2012, under an initiative called Choose to Succeed funded by local civic boosters. Great Hearts will open its first San Antonio campus this fall, and its website advertises nine potential campuses in North Texas, plus more in Austin and Houston to open as soon as 2017. Great Hearts advertises a “traditional liberal arts education” and high scores on college entrance exams and Arizona state tests. But those scores are significantly higher at Great Hearts’ suburban Phoenix campuses where students are more affluent and mostly white.
Knight tells the Observer there’s no way to know how well Great Hearts will perform with a more diverse group of students in Texas. And she’s worried that Texas is privileging slickly marketed, out-of-state charters over local, community-grown schools. “I just think we have opened the flood gates for out-of-state charters with this decision,” she says. “I don’t see an even opportunity for our locally grown charter schools, versus these out-of-state charters who seem to have all of their needs accommodated.” Though Knight can’t be sure what’s behind Williams’ decision, she has some ideas.
In early June—weeks before Williams reversed the board’s veto—Great Hearts hired Rick Perry’s former chief of staff Ray Sullivan to lobby for them in Texas. And late last year, according to the Tribune, board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) said he’d been surprised to to get a call from the governor’s office wondering how he planned to vote on Great Hearts. In its expansion bids, the chain seems capable of calling in quite a bit of political firepower. Texas is no exception.
In 2012, Republican leaders in Tennessee engaged in a nasty, drawn-out fight with Nashville’s school board. Although state leaders insisted the school be approved, the local board rejected Great Hearts’ bid to expand into the city, sticking to that decision even after the state withheld $3.4 million in transportation and utilities funding. In Nashville, as in Texas, critics had worried Great Hearts would locate in wealthy neighborhoods far from the city’s worst-off schools.
And in Arizona, where the school began in 2004, Great Hearts expanded quickly under a board led by Jay Heiler, a well-connected operative in state politics and media who’s defended Senate Bill 1070—Arizona’s infamous immigration crackdown law—supported private school vouchers and agitated against proposals to boost public school funding. Heiler also did a stint on the board of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank similar to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Goldwater advances conservative political causes at the state level and is backed by well-known corporationsand the Koch brothers.
“I think that this situation leads to a very uncomfortable precedent,” says SBOE member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio). “The voice of the communities, by way of state board members elected by the communities, is basically meaningless.” Perez says Williams and the Texas Education Agency need to be clearer about their rules—a point she plans to make at this week’s board’s meetings, which begin Tuesday.
Knight, too, hopes TEA can clarify just how the decision to override the board’s veto can be justified. She hopes TEA’s general counsel David Anderson can help answer how much power the board really has to block charters.
“In the absence of any detailed conversation with the commissioner about why [Williams] made his decision,” Knight says, “it appears to me that Great Hearts is very powerfully politically connected. I have said to them that they need to stand on their own skill sets as opposed to their political connections.”