Across Texas, hundreds of charter schools educate thousands of the state’s neediest students. But a bill scheduled for vote today by the Texas House would shut down many of these schools.
The intent sounds laudable: strengthen the entire charter school movement by rewarding good schools and closing bad ones. It is the definition of “bad”, though, that worries many charter school operators, students, and parents.
SB 4 would revoke charters whose total liabilities exceed total assets by more than 20 percent of total expenditures. The bill would also shut down charters in which fewer than 25 percent of students passed both the math and reading portions of the TAKS in the most recent two years.
These provisions could force the closure of 25 charter campuses across the state, according to the Charter School Policy Institute.
At first glance, most would consider these expectations reasonable. The financial requirement is certainly a fair proposition, since charter operators are entrusted with public funds. (Of course, recent news stories have also shown that traditional public schools misuse taxpayer dollars with no consequences to the district.)
The academic requirement is more worrisome. A 25 percent passing rate sounds easily attainable. But most of the state’s charter schools target at-risk students, the needs of whom were not met by their traditional public schools. These students may be pregnant, homeless, or have criminal records. At many of these schools, the average student upon enrolling is at least three grade levels behind.
One school that would be in jeopardy is Austin’s American Youthworks, where 20 percent of students are homeless, 12 percent are pregnant or parenting, and 12 percent are on probation or parole. Even so, 64 percent of the student body passed the reading TAKS last year. But because fewer than 25 percent passed the math TAKS, American Youthworks would be threatened with closure next year, turning many of its 434 students back out on the streets.
The academic requirements are especially problematic given research by the Texas Education Agency that, on average, charter school students need three consecutive years of enrollment in order to outperform their traditional public school counterparts. When students start further behind, it understandably takes them some time to catch up. SB 4 would not allow charter students that time.
The most troubling part about SB 4 is the seeming double standard, as traditional public schools do not face the same consequences-in fact, they faced no consequences at all until this school year. Under legislation passed in 2006, public schools rated “Academically Unacceptable” for two or more consecutive years would face sanctions such as campus reorganization or takeover by private management. But earlier this month, the Texas House of Representatives voted unanimously to dilute these sanctions before they’ve even gone into effect.
So while the Legislature is decreasing accountability for traditional public schools, where students are held captive in unacceptable learning environments, they are tightening the noose on charter schools, whose students are there by choice.
Rather than taking an arbitrary one-size-fits-all approach to closing bad charters, legislators must look at student achievement growth. If on average, students in a charter are performing higher than they did in their original public schools, the charter is succeeding in its mission and should remain open.
Most importantly, the Legislature must remember that unlike traditional public schools, charter schools face the ultimate form of accountability: choice. Parents and students are choosing to enroll in charter schools. If parents or students are unsatisfied with the charter school, they can vote with their feet and move to another school. In the end, this legislation could shut down an important educational lifeline for students who fell through the cracks of traditional public schools, but chose to climb back up.
Jamie Story is an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin.