Harmony Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school system, cannot keep up with the demand for seats in its 38 campuses across the state.
“Our schools are full. We don’t have space for the other people,” said Soner Tarim, Harmony’s superintendent.
That could change under Senate Bill 2, a controversial measure that is expected to come up for a legislative committee vote this week. The legislation aims to open the door for new home-grown charter schools as well as established programs from out of state.
Despite an unprecedented lobbying effort this session to expand charters, which are privately managed public schools, some public school advocates are calling for a more tempered approach and assurances that the push for quantity does not overshadow quality.
“More does not equal better,” said David Anthony, executive director of Raise Your Hand Texas, a public education advocacy group funded by grocery store magnate Charles Butt. “The emphasis needs to be on better choices for students rather than more choices for students.”
More than 34,000 students are vying for a spot in a Harmony school next year, which will be determined by lottery. During one two-month period, an average of 500 students applied to Harmony each day.
As a high-performing charter operator, Harmony has broad authority to open new campuses, but Tarim said he would have had to add the equivalent of a school a day during the application period to accommodate each of those students.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, originally proposed eliminating a cap that limits the number of charters to 215, though more than one school can be operated under a charter.
Patrick said Tuesday he would settle for 35 a year for new in-state charter schools and no limit on proven schools from out of state. That number, however, is still in flux as Patrick tries to muster votes in the committee.
“We really shouldn’t be arguing over these issues,” Patrick said. “A parent and a student who believe they are in a failing school should not be relegated to having their name pulled out of a bingo-type or lottery mechanism where names pop into a little cup. … That is no way to run an education system. It really makes me sad.”
About 150,000 students attend a charter school in Texas — about 3 percent of the total public school enrollment — with another 101,000 on waiting lists, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association. Adding another 35 charter licenses a year would address the needs of only about 10,000 students, Patrick said.
“You can easily make the case that we should have 350 just to address the wait list,” Patrick said.
Critics maintain that poor performing charter schools should be shut down before the state opens the flood gates for new ones.
While some charter schools are rated among the best schools in the state, they are also disproportionately represented among the worst, according to a recent state report.
Almost 18 percent of charter schools were deemed “unacceptable” in 2011, while 4.9 percent of traditional public schools were hit with that lowest rating. Charter schools account for 71 percent of schools facing sanctions for failing to meet academic or financial standards, the state’s Sunset Review Commission reported.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has proposed legislation to increase the number of new charters by just 10 a year.
“There is a place for more charters, but I think everything ought to be done in … a measured fashion,” said Seliger, a member of the Education Committee.
Another Republican committee member, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, said Patrick’s proposal to add 35 charter operators a year was “a little aggressive,” particularly given possible changes in how the state approves and oversees charter schools.
“If we want them to succeed, we need to be careful,” Duncan said. “It will hurt the charter school movement if we are moving too fast and we’re not doing a good job of reviewing new applicants and reviewing those who are existing.”
Applications for charter schools are vetted by the Texas Education Agency but approved by the elected members of the State Board of Education. Ongoing oversight, however, falls to a small number of employees at the Education Agency and has been hampered over the years by legal constraints and a lack of resources.
Patrick has secured $2 million in the next two-year budget to beef up the state’s review and oversight of charter schools and he supports creating a independent panel to do so.
It is still up in the air what role the State Board of Education would have on new charters. Some lawmakers are uneasy about reducing the authority of an elected board and giving it to appointees. Others say the board members have not been diligent enough in keeping out some poor charter applicants.
Barbara Cargill, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, said there would be no reason to set up a separate appointed panel if the additional charter oversight staff were put under the authority of the SBOE.
“I want this expanded, more clearly defined authority to remain with the elected SBOE members,” Cargill said.