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Mercer: Letter to Texas Legislature about SBOE, charter school funding

I am greatly concerned with false information regarding the Texas State Board of Education and the choice provided by public charter schools to inner city families.

With the 2017 legislative session, powerful “anti-charter” lobby groups are attacking the SBOE for both the “inner-city school choice” provided by charter schools, and the administration of the Permanent School Fund (PSF) Bond Guarantee Program including the refinancing of bonds for highly qualified charters.

My perspective is that of the only elected state official who is both a current member of the $33 billion Permanent School Fund Committee, and a previous chair of what is often termed the SBOE “Charter School Committee.”

First, as chair, I championed the first dual language Hebrew-English and trilingual Mandarin Chinese-Spanish-English public charter schools in Texas, along with ushering in highly qualified and competitive out–of-state charter operations. All this while fighting to keep Common Core out of our public charter schools.

I am proud we worked with the Texas Legislature to grant the commissioner of education authority to close low-performing charter schools. That authority was not granted for low-performing traditional public schools.

Anti-charter lobbyists cannot argue my measure for success: the current waiting list for seats in a Texas charter school is more than 141,000 students.

Second, the mission of the Permanent School Fund is twofold: To provide free educational materials for our 5.4 million school children, and to guarantee the bonds passed by the voters in our almost 1,300 independent school districts.

• In the last 10 years, the Permanent School Fund provided more than $8 billion to the legislative budget for the children of Texas. The SBOE approved $2.4 billion for the 2017-2018 state budget.

• The Permanent School Fund is leveraged “3X” (up to $99 billion) guaranteeing every school district the lowest possible bond interest rate. Even poorly financially rated districts enjoy this significant benefit. Permanent School Fund executives state the savings to Texas schools is over $110 million each year for the 25 years of a bond.

Anti-charter lobbyists oppose the SBOE considering one percent of the Permanent School Fund ($300 million) to guarantee the bonds of charter schools. Under the leadership of David Bradley (R-Beaumont), we created stringent rules and qualifying conditions for charters that are not applied to traditional public schools to ensure passage.

How stringent? Only 14 of the 183 charters were qualified to apply to refinance their bonds. The Texas Charter Schools Association states those 14 charters issued new and refinanced bonds and saving $10.5 million each year for 25 years – $250 million in savings to help recruit and retain highly qualified classroom educators.

Finally, opposition lobbyists fail to mention two severe limitations on charters:

• Charters do not have a tax base to fund public bonds.

• The Legislature “rewards” innovation and high performance — by allocating charters on average $1,400 less per child than traditional public schools.

I caution the 2017 Legislature – you will hear a lot of false information regarding education, charters and the SBOE. My two recommendations: Reject the agenda of well-financed groups promoting a failed system of increasing federal mandates and control, and trust parents – whose only agenda is a great education and a safe school for their precious children.

Mercer is a former Texas Representative and current member of the Texas State Board of Education.

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