charter schools

Ted Cruz and Betsy DeVos are school privatization partners


One thing is certain about whatever Ted Cruz may claim he has “accomplished” for public education during his time in the U.S. Senate: educators and school children can’t afford more of the same.

First, he voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as the most ill-informed, under-qualified secretary of education in the history of the department. Had Cruz cared enough about public schools and educators and voted against her, DeVos wouldn’t be actively trying to lay waste to public education today. Remember, the Senate confirmation vote was 50-50, and Vice President Pence broke the tie in favor of DeVos.

Cruz clearly is on DeVos’ school privatization program. Within a year after voting for her, Cruz succeeded in doing what Dan Patrick has failed to do in Texas. He won congressional  approval of a private school voucher program. It was in the form of an amendment to President Trump’s tax bill. Cruz’s amendment expands the tax-exempt 529 college savings account to cover as much as $10,000 a year in tuition or expenses for elementary and secondary students in religious or other private schools.

This tax break will benefit mainly upper-income families and some in the middle. But it will ignore low-income parents and increase the inequities in educational opportunities, while reducing the amount of federal aid available for educating low-income and disabled children. Cruz also attempted to give the same vouchers to parents who homeschool their children, but that part of his amendment was struck on a procedural issue.

Now, Cruz is back in Texas in the closing days of what he hopes is a reelection campaign, and he is promoting charter schools. He will be talking later today to the Texas Charter Schools conference in Houston. Technically, charters are public schools because they receive our tax dollars. But corporate-style charter chains, which have begun to dominate the charter landscape, are first cousins to private schools, and they are taking millions of tax dollars from under-funded public school districts.

Cruz was scheduled to discuss “his perspective on the federal role in education, his education priorities, and how those priorities would impact Texas.”

Cruz’s perspective on public education is the same as Betsy DeVos’and Dan Patrick’s – under-fund it and then privatize it. TSTA is supporting Beto O’Rourke in the Senate race. O’Rourke will boost public education, not tear it down.



Charter schools seeking more tax money


Despite evidence to the contrary, some people still subscribe to the perception that charter schools are the “silver bullet” solution for education, as the competition between charters and traditional public schools for limited state tax dollars remains intense.

In truth, some charters are good, others aren’t and still others have failed – for financial mismanagment and/or academic shortcomings.

After the Texas Legislature in 1995 created charters as an alternative to traditional public schools, some charter operators stepped forward and used the freedom they were granted from state regulations to offer innovative and successful programs for their students.

Other charter operators stepped forward to try to profit from the tax dollars that came with the students they enrolled. Free from restrictions like class-size limits and teacher certification requirements that govern traditional public schools, they eagerly cut corners on academic quality and either failed or should have failed. Some never should have been granted the charters that allowed them to operate.

Unlike traditional school districts, charters can’t levy taxes to raise money for operating costs or to build classroom buildings and other facilities. But on average they receive more funding per student than traditional schools, and they can use the Pemanent School Fund to lower their cost of borrowing money for construction projects.

Charter advocates have made a big push during this legislative session to win direct state funding for facilities construction. Sen. Donna Campbell filed a bill to give charters more than $400 million for that purpose. The Senate approved the bill, but only after reducing it to $100 million and splitting the funding between charters and traditional school districts.

TSTA opposes the measure, now before the House, for a couple of reasons. One, there would be no way under current law for taxpayers to recoup their money if a charter operator uses tax dollars to build a school facility and then goes bust. Also, the Legislature shouldn’t be giving more money to charters when it hasn’t even decided how well it will fund traditional public schools, where the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated. The Senate budget for which Campbell voted probably wouldn’t even cover enrollment growth. The House would do better by spending about $1.6 billion of the Rainy Day Fund to increase public school budgets, but even then most schools would remain under-funded.

A House-Senate conference committee continues to seek a budget compromise.

Former State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, among others, has thrown cold water on the charter operators’ efforts to change the rules against facilities funding.

“This was the deal charters signed up for when they opened their business,” Ratliff once told the Texas Tribune. “They knew what the law was, and they told the Legislature, ‘We can do a better job for less money.’ Now they’re coming back and saying, ‘Maybe not.’”




There is no “civil right” to attend a charter school


Gov. Greg Abbott is confused. Maybe it’s because he has been listening to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick too much. In any event, he was parroting Patrick this week – there ought to be a law against that — and calling expansion of charter schools a “civil rights issue.” In truth, most of the interest in adding more charter schools comes from business interests eager to cash in on the public’s education tax dollars.

Yes, technically, charter schools are public schools, and, in reality, they are when they are organized and operated by a school district or a truly non-profit organization. But the charter school movement in Texas is attracting a great deal of interest from corporations and entrepreneurs with buildings to lease, computers to sell and for-profit management companies to take over school operations, all funded with your tax dollars. And those tax dollars are coming from your already under-funded traditional neighborhood schools.

Some charter schools are quite good, but others are very bad, little more than conduits for state tax dollars to flow into private bank accounts. On average, studies have shown, charters are no better or worse than traditional public schools. And evidence indicates that some corporate charter chains try to cherry pick the best students, despite denials by many charter advocates.

The Texas Education Agency is responsible for regulating charters and has closed down some chronically bad ones. But considering the governor’s and the legislative majority’s history of under-funding public education, it is not clear that TEA has enough resources to do its job effectively.

Nevertheless, in an address in Austin to the Texas Charter School Conference, as reported by WOAI Radio, Abbott said: “This is a civil rights issue.”

The governor is wrong. Parents don’t have a “civil right” to use tax dollars to send their children to a charter school or a private school. Even using that term is an insult to minority Texans who remember the days when privatization was a route used by many white families to avoid sending their children to public schools that were being integrated during the real civil rights era.

Parents do have a right under the Texas Constitution to send their children to a free public school, and they have a right to expect their neighborhood public schools to be adequately and fairly funded.

Abbott and the legislative majority have ignored that constitutional right. During the 2015 legislative session, they gave a higher priority to tax cuts than school funding, even though many districts still hadn’t recovered from $5.4 billion in school budgets cuts imposed four years earlier. Texas spends, on average, $2,700 less a year to educate a child than the national average, and many of the children being short-changed are low-income, minority kids.

All Texas school children have a right to adequately funded public schools, not hollow, meaningless promises about “civil rights” to attend a charter school.




Watch out when education “reformers” join forces


When two self-styled “education reform” groups announce they are joining forces to improve public schools, educators and parents need to be skeptical. Most of these groups are more interested in taking tax dollars to privatize education, not improve it.

The latest privatization effort is a new group called Texas Aspires, which represents a merger of Texans for Education Reform and the Texas Institute for Education Reform. “Reform” may be the most over-used and misused word in the political vocabulary, right up there with “unprecedented.” Bad ideas are not “reform,” and neither are they “unprecedented,” but unfortunately they won’t go away.

The most encouraging thing I can say about Texas Aspires at this point is that the group claims not to be interested in promoting vouchers, a direct theft of state tax dollars to pay for tuition in private and religious schools. Other alleged “reformers” will be pursuing that goal when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Texas Aspires, however, will push for other things that – if the privatization motive is not curtailed — could under-cut public schools, including expanded online learning and more charter schools.

Online courses have their place, but an online learning bill proposed during the 2015 legislative session was all about profit for vendors, not improved educational opportunities for children. It was so potentially expensive that even senators in lock-step with most of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bad education ideas gagged at it. It was about the only bad idea of Patrick’s that the Senate majority didn’t pass.

Expansion of charter schools also can be another expansion of privatization, since corporate run charters – which take tax dollars but are operated by for-profit management companies – are increasingly trying to make inroads into public school districts and the education budget in Texas.

According to the Associated Press, Texas Aspires claims to be focused on strengthening public schools. If so, the best way to do that is to put aside the costly, unproven gimmicks and join real educators and parents in demanding that the legislative majority draft an adequate and fair funding plan for all of Texas’ schoolchildren. That is the first and most important step toward strengthening public education in Texas.