Thomas Ratliff

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.’”




For-profit charter superintendents


You can count State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff among those who question how well some charter schools are using your tax dollars. Remember, charter schools receive tax dollars, even if many of them operate like private schools.

Ratliff recently released a survey comparing the salaries of the top 10 highest paid charter school superintendents with those of the top 10 highest paid traditional public school superintendents. According to the Dallas Morning News, the average top 10 charter superintendent salary was $242,172 a year, compared to $323,156 for the average among the 10 highest paid public school superintendents.

To provide perspective, Ratliff noted that the charter superintendents who were surveyed had an average enrollment of 3,037 students, while the average enrollment for the public school superintendents in the survey was 50,555 students. Or, to put it another way, each charter superintendent was paid about $79 per student and each public school superintendent about $6 per student.

“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principles into the education marketplace, but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents,” Ratliff said. “I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”

Ratliff called on the state education commissioner and the Legislature to do something about the salary disparities.

The charter industry, of course, promptly sent Ratliff a letter, expressing “concern” over his conclusions, claiming, among other things, that many charter schools had a very high efficiency rating, according to the state comptroller.

Ratliff, in turn, said he found the comptroller’s rating system, which lumped charters and traditional public schools together, “skewed” because charters don’t have the same financial responsibilities as traditional public schools.

For one thing, traditional public schools have to provide bus service to students who live more than two miles from a school. Charter schools don’t have to provide transportation, and most don’t. Traditional school districts have to accept every child in the district who shows up for enrollment. Charters can pick and choose and create waiting lists, while many kids on the waiting lists are being educated in traditional public schools.

Next time, you hear about a “non-profit” charter school, take a closer look. Many of these” non-profits” are operated by for-profit management companies, which ultimately receive the tax dollars. According to Ratliff’s findings, many charter superintendents certainly are profiting.


State Board of Education will review CSCOPE


Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican on the State Board of Education, announced today that the board will discuss the CSCOPE curriculum program at its meeting in September. And, he sharply criticized Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick for helping to create a wasteful “artificial controversy” over the program.

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog post, the Texas Education Agency has advised the state board that, despite Patrick’s efforts to kill CSCOPE, school districts are still free to use CSCOPE lesson plans because the Legislature didn’t enact a law abolishing the program. Instead, Patrick simply bullied the CSCOPE governing board into agreeing to remove the lesson plans and then prematurely declared the program dead. But now the same plans are in the public domain and can be picked up by any district wishing to use them.

CSCOPE, developed by regional education service centers, was designed to help school districts prepare lesson plans for teaching state educational requirements. Typically, using CSCOPE plans has not been mandatory, and many larger districts haven’t used them because they can afford to hire their own curriculum developers. But it has been an important tool in the educational tool box for some teachers, particularly in hundreds of small districts that can’t afford to hire extra curriculum help.

Patrick made a political issue of the program by pandering to a vocal minority of conspiracy theorists who didn’t like a couple of lesson plans and started branding the program as an anti-American plot. Meanwhile, small school districts have been scrambling for curriculum help in time for the new school year.

“It’s unfortunate that so much time, energy and taxpayer dollars have been wasted because Senator Patrick was too quick to run to the Senate Press Room before he fully vetted the policy and practical implications of his actions,” said Ratliff, who represents many school districts dependent on CSCOPE.

Ratliff said he was confident the State Board of Education “will do the right thing by providing transparency and accountability regarding these lessons and helping our local school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers stay focused on their important task at hand, rather than defending themselves against baseless political attacks.”

Let us hope so. Unfortunately, we are likely to hear more political rhetoric from Patrick, as he tries to gin up his right-wing base in his newly announced race for lieutenant governor. And, Attorney General Greg Abbott, another foe of CSCOPE and newly minted candidate for governor, also may chime in.