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#AskExcelinEd: How can we reclaim the potential of Texas public charter schools?

• Sam Duell

According to a paper ExcelinEd released this week in collaboration with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Business Leadership Council and Texas Aspires, it has never been more difficult for a Texas charter application to be approved than it is today.

This is an odd conundrum because Texas is known nationally for its public charter schools. As the birthplace of KIPP, YES Prep, IDEA Public Schools and several high-quality, single-site charters, many Texas charter schools are models for success. (This is an especially appropriate observation in light of a 2017 study from CREDO, a research center at Stanford University, which demonstrates the average charter school student in Texas learns more than their traditional school peers in less time.)

The biggest problem with Texas charters is that there aren’t enough of them. According to the Texas Charter Schools Association, at least 130,000 students are waiting to get in to Texas charter schools.

So, if Texas charters serve students well and if there aren’t enough seats to meet the demands of Texas families, why is it so difficult for charter applicants?

Part of the answer relates to the history of charter school authorizing in Texas, which is addressed at length in the new paper, Time to Change Course: Reclaiming the Potential of Texas Public Charter Schools, A State Case Study.

There was a time in early Texas charter history when every application was approved and nearly 60 percent of those charters closed over the next ten to fifteen years. Authorizers and policymakers responded by adding strong accountability measures to ensure that the mistake would not be repeated.

At the same time, current rates of expansion indicate Texas public charter schools cannot expand quickly enough to meet parent demand. That’s a problem, too.

Time to Change Course recommends a set of actions for consideration that Texas could take to reclaim the potential of public charter schools:

Improve the application process through administrative changes.

  • Make the charter application more user friendly and place it online. Today, applicants are still required to send several hard copies to the Texas Education Agency, which are usually hundreds of pages each.
  • Provide a streamlined process for proven providers. The application process is still time-consuming even for the most accomplished charter organizations in the country.

Make statutory changes.

  • Remove the State Board of Education veto policy. This would de-politicize charter school decisions, basing approvals on the merits of the application rather than the politics of the day.
  • Allow new, independent charters one more year under the “three strikes” accountability provision. Four years instead of three is not a huge ask, especially when model charter school laws frequently call for an initial five-year term for charters.

Approach charters as a policy lever that can provide local communities the ability to address much needed change.

  • The Texas Education Agency should intentionally cultivate new models of schooling, build district-charter partnerships and develop a state-level, coherent theory of action regarding charter schools.

By reclaiming the potential of public charters and by building and expanding on their success, we can realize the attainable goal of educational opportunity for every Texan.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.