Texas is raising the state’s charter school operator cap from 215 to 305 by 2019, marking the largest charter school expansion since 2001—and the only school choice bill to pass in 2013. Lawmakers also made it easier to close charters the state rates “academically unacceptable.”
“Taken as a whole, we think this is a major improvement,” said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA). “There’s no shortage of parents who want in, and no shortage of operators wanting to open charter schools.”
Nearly 40 charter operators applied for the six new slots that opened this year through school closings, Dunn said. Currently, Texas has 209 charter school operators running 506 charter school campuses across the state.
Roughly 3 percent of the state’s 5 million schoolchildren attend charters, and thousands more are on the waiting list. A TCSA survey put the waitlisted number at 102,000 students, but an Associated Press survey concluded the waitlist number may be several thousands fewer after excluding duplicate applications.
By passing Senate Bill 2, the Texas legislature also made it easier for the Texas Education Agency to revoke academically failing charters after three years of failure instead of four.
“Texas charter schools are overrepresented at both ends of scale,” Dunn said. “[Compared to other states], we have a greater percentage of charter schools at the top of academic performance, but unfortunately we also have a greater proportion at the bottom.”
In 2012, one in ten of Texas’ charter schools rated academically unacceptable. But the number of failing schools may be skewed by so-called “dropout recovery” schools: charters that help struggling students earn a high school diploma. High school students in a dropout recovery charter often enter at a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level, and they may have laid aside studies to work or to raise children. In dropout recovery schools, students may take more than four years to earn a diploma, as the charters have the freedom to tailor schedules to each student’s needs.
Changing Graduation Requirements
The legislature also passed a measure that would make it easier for students not planning to attend college—like many in dropout recovery charters—to get a diploma. The measure decreases the number of tests required for graduation from 15 to 5, and it allows students to pick different diploma tracks.
A “foundation” diploma would require fewer classes in history, science, and math, and allows students to skip higher-level college preparatory classes such as Algebra 2. The plan may increase the number of failing students who can a high school diploma, but that diploma will not meet the requirements for admission into Texas’s state-run colleges.
In contrast, students who desire to take extra classes can earn a “distinguished level” diploma, which comes with guaranteed enrollment in Texas state universities. Students can also earn “endorsements” in fields such as business, science, technology, engineering, and math.
Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland.