Texas Thinking Outside the Box on Charter School Expansion

Published December 22, 2009

The debate on charter school expansion is in full swing, since it could give Texas a competitive edge in the federal Race to the Top grant competition. Texas’ current charter law, enacted in 1995, limits the state to only 215 charter schools, and to qualify for the federal funds the cap must be lifted or expanded. However, despite the $350 to $700 million available in the federal grant, legislation to lift the cap was killed because of a point of order before going to the House.

With the January 19 application deadline for Race to the Top approaching, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott says he is not going to let this opportunity pass by. Scott hopes charter schools will be able to expand under current law without legislation.

Loophole in the Law

The plan is to allow successful charter school operators that currently exist in the state to replicate their schools. Though the state law limits the number of charters granted to 215, there is no limit on the number of schools able to operate under each charter. This gives charter school chains such as YES Prep, Green Dot, and KIPP, which have been creating new schools nationwide, the ability to continue their expansion despite the limit. Scott also hopes other local charter school operators would move to expand their practices.

The commissioner’s efforts for expansion are being supported by education reformers across the state.

“We appreciate Commissioner Scott’s decision that allows successful charter schools to expand more quickly,” said Brooke Terry, an education policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond told the Tyler Morning Telegraph for a November 9 story that “charter schools in Texas are an indispensable complement to our public education system, and Commissioner Scott’s decision to help underserved communities by removing the bureaucratic shackles of the charter school application process on these already-effective schools deserves recognition. Scott’s decision could help. And we will all benefit through a better-educated workforce.”

Though the solution is innovative and has support around the state, charter advocates say legislative action is still necessary.

“The long-term solution to the problem is for the legislature to eliminate its arbitrary and unnecessary cap on charter schools,” Terry said. “We hope the legislature will do so at its next opportunity.”

Democrats, Union Oppose

Not all Texans support the idea, however. On November 9 the Texas Democratic Party criticized Scott’s idea as “overreaching his authority by going around the legislature.” Even though the American Federation of Teachers agrees the law allows charter operators to establish more than one campus, it still plans to challenge the approval of certain charter expansions.

The Texas Charter School Association says its members are thrilled with the idea, but they plan to manage the growth of new charter schools.

Evelyn Stacey ([email protected]) is the education policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank in Sacramento, California.