AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The head of the Senate Education Committee made a dramatic appeal Thursday to expand charter schools in Texas, arguing that those who oppose them are condemning students and parents to waitlists long enough to make them cry.
Sen. Dan Patrick added fuel to an already white-hot political issue, telling his committee that the Legislature should do more to help the 101,000-plus kids who want to leave their traditional public schools for charters, but have ended up on waitlists due to inadequate space.
The Houston Republican has authored a high-profile bill that would abolish the current cap of 215 operating licenses the state is allowed to issue.
When some opponents signed up to address the committee, Patrick declared: "You're not testifying against a bill, you're testifying against 100,000 families who are on the waitlists who are desperate for their children to have choice."
"The big picture here is we have 100,000 people on the waitlist, families who cry, whose children cry," when they don't get admitted, Patrick said. "This is a waitlist that we can reduce like that," he said, snapping his fingers.
David Dunn, executive director the Texas Charter School Association, said about 154,000 of the state's more than 5 million public school students attend charter schools, but that the numbers on waitlists have almost doubled in 2 ½ years — from 56,000 in 2010 to about 101,000 currently.
Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West challenged the waitlist figure, saying it likely includes students who have applied for multiple schools.
Across the country, 18 of the 42 states with charter schools have no cap on how many can operate. Dunn suggested that imposing a maximum on licenses was a crude way of ensuring quality control among existing charter schools, and said that if the cap were lifted, he expected the number of charters to increase by two-thirds "overnight."
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, noted that operators can already use a single charter to open multiple campuses.
John Gray of the Texas State Teachers Association told the committee: "Regarding busting the cap, the good schools can already replicate."
Davis suggested that the focus should instead be on closing down problematic charter schools before allowing "an unlimited number to open."
David Anderson, general counsel of the Texas Education Agency, said officials can already easily close poorly rated charters but that years of legal fights slow the process. He said officials are in the process of attempting to close less than a dozen charter schools, and numerous others have already been warned to improve performance.
Patrick has made expanding "school choice" his signature issue, though past efforts to overhaul charter schools have largely fizzled amid bipartisan opposition — especially in the House, where rural Republicans complain charters aren't available in their districts.
Supporters of traditional public schools are wary of the plan, noting that it gives state funding to schools that can choose not to admit certain students, such as low-income kids or those who need extra instruction to learn the English language. They also argue that the Legislature should focus on restoring $5.4 billion in cuts to public education it approved in 2011.
Patrick's bill also would provide charter schools $150 per student for facilities costs, instead of paying only for the schools' operating expenses as under current state law. Dunn said that's a good start, but not enough since traditional districts get more than $1,000 per pupil for facilities.
The proposed legislation had required traditional public schools to lease any unused buildings to charter schools for $1. When that caused an uproar Thursday, Patrick said he'd change it to fair-market value paid for leasing. He said the $1 provision had been a clerical error.