On Monday, the commissioner of education approved the applications of three charter schools that are largely funded and supported by an out-of-state organization, Building Excellent Schools, Inc. (BES), which receives millions of dollars annually from Walmart’s pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation. The BES schools named “Reve Preparatory” and “Bloom Academy” would be located in Houston and “Promesa Academy” would be located in San Antonio. Both of these cities are among 13 “target” cities the Walton Foundation has chosen to further its school privatization agenda.
The Walton Foundation is the biggest driver of the rapid expansion of charter schools and it spends hundreds of millions to promote vouchers, the rapid expansion of charter schools, and to lobby against regulation and oversight of charter schools. From 2009 to 2016, the Walton Foundation has provided $32.3 million to BES to expand charter schools throughout the United States and it has given these three charter schools a total of almost $1 million for start-up funds to open in targeted cities, Houston and San Antonio. Note that BES also is affiliated with Democracy Prep– the charter school with whom San Antonio ISD has chosen to partner, without the consultation of campus personnel.
Currently, Texas law does not require a thorough analysis of how a new charter school will affect surrounding neighborhood public schools before the charter school is opened in an area. Nor is there a requirement that taxpayers be notified or consulted about how additional local taxes will be sent to the state in the form of “recapture” funding as a result of charter school saturation in particular Texas school districts.
During the interviews for charter applicants held May 20-21, State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez was there to ask several of these questions of the charter applicants. Cortez noted that with the enrollment goals of these charters, there would be a $42 million loss to local school districts over the next five years. That number jumps to $164 million over 10 years when the charters are enrolled at full capacity.
In particular, Cortez expressed concerns about two of these schools being located within Houston ISD, which is considered a “property-wealthy” district and must send hundreds of millions of its tax dollars to the state. As more students leave HISD to attend charter schools, the amount of recapture funds Houston must send to the state also increases. For illustration, if the 35,000 Houston charter school students all returned to schools in HISD, the district would see a net increase of about $233 million, $205 million of which accounts for recapture payments. These are critical issues to discuss, especially considering HISD’s recent announcement of a $208 million budget shortfall. Cortez also noted that there was no demonstration of a demand for these schools by the community and the applicants, and board members of the charters have little educational experience.
The charter school saturation problem within Houston specifically has been addressed at recent Texas School Finance Commission meetings. Members of the commission have serious concerns over the continuing expansion of Texas charter schools and the continuation of a dual education system while limited state dollars to public schools continue to dwindle.
The State Board of Education has the ability to veto any new charter approved by the commissioner within 90 days of the commissioner’s decision. The SBOE is expected to discuss the commissioner’s decisions and take action or no action on them during its meeting in Austin on June 12-15.