PSJA members celebrate victory over district-wide charter proposal with rally, and the superintendent joins in to offer support for public schools

PSJA AFT members hold a community meeting on the EmpowerED! plan

As we reported last Thursday, our union members in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in the Valley were successful in stopping the superintendent’s plan to turn over the district’s campuses to a system of charter schools run by a nonprofit. The superintendent–Daniel King–had given teachers at each school a vote on whether to move forward with the plan on their campus. After an intensive campaign by PSJA AFT urging teachers to vote no, the proposal was voted down by a district-wide margin of 1,448 to 661, with 7 campuses approving it and 35 rejecting it.

King had fashioned his plan–named EmpowerED!–around Senate Bill 1882, a bill passed last session that primarily was designed to allow districts a two-year reprieve from sanctions for campuses receiving five years of “Improvement Required” accountability ratings if the district partners those campuses with an autonomous charter-school operator or a nonprofit entity. SB 1882 also purposely creates an incentive for public schools to form these partnerships to gain additional funding equal to the funding advantage charters have over public schools. In PSJA ISD, that would be $906 per pupil. Seeing that the law also allowed for districts to form “Innovation Partnerships” with schools that were passing accountability ratings, King devised a plan to turn all 43 PSJA ISD campuses into partnerships with the idea that the district would gain an additional $28 million a year. However, these charter-like schools would be exempt from much of state law regulating quality safeguards like class-size caps and teacher certification requirements, as well as contract and workplace protections for teachers. (Commissioner of Education Mike Morath recently created ambiguity over what type of entity really would be exempt from these provisions of state law, although he reaffirmed that they should be autonomous with almost complete control of campus operations.)

Before the vote, King had said that he would push forward and seek school board approval for the plan for any campuses that voted yes. PSJA AFT then planned a rally for school employees at tonight’s school board meeting to urge board members to vote against any SB 1882 partnerships. King eventually realized that the will of the vast majority of teachers in the district was against EmpowerED!, as were many school board members, and he scrapped the plan altogether. King’s sent a letter to all school employees and the school board noting the reversal:

“I committed to presenting those campuses who voted in favor to the Board of Trustees for consideration with the goal of presenting the EmpowerED! model to the Texas Education Agency for approval and funding. However, due to the substantial majority of teachers and campuses district-wide that voted against proceeding and the limited number of teachers and campuses that supported moving forward, the School Board President has asked me to not place the proposal on the agenda and simply let the matter die. I promised to give our teachers voice and first say on this and our teachers spoke loud and clear.

“Therefore, EmpowerED! will not be presented to the Board, nor will it be presented to TEA for consideration. Thank you for taking the interest and time to discuss and vote on the proposal, and for your willingness to move forward. While we will not proceed, it is my hope that this discussion in PSJA and this entire experience will inform state level policy makers in the months and years to come. I believe that the answer to school improvement lies not in campus takeovers, but in the local community and the educators at the campus and district level taking ownership as a team. I also believe that equity in funding of schools is a critical issue of social justice and state responsibility. While I had hoped to exemplify this through this proposal, I understand that most of our teachers did not see SB 1882 as the appropriate lens through which to pilot this. I fully understand the mistrust that is based on how some charter systems and campuses operate. I know that here in PSJA we will be continuing to learn from this, as we seek to move towards increased goal focused and student achievement oriented participatory decision making. Enjoy your summer as we prepare for an exciting 2018-19 school year in PSJA!”

And in a conciliatory move welcomed by PSJA AFT members, the superintendent will join the PSJA AFT rally, which has a new purpose tonight–a show of support for public education, adequate and equitable funding for public schools, and promoting public governance of campuses over moves to privatize schools. King’s gesture hopefully will go a long way in the union collaborating with him on what he stated was a key goal of his plan–empowering teachers to make beneficial changes at their campuses.

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