Taking a Stand for Educational Quality, Employee Safeguards, Innovation

In the Senate Education and House Public Education Committees today Texas AFT’s legislative team defended state standards of educational quality and employee safeguards from multiple attacks—while making the case for strong employee involvement and leadership in experiments with innovative practices.

Texas AFT testified against a dangerous bill heard in the Senate committee (SB 738) that would allow “alternative methods of operating public schools,” including a new version of “home rule” for school districts rated exemplary. SB 738 would allow those districts by a simple-majority vote of the board to exempt their district from almost all the educational quality standards and employee safeguards in the Education Code, including teacher certification, class-size limits, and employee rights and benefits. The bill also would let the commissioner of education order conversion of low-performing campuses into charter schools and would let parents trigger charter conversion of persistently low-performing campuses as well. The bill’s author, Sen. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano, said she would not move the bill forward in its current form, but highly objectionable features seem likely to remain in a revised version. If enacted, this bill could turn back the clock on 30 years of educational quality standards and employee safeguards in state law.

Also the focus of controversy in both the House and Senate hearings today was the issue of expanding charter schools. Companion charter-expansion bills by Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, and Rep. Patricia Harless, Republican of Spring, would raise the cap on the number of charters that can be issued to private operators; their bills also would allow charter operators whose current campuses are academically acceptable to open an unlimited number of additional campuses. This provision would eliminate the current requirement for approval by the commissioner of education for charter expansion. These bills, SB 127 and HB 936, would impose new costs on the state at a time of budget crisis, which is forcing the layoff of already insufficient charter monitoring and oversight staff at the Texas Education Agency. Texas AFT firmly opposed both bills in testimony today.

Shelley Potter, president of Texas AFT’s affiliate in San Antonio ISD, pointed the Senate committee toward a better way to encourage charter expansion and innovation. Potter described the leading role of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel in creating 13 in-district charter schools, with three more coming online next school year. Each school offers a unique opportunity for innovative instructional programs and school restructuring as spelled out in a charter contract between district and school. Potter noted that three of the schools are rated exemplary, six are recognized, and the trend in all of the schools’ ratings is upward.

Potter stressed that the in-district charter option is a very important way to preserve and strengthen neighborhood schools that are vital to the fabric of their community. She urged the committee, if it is interested in adding more quality charter schools, to find ways to encourage the creation of more in-district charter schools that specifically address the needs of their community.