Valley superintendent aims to charterize entire school district, but his promises for protecting teacher rights don’t mesh with state rules

Editor’s note: Be sure to read today’s breaking news on Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath not following his own rules on SB 1882, and his effort to derail our lawsuit against San Antonio ISD. You also can read more about the San Antonio ISD lawsuit here.

PSJA Community ForumPSJA Community forum on EmpowerEd!

Beginning in February, members of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo AFT began to hear rumors about a potential “partnership” between the district and a charter entity, based on a piece of legislation–SB 1882–passed last session that was intended to address schools not meeting five years of accountability standards.

SB 1882 was supported by school “reformers” who favor privatization of public schools, such as Educate Texas, the Texas District Charter Alliance, and the Texas Charter School Association. And the law offers a two-year reprieve from accountability sanctions for districts that partner with charter school operators, nonprofit entities, or higher education institutions.

That reprieve from sanctions became increasingly important after another law–HB 1842–mandated that the Texas Education Agency either close schools that were rated “Improvement Required” for five years, or even take over the entire school district, get rid of the school board, and create a state-appointed board of managers to run the district. (Houston ISD is now facing that threat.)

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, and that’s a tempting number for any superintendent struggling with today’s demanding student populations and dwindling state resources. So tempting was this funding bump, apparently, that the PSJA ISD superintendent–Daniel King–decided he might as well apply the concept to his entire district’s 43 schools, which would give the district an additional $28 million each year in state funding. While the law primarily was intended to address struggling schools, King saw an opportunity to apply it to every campus.

King confirmed this partnership at a specially called board meeting in April.  He then met with our PSJA AFT board members to tell them what the plan would entail. He claimed the district would not partner with a charter, but with an Innovative Management Organization (IMO), a 501(c)(3) organization, led by education experts that he has chosen. The initiative was named “EmpowerEd,” and King stated his goal is “teacher empowerment,” allowing teachers to help design and implement curriculum and other campus policies, along with significant salary increases. However, the newly finalized commissioner’s rules conflict with most of these proposals.

After SB 1882 was passed in 2017, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, was tasked with creating rules for these partnerships, which were finalized April 4, 2018.  Among the authorities that “must” be granted to the partner entity in a SB 1882 partnership are the following:

  • Final authority to hire, supervise, manage, assign, evaluate, develop, compensate, continue employment, assign all district employees;
  • Final authority to approve all curriculum decisions, lesson plans, instructional strategies, instructional materials;
  • Final authority to approve all assessments; and
  • Initial and final authority to adopt and implement the campus budget.

In other words, all exemptions afforded to charter schools “to the fullest extent allowed,” which include exemptions from teacher contracts and workplace rights, along with quality safeguards for students, like requirements for teacher certification, discipline rights and caps on class sizes.

To try and get a better sense of the district plans, Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro, along with our government relations staffer Patty Quinzi and representatives from PSJA AFT, met with King and two of the district’s lobbyists. King made more claims about teacher empowerment and teacher raises and stated that Commissioner Morath is in full support of the plan, even though it conflicts with almost all of the new rules he made.

PSJA then held a well-attended community forum on May 22 to address concerns over the plan, and the union’s steering committee ultimately voted to oppose it and is encouraging all district employees to say no to the idea. “It’s been a rushed process, and there are too many unknowns and risks,” said Zoltan Csaplar, an AFT representative working with PSJA AFT. “Who is really going to run these IMOs and how will they be held accountable? Why are we handing over an entire district to another operator, which seems to be guaranteed ultimate authority over the campuses and have the power to operate like charter schools?”

Today, King released the draft contract for partnering with “IMO, Inc.” While the contract includes many provisions seeming to guarantee teacher and student rights, we’ll be reporting tomorrow on news that Morath is now not following his own rules on SB 1882, and TEA is now insisting that they will only approve contracts that don’t allow protections for these rights.  And that leaves a hollow ring to all the promises King has made when selling his plan.

King previously said that he would hold a vote–as soon as Thursday–on each campus, even though teacher would only have a couple of days to go through the 31-page contract and no ballot language or voting structure has been announced. King also said that he would only move forward with the IMO partnerships for campuses where a majority of teachers approved the plan. Then again, the superintendent also stated that the school board has the ultimate authority on what campuses to include–whether it be one, or all 43 in the district–regardless of the vote outcomes. PSJA AFT is contacting all district employees urging them to vote “no.” You can submit questions and comments to PSJA ISD here.

There’s a lot more to report on this story–such as King’s ties to charter school advocates and lobbyists hired by the district that also promoted SB 1882 to lawmakers. We’ll have more to report on those issues, as well as the happenings in PSJA, in future Hotlines and on our Facebook page.