Last week’s Legislative Update gave a preview of bills designed to pave the way for unbridled charter-school expansion, and one of those bills passed through a House committee Tuesday. HB 1348, by Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont), would strictly limit the powers of cities and counties to apply land use and development rules to charter-schools, giving charters free rein to locate where they want without following local zoning regulations or gathering local property owner input. The committee substitute prohibits “any action” by local officials and political subdivisions, including school districts that can currently submit impact statements to the commissioner to stop a charter from opening across the street from an existing neighborhood public school. It’s a dangerous attempt at a power grab from local governments trying to ensure charter-school expansion does not harm local schools. The bill passed the House Land and Resource Management Committee on a 6-1 vote and in a rare move, was voted out of committee on the same day, signaling it is on the fast track to the House floor.
Texas AFT joined 15 other education organizations to submit a letter in testimony against the bill. The letter notes many of the more egregious portions of the bill, including:
“Most new charter campuses are approved by the state through the charter amendment process without the involvement of any elected official. The limited role a city government currently plays when it reviews the actual site of the proposed charter campus and applies zoning regulations may be the first time the general public learns about a proposed charter facility….This bill is truly a test of whether a charter school will be able to build a new school facility in a neighborhood without the approval of any elected body that is accountable to the public and without a general public notice or an opportunity to provide input into the process. Most importantly, HB 1348 would allow charters to open in any location or within any city zoning district regardless of city ordinance, regulation, policy, etc….”
If you’re not familiar with how charter schools expand with new campuses, the letter also provides a good summary:
“Charter schools are required to provide only a very general geographic area where a new charter campus will be located in their request to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for a new charter campus. Actual charter requests have included vague locations such as the “Houston area,” “South Dallas,” or “Cameron County or Hidalgo County.” Consequently, the state may not know the specific street address, zip code, school district, or even the city where a charter plans to locate when it approves the request. The role of city government in the approval of a specific site once it is selected by the charter is critical because it may be the only opportunity for the general public to know if a charter plans to locate on their street or in their neighborhood before the charter starts construction, depending on local city requirements.
“Importantly, while the elected State Board of Education has authority to veto a new charter application, most additional charter campuses are approved through a charter expansion amendment submitted to TEA and approved at the sole discretion of the appointed Commissioner. Once a charter school is originally awarded and certain requirements are met, the charter school may submit a request to TEA to open an unlimited number of new campuses anywhere in the state through an expansion amendment. There is no general public notice posted about these amendments and no opportunity for public input. Most communities are unaware that a charter amendment has been filed that would impact their neighborhood schools. Since 2010, over 700 new charter campuses have been approved solely by the Commissioner through expansion amendments, a total of 68 percent of all the expansion amendments submitted for new campuses.
“In contrast, when a school district proposes to build a new school facility, it initiates an extensive process to gain approval from the community. This process includes conducting a district-wide bond election that requires a majority vote from the public for approval. The district also holds multiple public meetings to receive input on the district’s plans and to address concerns and questions. In addition, school board members who approve new district facilities are elected by the voters in their community and must reside in the district they represent. In comparison, charter school board members who approve applying for a new charter campus are self-selected and may not live in the community where a charter school is proposed or may even live out-of-state.