Public school champions stand up to charter privateers in contentious hearing

Charles Foster Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children testifies before the House Public Education Committee.

SB 28 (Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston) came out of the Senate and landed with a thud in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday for a hearing. Due to a procedural snafu, the committee was forced to recess and come back on Wednesday for a contentious hearing over rapid charter-school expansion. 

Several legislators pushed back against witnesses that argued for more charter school expansion through less authority from the State Board of Education and local municipalities.

Rep. Alma Allen, a former SBOE member, asked a series of important questions about how SB 28 makes it easier for charter schools to show up in a small town or city overnight, which would have a negative fiscal impact on local school districts. Charters not giving proper notice could force districts to make budget cuts for academics, programs, and staffing levels. 

Reps. Terry Meza and Keith Bell both asked critical questions about the seemingly unfettered growth of charters in Texas and how SB 28 could further spur the privatization of Texas schools. They rightly raised the point that giving the power to approve charter campuses solely to the unelected commissioner of education could have untold negative consequences for traditional ISDs. 

Rep. James Talarico raised philosophical questions about the mission of charter schools in Texas, which often conflict with the rhetoric of charter supporters and their paid marketing campaigns. Though some on the committee questioned why any charter bill before the committee seemed to spark an intense debate about the foundational principles behind the charter movement in Texas, it was right and proper for Talarico to explore these concerns, which compound in SB 28. 

Rep. Gary VanDeaver expressed his belief that charters should be petri dishes for educational innovation and asked key questions about what types of innovation have been implemented statewide. His questions underscored a tension that ran throughout the hearing as to whether charters should have a special status in Texas or whether they should be treated the same as traditional ISDs. Even after the hearing, the jury is still out. 

Lastly, Rep. Mary Gonzalez posed a pivotal question to a witness as to why SB 28 was fixing a problem that didn’t exist because the SBOE has only vetoed seven charter applications out of 41 since the Legislature gave it that authority in 2013. However, since 2010, the unelected commissioner of education has approved 798 new charter school campuses. Gonzalez’s point was well-taken. Under SB 28, when one charter operator is approved it would be able to spread uncontrolled across Texas. 

A number of witnesses testified against the bill, including inspired testimony from Pastors for Texas Children leader Charles Johnson, in addition to a number of public school superintendents. 

Texas AFT appreciates the public school champions on the committee that raised vital concerns about SB 28—rightly pointing out that it would give charter schools special perks while not improving equity or quality for our public school system. The bill was left pending in committee.

If you haven’t written a letter to your local legislators urging them to vote against SB 28, please do so here!