SBOE Preview: New Charter Schools up for Consideration

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The State Board of Education (SBOE) convened in Austin from June 25-28 to consider new charter school applications, their funds distribution for the next biennium, and several topics related to work on continuing standards review. 

Instructional Materials 

Tuesday has become, more or less, “instructional materials day” in the boardroom. The board approved for first reading the rules that would allow them to remove materials from its approved list of instructional materials. The board also gave direction to Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff to begin work on developing a new combined set of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in mathematics to meet the requirements of Senate Bill (SB) 2124, creating a more structured path toward students taking Algebra I in grade 8, thus being able to access higher math courses before graduation.  

In an effort to bring needed career and technical education (CTE) courses into the TEKS, the SBOE approved a plan to contract with several community colleges to draft approximately 30 courses for the board and for staff to propose new courses by adapting them from the innovative courses catalog. Members also considered their next steps in TEKS and instructional materials and review (IMRA). There was much discussion about which subject areas should be their priority; the board directed staff to come to the September meeting with a draft schedule. 

STAAR Results 

Wednesday was a long and arduous day dominated by commissioner comments, permanent school fund disbursements (PSF), charter application reviews, and standards for language acquisition.  

The day began with comments from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath on two broad topics, statewide STAAR results and charter schools. His assertion was that year-over-year results for reading appear flat while we are seeing an overall decline in math. 

As with all data, context is important, and the commissioner failed to remind the board that passing scores for the assessments had been adjusted after the 2023 administration where the test received a substantial redesign. But the test was not the only thing redesigned. TEA has also implemented an automated scoring system last December 2023 that has resulted in far more zeros assigned to essays and constructed response questions. Districts are understandably concerned that this already unpopular assessment is now painting students in a more negative light when they are actually exhibiting gains in the classroom. 

We have previously written about this year’s statewide results and the persistent problems they reveal — underfunded schools, lack of mental health resources, and food insecurity — rather than any overarching problems with the curriculum or instructional materials. Morath even insinuated that the drop in performance could be because the A-F system is currently embattled in the courts and that districts will not be rated this August. In other words, according to Morath, districts are not trying as hard since they won’t be graded. 

In a surprising concession, Morath postulated that these results might be linked to an unprecedented number of underprepared and uncertified teachers in the classroom. Board members also called out the lackluster science results as being more indicative of districts not spending sufficient instructional time on that subject area (and other subject areas) in favor of the annually tested reading and math.  

Permanent School Fund & Charter Schools 

Robert Borden, the newly minted chief executive officer (CEO) of the permanent school fund (PSF), discussed with the board the planned distribution to the available school fund (ASF) for the Legislature to disburse to districts as part of its budget appropriations. While there is a statutory cap on the total funds that may be given to the ASF each budget cycle, the SBOE may choose to go below that amount. The concern is achieving a balance between providing as much funding as possible to districts while sustaining the fund for future generations of students and schools. The board will make a decision in the fall so that total disbursement can be reported to the Legislature in advance of the 2025 legislative session. 

The real meat of the Wednesday agenda was charter school application review and approval. As part of his comments, the commissioner reviewed the steps in the application process and previewed the applications he recommended for the board’s approval. 

We previewed this item in a previous Hotline, but the meeting provided the board with an opportunity to hear directly from the applicants, as well as community members both for and against the applications, and to ask questions of the applicants. Over the course of several hours, the board heard from the applicants, but also officials from ISDs in the communities these charter schools would move into. District after district spoke about the unnecessary repetition of opening yet more new charter schools in their areas, as well as the potential academic and fiscal impacts of a new campus opening in their geographies.” At the end of public testimony, the board took a preliminary vote to recommend approving: 

  • Pathway Academy (Big Spring) 
  • The Texas Girls School (Leander/Lake Travis) 
  • Unparalleled Preparatory Academy (Manor) 

Meanwhile, the board took a preliminary vote to recommend vetoing: 

  • Infinite Minds (Arlington) 
  • Visionary STEM Academy (Terrell) 

On Friday, June 28, after the applicants had the opportunity to respond to board member concerns and TEA could provide a final draft of contingencies for the applicants, it still appeared as if the Wednesday votes would hold. In a disappointing turn of events, one of public education’s key allies on the SBOE missed the final vote to veto Infinite Minds, resulting in a vote of 6-7. This means that the SBOE is taking “no action” on the new charter application, and it will be allowed to open. Ultimately, only one application, Visionary STEM Academy in Terrell, was rejected by the board.  

TEA is already looking ahead to the next generation of charter applications. In the spring, the commissioner proposed an 109-page overhaul of the rules governing charters. The changes, which weaken transparency, accountability, and quality, will go into effect in time for the next application cycle. We expect that the rule changes will have a direct impact on the application process.  

HB 1605 Materials Review 

On Thursday, the Committee on Instruction held a public hearing regarding the current IMRA cycle and provided the opportunity for the public to voice concerns with the current materials in review. There were only a handful of speakers for this item, and the committee heard testimony from both sides of the aisle. Comments ranged from praise for the process and need for additional math content to caution over the inclusion of several Biblical references in the TEA-developed materials for English language arts and reading.  

Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year, Taniece Thompson-Smith, addresses the State Board of Education on June 28, 2024. 

Remembering Why We Fight 

In summary, this was a rough week in the boardroom. However, Friday provided a significant bright spot when Taniece Thompson-Smith, a fifth-grade science teacher at Abilene ISD’s Stafford Elementary, was honored as the 2024 Texas Teacher of the Year. Thompson-Smith inspired the room when she spoke of her experiences teaching across the U.S., Jamaica, and Japan (her husband is a retired member of the military). She articulated the joy she gets from her students and collaborating with community members and experts in the field of science to provide experiential learning opportunities in her classroom.  

Naveen Cunha, an eighth-grade robotics teacher at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in Bryan ISD, was also honored as the Secondary Teacher of the Year. The board also offered resolutions celebrating their 2024 Student Heroes and this year’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) winners. After a bruising week, these commemorations serve to remind us that even though we continually have to fight for the respect our profession deserves,  Texas educators continue to do amazing things in our schools. And that’s worth fighting for.