Education Commissioner Morath violates his own regulations to support charter school takeover in San Antonio ISD

CONTACT: Rob D’Amico, 512-627-1343

Decision by Morath highlights risky nature of PSJA Superintendent Daniel King’s scheme that promises to protect teacher rights while proposing a charter-like takeover of the entire district

Last week, San Antonio ISD received an approval from TEA on its contract to hand over control of Stewart Elementary School to New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep, contingent upon it fixing some things. One item TEA did not say that SAISD needed to fix in its performance contract was to provide assurance that it had consulted with staff on the Stewart Elementary campus. Our local union affiliate, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, recently filed a lawsuit over SAISD’s failure to consult with the staff of the school prior to reaching an agreement to surrender district control to the charter operator.

TEA says in the approval document that the provisions to consult with school faculty before contracting for private management of a public school do not apply to Democracy Prep because it is a non-profit, even though it runs charter schools in New York. The Commissioner says that the provision of the law requiring consultation with school staff only applies to partnerships with open-enrollment charter schools (i.e. charter schools authorized specifically by the state of Texas). While it is true that the Texas law governing school district/charter school partnerships refers to open-enrollment charter schools, when the commissioner drafted his regulations, he made the performance contract requirements, including the assurance regarding consultation and the rights and benefits afforded to current teachers, apply to all “operating partners.” That’s a term that is defined to include “either a state-authorized open enrollment charter school or an eligible entity that includes non-profits, institutions of higher education, etc.” This exclusion of the protections of the law would apply not just to consultation but to existing teacher contract rights as well. In doing this, Commissioner Morath is violating his own regulations.

“The commissioner of education has published regulations that he is now simply ignoring,” said Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro. “His agenda of promoting charter school takeovers of public schools is more important to him than the rights of school employees spelled out in the law. In his rush to rubber stamp charter takeovers, he flouts his own regulations and violates the spirit of the law that speaks to the preservation of basic teacher rights.”

Commissioner Morath’s willingness to disregard his own regulations and to insist that school districts need not consult with their teachers or honor the rights and benefits afforded by current employment contracts if a partnership is proposed between a public school district and a not for profit entity, does not bode well for plans afoot in the Rio Grande Valley-based school district Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. The superintendent for PSJA ISD, Daniel King, has been promoting a plan to try and turn every one of the district’s 43 campuses into partnerships with nonprofits that have yet to be created. Billed as an innovative way to open campuses to creative strategies for improvement by turning schools over to these “Innovative Management Organizations (IMOs),” the plan purports to include specific protections for teacher and student rights.

“All the assurances Superintendent King has been selling his teachers are being denied by TEA in the San Antonio case,” Malfaro said. “What the Commissioner is telling school districts (and by extension school district employees) is that even if districts want to preserve the rights of teachers and students in these contracts with partners, they can’t do it. These entities taking over the neighborhood schools have to have total autonomy in almost all areas, according to Commissioner Morath.”

The TEA letter regarding the contract with Democracy Prep in San Antonio also mandates that San Antonio ISD add another provision to its contract with the charter operator that specifically notes that this partner will be exempt “to the fullest extent allowed” from a host of state laws and district policies—which include teacher rights like contracts, planning time, and duty-free lunch, as well as student rights like disciplinary procedures and class-size caps.

PSJA Superintendent King has said he intends to have teachers vote on his partnership plan called EmpowerED! as early as this Thursday, with a majority of teachers on a campus voting “yes” necessary for the school to be turned over to an IMO. He recently released a draft contract with the partner nonprofit–IMO, Inc.–giving teachers and other school employees less than two days to review it. The Texas AFT affiliate for the district—PSJA AFT—held a community forum last week regarding the plan. Specifics on who these IMOs are and how they would be evaluated are absent from the draft plan and contract.

“Educators have been presented with a shell of a plan that proposes to partner with mystery organizations that haven’t even been formed,” Malfaro said. “No details on how these organizations would be evaluated are evident in the plan. The recent ruling from TEA regarding the San Antonio ISD charter partnership makes it abundantly clear that the lofty rhetoric of teacher empowerment and rights in Superintend King’s EmpowerED! scheme does not comport with the position the TEA commissioner has staked out.”

PSJA AFT is communicating with all district employees urging them to vote no on the plan.

For the full story on the PSJA proposal, see the May 29 Hotline.

Texas American Federation of Teachers represents more than 65,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, support personnel, and higher-education employees across the state. Texas AFT is affiliated with the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers.