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Legislature OKs bills expanding Texas charter schools

The Dallas Morning News
May 27, 2013

By Terrence Stutz

AUSTIN — Opening the door to a new wave of independent charter schools in Texas, the Legislature voted Sunday to gradually lift the longtime limit on the number of charter school operators in the state and to give the Texas Education Agency new authority to clean up troubled schools.

Lawmakers also gave final approval of the other major education bill of the session, a measure that will roll back high-stakes testing and revamp graduation requirements for the state’s more than 1,500 high schools. Both bills now go to Gov. Rick Perry.

The testing bill caps a yearlong drive by school districts and parent groups to reduce the number of exams students must pass to graduate. Students will get a huge break and be required to pass only five instead of 15 end-of-course tests.

The charter measure, authored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, would allow the number of charters to grow from the current 215 to 305 by fall 2019. There would be no new charters in the coming school year, with 10 the year after that. Then, 15 new charters a year would be allowed for several years.
The bill, approved 28-3 in the Senate and 105-41 in the House, also would give the TEA new authority to regulate low-performing charter schools and close them if they are academically unacceptable for three straight years. One of the reasons lawmakers have kept the current cap on charter schools in place is because of the large number that have had academic or financial problems.

“For the first time, this bill will put real teeth into efforts to close down bad charters,” said Patrick, R-Houston. He estimated that about 50 charter schools — 10 percent of the total — were targeted for closure over the past decade.

Charter schools are publicly funded and independent of the school districts where they are located. Created to provide school choice for parents and students dissatisfied with their neighborhood campus, they are free of many of the regulations that govern regular schools but must administer state tests to their pupils.
Under the bill, charter schools would have the first option to buy or lease any school district facility listed for lease or purchase. In addition, the measure authorizes the state commissioner of education to approve new charters rather than the State Board of Education, which now has that responsibility.

Under current law, charter school operators may have multiple campuses. The current 215 charter holders in Texas have 506 campuses with a combined enrollment of just over 154,000 students.

Under the testing measure, students will have to pass five tests to earn a diploma: Algebra I, English I and II, biology and U.S. history. The bill also would overhaul graduation requirements for the first time in several years, giving students more flexibility in course options. It passed the House and Senate unanimously.

The legislation would replace current graduation requirements with a system that allows students to select one of multiple paths — or “endorsements” — to graduation.