It's time for Texas to invest in all public school students

Photo by Jenifer Whitmey

In a recent TribTalk column, Michelle Smith calls for more support and investment for public schools in Texas, and we could not agree more. 

That is a primary reason the Texas Charter Schools Association was a plaintiff in the lawsuit on the state’s school finance system. While the Texas Supreme Court determined that it is for the legislature to address the funding system, the Court recognized the rights of charter school students to an adequate, suitable and efficient education. 

This is an opportune time to provide some clarity around public charter schools and some considerations to providing an education that is “adequate, suitable and efficient.”

Charter schools in Texas are public schools and have been since their inception in 1995. According to the state education code, “An open-enrollment charter school is part of the public school system of this state.” Public charter schools must meet the same federal and state academic and financial requirements as all other public schools.

Student enrollment at public charter schools has grown exponentially in Texas and most recently, the Texas Education Agency reported, “Between 2004-05 and 2014-15, total enrollment in open-enrollment charter schools increased by 161,993 students, or by 244.9 percent. In the 2014-15 school year, there were 616 open-enrollment charter school campuses that served 228,153 students.” The average growth rate for public charter schools is 14 percent annually, as compared to statewide enrollment which is two percent.

Moreover, public charter schools have higher proportions of underserved students including those who are economically disadvantaged, African-American, Hispanic, and Limited English Proficient. These underserved subgroups are outperforming their peers at school districts in reading, writing, and math according to the most recent Texas Academic Performance Report data. 

Student performance is only one reason there are nearly 130,000 students on a waiting list in Texas and currently, charter schools cannot expand to meet the growing demand for additional seats. Most significantly, public charter schools do not receive any facilities funding. In fact, public charter schools receive on average $1,000 less per student than other traditional public schools across the state. As a result, public charter schools utilize their operational funds which are intended for classroom instruction. 

The combination of public charter school’s rapid growth and lack of facilities funds leaves no other option besides applying the same innovation and flexibility in the classroom to operations and business practices. Often times, this results in charter schools operating out of a commercial shopping center or modular buildings.  It may also mean using the same room for a cafeteria, gymnasium, and auditorium. These are some of the challenges that charter operators are faced with daily, and apparently, their practices are working.  While public charter schools make up approximately four percent of the public schools in the state, 40 percent of school districts that earned a five-star rating from the comptroller's were charters for their cost-effective spending and student academic progress.

Over 20 years, public charter schools have earned a proven record of meeting the needs of students and communities by providing a quality public education. Let’s narrow the funding gap by providing facilities funds to these schools and support their efforts. The best way to achieve an adequate, suitable, and efficient education is to move students from a waiting list to a classroom.

David Dunn

Executive director, Texas Charter Schools Association