Charter Schools: Choice Within Public Education

Photo by Jenifer Whitmey

Thousands of people have marched to the Capitol to rally for more school choice this year. More are on the way, but the truth is, not every gathering on the Capitol’s south steps is promoting the same options. The push to provide more school choice for parents and families is generating much debate this year, and causing some confusion too.

The common thread that stitches school choice advocates together is the knowledge that every student is different and the belief that a “one-size-fits all” approach does not work in education.

But not all school choice is the same, and it is important that the public and policy makers understand the issue as they consider support for various legislative proposals. The choices provided within public education are different from the proposals calling for tax credits or education savings accounts that work outside of public education.

For 22 years, charter schools have provided options within public education, yet some Texans are understandably confused about how these schools work. Public charter schools are frequently — and incorrectly — lumped in with private, religious, or home schools.

Charters are proudly public schools, subject to the same academic and financial standards as traditional public school districts. In fact, charters are held to stronger performance measures, and if our schools do not meet academic and financial requirements three years in a row, we close. Public charter schools do not qualify for funding through the kinds of tuition tax credits or education savings accounts being considered for private, parochial and home schools. To take advantage of these options if they are offered by the state, a parent would have to opt out of public education altogether.

Public charter schools are founded on the premise that quality education can be tailored to meet the learning styles of all students. Nearly 250,000 families have enrolled children in charter schools, and another 141,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charters. These families are hungry for more choices, and they want lawmakers to provide funding to expand their options in public education.

That’s why Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and state Reps. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, and Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, have filed bipartisan legislation — Senate Bill 457 and House Bill 2337 — to help close the funding gap between public charter schools and traditional public schools. This is the first time companion legislation specific to charter school facilities funding has been filed in both chambers of the Texas Legislature. Separately, Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, filed HB 1269 which has a different approach to provide facilities funding for public charter schools.

Gov. Greg Abbott believes it is time to fix the school finance system, he said in his State of the State speech earlier this year. Although the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school funding scheme is constitutional, it also said it is deeply flawed. Texans agree.

In a poll of registered voters done for the Texas Charter Schools Association after the court ruling, 75 percent said they want state lawmakers to equitably fund all public schools. In that survey of registered Texas voters, 62 percent said public charter schools should receive funding equal to all other public schools and that’s not happening now.

On average, charter schools receive about $1,400 less per student than other public schools. The governor is right — it is past time for state lawmakers to fix our school funding system, and any solution should include public charter schools. If lawmakers aren't ready to tackle the whole system, they can start by passing SB 457 and HB 2337 or HB 1269 to ensure we provide more choice in public education.

Public education should not be an “either-or” proposition. It is not an “us-versus-them” choice. Charter schools are now integrally woven into the fabric of our state’s public school system, and thousands of students, parents and supporters are calling, writing and rallying during this state legislative session. Their many voices carry a singular message: support students and the public charter schools serving them.

David Dunn

Executive director, Texas Charter Schools Association

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