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The House Public Education Committee met April 28 to hear testimony on three bills the committee was unable to hear the day before due to a procedural issue. Included was SB 28 related to the State Board of Education’s charter applicant veto power.

As the House sponsor, Chair Harold Dutton introduced a committee substitute for SB 28. As passed by the Senate, the bill would make changes to the procedure for approval of charter schools. It would  change the number of SBOE members that must vote against the grant of the charter from a majority of members to a “supermajority” of nine. It would limit what issues can be considered by the board when determining whether to approve or deny a charter. The bill also would require a political subdivision to consider an open-enrollment charter a school district for the purposes of zoning, project permitting, platting processes, business licensing, etc. It would also prohibit a political subdivision from taking any action that prevents an open-enrollment charter school from operating a public-school campus, educational support facility, athletic facility, or administrative office that it could not take against a public-school district. Additionally, in instances where a charter application process includes scoring criteria to be used by an external application review panel and that include a minimum score necessary for eligibility for selection, the SBOE is required to adopt procedures for an appeal of application selection determination. The bill adds “an open-enrollment charter school” to the definition of a local governmental entity and also adds open-enrollment charter schools to the law that governs school district and land development standards.

Dr. Kevin Brown, TASA executive director, testified in opposition, stating that the bill, as passed by the Senate, makes it easier for out-of-state charter operators to access Texas tax dollars, and that it weakens (rather than strengthens) the vetting and oversight of the state’s charter approval process. He said the bill also weakens our democracy by taking control away from locally elected school boards, cities, and counties. Brown said that, as elected officials, legislators do not have specified parameters that limit their votes on proposed legislation, yet the bill establishes such parameters limiting SBOE members, who are also elected officials, when making charter veto decisions. He stressed that the bill consolidates power to TEA (an unelected body) that expands charters at an alarming rate: 637 in the past seven years, many of which have many D- and F-rated campuses yet are allowed to expand into A-rated districts, and that underserve economically disadvantaged, special education, and students with disciplinary problems. He described the lengthy process a district must go through to get a bond passed in their community, whereas a charter does not have to go to the same level of effort and community outreach in their process to open. He shared an example from the A-rated district of which he was formerly superintendent in which, after a successful two-year bond election process, a charter campus opened unexpectedly, leading to a significant negative fiscal impact on the district. Brown stressed that the statement of impact that districts receive doesn’t inform those potentially affected by a charter campus opening by telling you specifics of location.

Dr. Jamie Wilson, Denton ISD superintendent, testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of his district and himself. He said the veto provision in the committee substitute that removed the supermajority vote did not go far enough when more than 637 charter expansions have been approved without any oversight by an elected official. He encouraged the committee members to consider adding a provision to the bill that gives expansion oversight to the SBOE as elected officials. Wilson said that DISD, as a fast-growth district, has to go through multiple municipalities, conduct traffic impact studies, and fulfill other requirements before opening a new campus and that charters should follow the same guidelines.

Dr. Keven Ellis, chair of the SBOE, testified virtually “on” the bill on behalf of himself. He said that current statute is quiet on the reasons the board can veto a new charter, and the bill adds parameters that limit the SBOE’s considerations when making veto determinations on the commissioner’s recommendation for a new charter operator approval. Ellis also shared data that demonstrates the SBOE has not vetoed a high number of charters. The committee discussed with Dr. Ellis the commissioner’s sole authority on charter expansions.

HD Chambers, Alief ISD superintendent, testified virtually in opposition to the bill on behalf of his district and the Texas School Alliance for two reasons: 1) concerns with what could happen if the bill goes to conference committee even with removal of the “supermajority” vote provision in the committee substitute; and, 2) belief that all charter expansions should go through the SBOE as an elected board so that there can be open discussions in which support or concerns can be voiced. He added that such a provision would strengthen the bill.

A TEA resource witness answered questions posed by committee members. Rep. Alma Allen brought up that the bill will help the large conglomerate of out-of-state charter operators that continue to expand in Texas. Rep. Keith Bell compared charter expansion to a “virus” with growth that goes unchecked by elected officials. Rep. James Talarico asked about the original purpose of charters in statute, noting that it appears that the state lacks thoughtfulness in the process and a consistent purpose.

Arati Singh, an Austin ISD trustee, testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of TASB and AISD. Singh shared an example of a charter application that had critical flaws that only became public because of the SBOE’s due diligence. She said that a charter applicant approved by the commissioner wanted to offer as an innovative program in AISD a “social and emotional” learning program that AISD already had in place. She named other discrepancies in the commissioner-approved charter application, such as the charter’s claim that AISD had six failing schools, when in fact, it had none. She asked that the limitations on what the SBOE could consider during veto determinations be removed from the bill. Representatives for ATPE and Pastors for Texas Children testified in opposition to the bill. Three representatives of charter schools, a charter school student, and a representative of the Texas Charter School Association testified in support of the bill. The bill was left pending.

Chair Harold Dutton introduced a committee substitute for HB 3880 that would redefine “special services” as it relates to special education as “specially designed instruction” and would expand the components of that type of instruction to include adaptation of the content, methodology or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of a student resulting from the student’s disability and ensure the student’s access to the required curriculum to allow the student to meet educational standards set by TEA. The bill also defines “specific learning disability.” There was much testimony in support of the bill including a board trustee for Conroe ISD, numerous parents, Kristin McGuire representing TCASE, a student, and representatives of several dyslexia and disability related advocacy organizations. SBOE member Dr. Audrey Young testified “on” the bill as a staff member of Nacogdoches ISD. A representative of the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA) and Impact Dyslexia, a grassroots effort, testified in opposition to the bill. After all testimony was heard, Chair Dutton sais that although the committee hadn’t done this before, they would vote immediately on the bill. With an 8/0 vote, the bill was voted out by the committee.

Chair Dutton introduced SB 338 on behalf of Sen. Beverly Powell. It would allow a school district to adopt uniform general conditions that would be included in all the district’s building construction contracts. It would also add a representative of TASB and a representative of TASA (appointed by the Facilities Commission) to the committee that periodically reviews the uniform general conditions of state building construction contracts. The new appointees must be appointed by December 1, 2021. One individual testified in support of the bill. The bill was left pending.