Some members of the State Board of Education want to get into the charter school business.
Representatives for Texas’ 460 independent charter schools asked the State Board of Education on Wednesday to tap into the state’s education trust fund and for the first time provide them classrooms and facilities for their students.
The charter school operators also expressed support for board member David Bradley’s proposal to take up to $100 million from the $22 billion Permanent School Fund and use it to purchase or build facilities that the board would lease to charter schools.
While several board members expressed interest in the facilities idea, others had questions, citing the large number of charter schools that have failed since being first authorized 15 years ago.
“Once the board awards a charter, we have no control over the school after that – and that causes me great concern,” said board member Bob Craig, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t see this as a good investment,”
He said 71 state licenses for charter schools have been revoked, removed or returned since the program began.
Board member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, said the board would have the same concerns as banks and other financial institutions that have been reluctant to lend money to charter operators to build schools or remodel buildings.
A more pointed objection was raised by SBOE Chair Gail Lowe.
Board Chairwoman Gail Lowe , R-Lampasas, said she is a proponent of charter schools and would like to help them cover their facility costs.
But the assets of the fund, which was established by the state constitution in 1876 , have to be invested for the benefit of all Texas schoolchildren for generations to come. Given that mandate, Lowe said, she is not convinced this investment would be in the best interest of the fund, even if only a relatively small amount is dedicated to the program.
“Regardless of what percentage it is, it is still incumbent upon a fiduciary to determine what is in the best interest of the fund,” Lowe said.
The Trib and Abby Rapoport have more on this; board member Bob Craig also pointed out the risk of litigation if someone decides that Bradley’s proposal does not meet the mandate Lowe points out. This proposal by Bradley first surfaced last month, and so far I haven’t seen a good response to the concerns that member-elect Thomas Ratliff and State Rep. Scott Hochberg raised in that story:
Newly elected board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who will take over from former chair Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, in January, said the board has no business going into the rental business.
“If they want to do it, they better do it quick, because I don’t think the votes will be there on the board in January,” he says. “Charter school facilities are a legitimate issue. But it’s a problem for the state Legislature to solve. … If a charter school has a good business model, than it should be no problem getting a loan in the commercial space. And if not, why would we want to invest?”
On the House side, Hochberg says the alternative stretches the SBOE far out of the bounds of its authority over the public school fund. Common sense dictates that the best-possible investment mix to maximize Permanent School Fund revenues will change constantly, as the market changes. Real estate in general might be a great investment today and a terrible one a month from now. A board decision to lock itself into specific properties for the specific purpose of renting only to charters can’t possibly be the best business decision for all market environments — if it makes sense at all, Hochberg says.
“Let’s say you decide to invest a certain amount in real estate, and you buy a building and rent it to Wal-Mart — and then the market changes, so you decide to change investments and sell it. You can do that. But what if a charter school is in there?” Hochberg asks. “They’re not supposed to be in a specific business — they’re supposed to be investing in the long-term interest of the children of the state of Texas.”
It is interesting how Bradley, who is one of those “the government is the problem, the free market is the solution” conservatives wants to use the government to solve a problem with the free market, isn’t it? Things can look a little different when the free market isn’t being kind to something you like, I guess. Having said that, I don’t think Bradley’s plan is completely nuts. I think that if there were sufficient controls in place to ensure that good charter schools could thrive while bad ones could be quickly shut down, there’s an argument to be made for the state helping out with the facilities end of things. I think that’s a job better suited for the Lege, however. Having an answer for Ratliff and Hochberg would be nice, too.
In the end, the SBOE decided to go for it. After initially voting to adopt an asset allocation plan as a committee that did not include any charter school funds, the Board then went ahead and allocated some funds for this plan.
The measure passed 7-6 with two members absent: Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio. Agosto voted against the measure in committee yesterday and could have killed it today by voting the same way. Berlanga’s position on the issue is unknown, but she often votes against the conservative members who pushed the measure.
The board’s bloc of social conservatives usually consists of seven Republicans on the 15-member panel, including chairwoman Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas. While Lowe voted against the plan, the bloc succeeded in pulling a Democratic vote from Rene Nunez, of El Paso. Other members voting for the plan included David Bradley, R-Beaumont — who spearheaded the idea — Don McLeroy, R-Bryan; Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; Terri Leo, R-Spring; Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond; and Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands.
The allocation was contingent on a favorable opinion from the Attorney General and “express legislative authority”. I have a feeling the Lege is more likely to expressly yank their chain on this, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Until then, consider it one last parting gift from the McLeroy/Dunbar axis of ideology. Abby Rapoport has more.