Ambika Dani is the head of school for charter school Promesa Academy, which won approval from the State Board of Education. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The State Board of Education gave Promesa Academy approval to open as a new charter school on San Antonio’s West Side, starting in Fall 2019.

The board voted Friday to support Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s recommendation to approve the new San Antonio charter along with three others that will be located in Houston and Lubbock, but not before one board member criticized three applicants’ ties to an outside nonprofit that has funded groups supporting vouchers.

Ambika Dani, Promesa Academy’s head of school, told the Rivard Report her campus plans to open in Fall 2019 as an elementary school with students learning from subject matter experts, rather than teachers who cover multiple subjects. The school will start with kindergarten and first grade, adding one grade to the school in each subsequent year.

Promesa Academy has yet to secure a facility, but Dani said she plans for the school to be located on San Antonio’s West Side in the 78207 zip code area, within the boundaries of the San Antonio Independent School District and near Edgewood ISD.

San Antonio’s 78207 residents experience high levels of poverty and low rates of educational achievement; just under half of residents 25 or older do not have a high school diploma, and the poverty rate approaches 41 percent. Four of the nine elementary schools in the region were deemed by the state to be failing.

On Wednesday, Morath described the process a new charter goes through to gain state approval as a “thrasher” and a “gauntlet.”

“If you’ve ever gone through a sort of venture capital process or an angel investor process, it is not dissimilar,” Morath said.

Of the 21 candidates to become a new charter, only four gained his approval, he told the state board. Promesa Academy was one of the four, but met opposition along with two other applicants during a committee meeting on Thursday.

Board member Ruben Cortez Jr. (D-Brownsville) sought to veto Promesa’s application during a meeting of the SBOE’s committee on school initiatives. He also wanted to veto the applications of two other charters associated with the nonprofit Building Excellent Schools, an organization that trains fellows to create charter schools in urban areas around the country. Dani is a 2017-18 BES fellow.

At one point, the Walton Family Foundation, started by Sam and Helen Walton, was the biggest backer of BES, according to BES’ website. The Walton Family Foundation has also been linked to funding for groups advocating the use of school vouchers.

Throughout Thursday’s committee hearing, Cortez asked Dani about funding decisions Promesa made that didn’t account for transportation, safety, a school counselor, or a library. Dani explained the TEA doesn’t allow charter applicants to rely on competitive grant funding in initial budget proposals, so her budget was “lean.” She said she expects to obtain a number of grants that can be used toward school safety and a school counselor and wants to have a library if funds allow.

The Promesa Academy head of school went on to ask the committee to think of her school as its own individual school, and not look at other schools created by past or present BES fellows as an example of what hers will eventually achieve.

Dani compared the BES fellows program to having graduates from the same university program all go into the same field. You wouldn’t collectively evaluate the success of each of the individual graduates’ program, she said.

In spite of Cortez’s criticism, the committee, which comprises five members, advanced Promesa and the other three applicants to the full board for a vote on Friday.

Board member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse) spoke on Thursday about her concern about the number of new charter schools coming to the state and to San Antonio. Perez-Diaz represents portions of Bexar County as a state board member and is employed by Edgewood ISD as the director of strategic partnerships.

“In San Antonio, I find that we are becoming extremely oversaturated with charter schools, and we are now going to be moving into [the 24th year of applications],” she said, addressing TEA officials. “I think we need to slow down. I think we need to look at what is currently in place and assess progress to this point.”

Many San Antonio school districts have recently said that the growth of charter schools has caused enrollment declines and budget deficits.

TEA Director of Charter School Administration Heather Mauzé told Perez-Diaz that she believes charter school growth has slowed over the years. In 2013, the state legislature increased the number of charter schools allowed in the state by 2019 to 305. The state currently has about 180 active charters, Mauzé said, which is well below the maximum number.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.