If public school funding in Texas were a high school football game, independent school districts would be running the ball uphill and into the wind, while public charters played offense with a tailwind, looking down at their opponents.

The playing field, by intention and legislation, isn’t level. That isn’t opinion; it’s fact. Since the Texas Legislature passed a 1995 law allowing the establishment of public charters, charter operators have been allowed to operate free of many of the rules governing the 1,027 school districts in the state.

“Charter schools are subject to fewer state laws than other public schools,” the Texas Education Agency states on its Charter Schools web page. “The reduced legislation encourages more innovation and allows more flexibility, though state law does require fiscal and academic accountability from charter schools.”

That law promoting innovation and experimentation, critics argue, gives an unfair advantage to charters at the expense of districts. As charter schools continue to expand 23 years later, district leaders have called for greater equity in how the State governs and finances all public schools.

It’s been four years since a state district court judge ruled that the public school finance system in Texas is unconstitutional, and two years since the Texas Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case, declaring the State’s funding system an embarrassment yet constitutional.

“Texas’ more than 5 million schoolchildren deserve better than serial litigation over the increasingly Daedalean system. They deserve transformation, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century,” the court wrote in its 100-page opinion.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick published an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News Friday that sidestepped the Supreme Court’s conclusions in a commentary titled, “State committed to funding education.”

That raises the question of whether legislators will act on the findings of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which was created by legislators in 2017 and will deliver its report in December in advance of the 2019 legislative session.

One logical solution would be for legislators to recognize that districts operate under a greater burden than charters and should be funded accordingly while also being incentivized to innovate. In other words, if the State is going to impose greater regulation on district schools, it should recognize that cost and adjust funding formulas.

Legislators also could help districts weather falling enrollment attributed to charter growth by providing targeted bridge funding that recognizes districts cannot immediately implement significant budget cuts without affecting the quality of service to students.

Everyone wants improved education outcomes, but how we get there depends on your philosophical view. While some people are resolutely anti-district or anti-charter, most civic-minded people understand that neither the districts nor the charters are going anywhere, so the focus should be on encouraging even greater innovation while working to level the playing field.

There are plenty of other states and, for that matter, nations that serve as examples for smarter funding and oversight of high-performing public schools.

Highly engaged parents understandably don’t want to wait for a commission report on Texas public school funding. They want the best possible education for their children now. More and more of those families who live in neighborhoods with underperforming district schools are opting to enroll their children in charters if they can gain entry. The majority of families, however, simply do not have that option. There are more than 5.5 million students attending public schools, according to the Texas Education Agency, with only five percent enrolled in charters. Charters are an option only for a small minority.

Many of the leading charters report long waiting lists even as they continue to expand and open new campuses. In San Antonio, that trend is most evident in the charter schools organized under the Choose to Succeed mantle: BASIS Schools, Great Hearts Academies, IDEA Public Schools, and KIPP San Antonio.

Charter schools operate with greater freedom and fewer challenges by design. Most charter operators do not provide the same level of expensive special education services for students with disabilities. Many do not accept students with juvenile criminal records. Charters can more easily expel disruptive students.

Most big urban districts offer 13 fall and spring sports for boys and girls, employing coaches, maintaining facilities and equipment, while also offering many other non-athletic extracurricular activities. Although Texas does not require districts to transport students, most districts operate and maintain costly bus fleets. Most charters do not provide transportation.

Jessica Rieger makes sure a Davis Middle School student understands the lesson in English class.
Jessica Rieger makes sure a Davis Middle School student understands the lesson in English class. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The State’s complex funding formulas treat charters like small school districts, so they receive what amounts to a subsidy that leads to greater funding for each charter student than a student enrolled in a big urban district. Put another way, each time a student moves from one of San Antonio’s big school districts to a public charter, the cost to taxpayers goes up. Worse, as districts lose students to charters, the State penalizes them by reducing funding, which is why both the North East and San Antonio ISDs face multimillion dollar shortfalls in the coming year.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that charters are not bound by the section of the Texas Education Code that governs the employment of teachers by districts. Teachers employed by school districts enjoy greater job security, but it’s more difficult to terminate an ineffective teacher who has cleared a probationary period. Charters are free to hire and fire at will, and they do. Teacher turnover rates at charters are three times higher than at district schools.

Teachers employed in SAISD enjoy two key incentives to spend their careers there. The district is one of only about 20 in the state that enrolls teachers in Social Security while also paying into the state pension fund. That’s a key benefit because teacher pay and pensions in Texas rank poorly nationally, as the Texas Tribune reported last week.

An even greater benefit afforded SAISD teachers is continuing contracts. All other districts statewide offer term contracts. In effect, SAISD teachers enjoy tenure. Terminating an ineffective teacher who has passed the probationary period costs an average of $50,000 in legal fees, according to SAISD’s Chief Communications Officer Leslie Price, and requires a months-long appeal and review process that includes a hearing before the school board.

The vast majority of teachers are some of the most selfless, dedicated people in society, and many inspire students to great levels of achievement, but that is no solace for parents who find their children in a classroom with an underperforming teacher protected by a continuing contract.

The district could move to term contracts like all other districts in Bexar County and beyond with a simple school board vote, a move that likely would ignite a war between trustees and the San Antonio Alliance of  Teachers and Support Personnel, commonly referred to as the teachers union. Tensions already run high as a result of the decision by Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the board in March to enter into a two-year agreement with charter operator Democracy Prep to take control of Stewart Elementary, a failing school on the city’s Eastside.

Readers interested in learning more about school finance reform should dive into Investing in Our Future, a series published by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. For more than three decades, the State’s elected leadership has failed to address comprehensive school finance reform.

What lawmakers do or do not do next year will signal whether the State’s more than 5 million students will get the education they need and deserve, and whether districts and charters will operate under an equitable set of rules and regulations.

As a footnote, I served as a judge for the 2017-18 Trinity Prize for Excellence in Teaching, which recognizes two teachers working in one of the area’s 21 school districts. We met personally with each of the 19 finalists after reviewing their nominations. The winners honored at a ceremony Friday at Trinity University were Andrea Lucas, a fourth-grade teacher at SAISD’s Lamar Elementary School, and Jeff Wheatcraft, the STEM coordinator at Alamo Heights Junior School. It was hard not to vote for all 19 finalists. Both winners received a crystal apple and a check for $2,500, presented by the Trinity’s Department of Education and H-E-B.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.