After Years of Squashing School Choice in Texas, the Speaker of the House May Be Singing a Different Tune

EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four's ongoing coverage of state-level education news, issues and leaders in the run up to 2016 elections. (Among our previous stories in this series, stories from Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada Ohio and Pennsylvania. See the latest stories here). The Texas primaries are scheduled for March 1.
A few days before Halloween, Joe Straus, the four-term speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, strode to a podium in the Grand Oaks Ballroom at the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio and made a joke at his own expense.
“As a lifelong resident of San Antonio, I learned a long time ago that when I speak before (NBA All-Star and education philanthropist) David Robinson, it really doesn’t matter much what I have to tell you. So I promise I will be very brief.”
After letting laughter ripple through the room for a second, Straus, a Republican, launched into a three-minute speech that lavished praise on the hundreds of charter school educators assembled before him to kick off the Texas Charter Schools Association’s annual state conference.
“You are innovating, you are creating and you are breaking new ground,” Straus said. “Your commitment to students is such that you’re unafraid to try new approaches and to go the extra mile.”
Jokes aside, what Straus had to say — and his presence alone — did indeed matter. Perhaps a lot. It was his first appearance at the annual gathering of more than 1,300 charter school educators from around the state since he became speaker in 2009.
And it followed his six-year stint at the helm of a Republican-dominated House of Representatives that has, with few exceptions, blocked bills that many education reform types, including charter operators, support and teachers unions generally oppose.
The Straus era (he was first elected in 2005) has not been a time when school choice, innovation or accountability were given much air in the Lone Star State and that stifling may be traced to the political connections and alliances of Straus and other members of the House leadership.
Just consider a quick sampling of the bills that have died slow and quiet deaths in House committees since 2009:
—Senate Bill 1900/House Bill 3392 to open up public funding to support charter schools that want to grow their facilities
—Senate Bill 893/House Bill 2543 to require teacher evaluations annually, rather than the current every three to five years, and tie student test scores to appraisals and compensation
—Senate Bill 14/House Bill 1727 to fast-track the “parent empowerment” process used to prompt state intervention in poor-performing schools. Under the Senate version, parents could “trigger” intervention after two years of failure rather than the five currently required.
—Senate Bill 4 to use state tax credits to encourage up to $100 million in business donations to fund a scholarship program for low-income parents who want to place their children in private schools.
In several cases, bills were snuffed out procedurally. For example: HB 1536, a bill to allow interventions in underperforming public school districts, was reviewed favorably by the education committee and submitted to the calendar committee long before deadline. Yet it never made it to the calendar for official discussion on the floor. A competing bill authored by Aycock — and seen by reformers as the weaker of the two — passed instead.
In other cases, the parent trigger bill and the private school scholarship program, they were expressly opposed by Straus-appointee Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican from Killeen.
Aycock was appointed by Straus in 2013 to chair the House Committee on Public Education, meaning any education bill must go through his panel before it gets a hearing on the House floor. Aycock declined to comment for this story. In June he announced his retirement, effective when a successor is appointed in January 2017, his office said.
Not as free market as you might think
Reform-minded folks view Texas as a should-be leader in school choice. It’s a state with a long history of consumer choice, deregulation (as in the energy market) and bold individualism. Houston is internationally known as a center of innovation in commerce, technology, science and health care.  But when it comes to schools, a cautious dynamic exists around education reform among local districts and school boards — and that’s reflected, some say, in the decisions made in the Austin statehouse.
Meanwhile, demand for high-quality charter school seats has soared in Texas in the last five years, especially for grades 9-12, said Colleen Dippel, executive director of the nonprofit Families Empowered.
Parents of an estimated 124,586 children throughout Texas are now waiting on the call or the letter that would grant their son or daughter entry into a charter school and potentially change their lives.
Around 227,000 kids are currently enrolled in some 635 individual charter schools, which are managed by 182 charter operators, according to the latest figures provided by the Texas Charter Schools Association and Texans for Quality Public Charter Schools.
Charter enrollment is expected to grow along with overall public school enrollment in the state, which surpassed 5.1 million students last year.
"Our legislators are not reflecting what we know our parents want and that’s a little shocking,” Dippel said in a recent interview.
Since 2009, her organization has tracked families on waitlists in Houston and, more recently, in San Antonio and helps match them with schools of any sort that meet their needs, including district schools, magnets, private schools and charters. (Dippel is married to Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP charter network.)
In Houston this school year, roughly 10,036 families are waitlisted for one of 5,073 available seats in two of the biggest charter networks, KIPP and Yes Prep, according to data collected by Families Empowered.
“We think there’s an appetite on the part of low-income families for an opportunity,” Dippel said. “When you want to talk about opportunity and unmet demand, there’s nothing more telling than that.”
Shamica Coleman, who has two sons in fourth grade and a daughter in eighth grade, has submitted applications to multiple schools, including a college prep high school in the Houston Independent School District and three charter networks, for the second year in a row. She was told it could take several years for a spot to open up, but she’s willing to reapply, wait and reapply again — as long as it takes.
“I just want her to be able to get the best education available without 30 kids in the class and without distractions,” Coleman said of her daughter. She is thrilled by the thought of her daughter attending an alternative school with smaller class sizes, extended school days and extra support with college prep.
Her boys, on the other hand, need tutoring that hasn’t been available at the neighborhood district school they attend, she said, and she’d like them to go somewhere with stricter discipline.
“My son got stabbed in the neck with a pencil and they didn’t even call me,” she said. She only found out because she happened to walk into the school when the nurse was cleaning up the blood, she said.
Another waitlist parent, Serafin Paz of Houston, brought his wife, Leslie, and their 11-year-old son, Carlos Adrian, to the U.S. from Honduras 18 months ago and they’ve since struggled to find the right in-school support to improve their son’s English skills.
They’ve applied to transfer Carlos Adrian to KIPP from his current school, a charter academy affiliated with the Houston Independent School District that focuses on science and math.
“We’re looking for a school where they will pay more attention to the language program,” Paz said. Without mastering English, the couple worries they won’t see their only son go on to college and a career.
A charter compromise, “no” to vouchers
Education groups on the opposite side of the spectrum, like the pro-union Raise Your Hand Texas, seem satisfied with the outcomes of the last few legislative sessions.
At the same time, they are wary about measures like vouchers and education tax credits, which typically use public money to offset tuition costs for parents who want to send their children to private schools of their choice.
“I’d say in the last 10 years we’ve seen a shift in privatization of education and increasing focus on issues that are not benefitting all kids and not equitable for all kids,”  Raise Your Hand Texas Executive Director David Anthony said.
Anthony said he supports school choice and innovation but, like power players in the House, remains staunchly opposed to vouchers or similar initiatives, a key wishlist item for reformers. Bills advanced in 2013 and 2015 both failed.
“There are a lot of things we can do to provide kids with a quality education, to provide a choice, but it doesn’t mean we have to sell it out to the highest bidder," he said. “If you’re going to use public tax dollars there should be accountability to the public — I think that should be a critical piece of any proposal and we haven’t seen that.”
One major exception to the legislative pattern was Senate Bill 2, a grand compromise of sorts that passed in 2013. Authored by then-Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, who is now lieutenant governor, the bill raised the cap on the number of charters the state could issue, from 215 to 305 through 2019.
At the same time it did strengthen accountability, tightening oversight of charter schools and requiring that poor-performing schools be closed after three years of academic or financial failure. Since the bill was passed, some 20 charters — from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley — have been shuttered under the law.
Applicants for new charters are also held to more stringent standards and state officials don’t approve more than a handful each year, so Texas isn’t pushing up against the cap now.
Adam Jones, a former deputy commissioner and chief operating officer at the Texas Education Agency, would like to see more movement.
“Texas is a dynamic, vibrant state in terms of intellectual capital and economic growth and I’m concerned with our education system’s ability to keep up and be willing to embrace innovation and change,” said Jones, who now runs the lobbying firm Capitol Jones.
As director of the Senate Education Committee in the early 2000s, Jones helped set the agenda and provided policy input. In contrast to the House, the Senate has typically been more keen to advance reform measures.
“I don’t want K-12 public education to be a risk-averse entity because I think in Texas the system has great potential,” Jones said.
Strategizing for 2017 and a new ed chief
Groups like the Texas Charter Schools Association and Texans for Education Reform are looking to the 2017 legislative session to revitalize a proposal that would allow charters to access direct state funding to finance improvements or additions to existing facilities, like traditional public schools do.
Currently, the state sets aside a slice of a capital fund to guarantee low-interest construction bonds for charters, and offers aid to get new facilities up and running, but charters can’t tap into the state’s other major pot of direct aid for building improvements.
Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of the Not Your Ordinary School (NYOS) in north Austin, testified before a Senate committee on the issue in early December. Her pre-K school of 925 students has about 3,000 applicants on a waitlist. It got its charter around 1998 and has since built a seasoned teaching staff and posted strong academic results, she said. Some publicity about the school’s national rankings has raised its profile. With the waitlist numbers as high as they’ve ever been, it seems to be the right time to expand into the elementary grades, Zimmerman said.
The problem? There’s no extra space.
“All of these people want the experience that NYOS offers and they’re not able to access it,” she said in an interview. “It just is baffling to me why the state doesn’t contribute any money at all to the space where charter school kids are educated.”
To have any chance of changing that, Zimmerman and other advocates will have to convince Straus, for one.
Straus declined to be interviewed for this story, though spokesman Jason Embry issued a statement via e-mail: “Speaker Straus is focused on improving education for all students and he welcomes further discussion of school choice proposals.”
Embry touted the 2013 House vote raising the charter cap and strengthening charter accountability as evidence of Straus’ support for school choice. He also noted that an “overwhelming bipartisan majority” of House members voted the same year to block funding for school voucher programs, and that in 2015, “voucher advocates asked that a similar vote not occur.”
Texas Republican Joe Straus, speaker of the state House of Representatives, addresses hundreds of educators at the annual conference of the Texas Charter Schools Association in October 2015.

Photo: Adam Sear

In explaining House lawmakers’ routine resistance to such measures, Straus’ critics in the reform camp point to one of his major supporters, billionaire businessman and union ally Charles Butt, CEO of the grocery chain H-E-B.

Charles Butt is a long-time supporter of public education. His investments in Texas public schools include millions of dollars distributed through H-E-B’s philanthropic arm to distinguished public school educators and districts as part of the annual Excellence in Education awards.
The founder of the supermarket empire Butt now runs was herself a former school teacher. His grandmother, Florence Thornton Butt, earned a college degree in the late 1800s when very few women did and taught school before opening a small grocery store in Kerrville, Texas to support her ailing husband and their children.
Since 2005, Charles Butt has contributed nearly $1.4 million to the Texas Parent PAC, the fundraising operation that primarily supports state lawmakers who’ve shown commitment to championing traditional public schools and protecting taxpayer funding for them. Parent PAC, in turn, has doled out campaign donations to Straus, Aycock and others who sit on the education committee and the powerful calendars committee, which schedules hearings and votes on bills coming up through the system.
Butt’s individual donations to Straus via the super PAC Texans for Joe Straus (not including other potential donor streams) total $183,100 since 2005, public records show.
Straus has deep pockets — $8 million in the bank, the Texas Tribune reported in July. Voters in his home district in Bexar County, including a sizeable number of Democrats, have consistently re-elected him to serve a constituency that’s generally whiter, wealthier and better-educated than the rest of the state and the city of San Antonio, the county’s urban core. That stands in contrast to the mostly low-income communities of color that are yearning for access to schools of choice in Texas’ cities.
Butt has also been generous to Rep. Todd Hunter, the chair of the calendars committee, and Rep. Eduardo Lucio III, the vice chair. He’s donated $85,000 to Hunter and $26,500 to Lucio, who essentially control when and if a bill crosses the threshold from committee to the House floor.
As Speaker Straus gears up to seek re-election to a fifth term — and faces an unusual opponent in former San Antonio Tea Party board member Jeff Judson — some in Texas’ urbanite pro-education reform circles say he seems to be warming to their demands.
He may have even acknowledged as much himself in his remarks at the charter association conference this fall. “With our state growing so rapidly and with our economy becoming more diverse by the day, we need schools that embrace fresh thinking,” he told the audience. “And with so much at stake, we also need schools that are transparent with parents and transparent with taxpayers. Charter schools succeed because you are both innovative and accountable. You embrace new ideas and you understand that taxpayers have a right to know how you are putting their money to use.”
He also assured them that, as the latest iteration of Texas’ school finance lawsuit winds its way through the courts, lawmakers will continue to consider reforms to the system and “you all will certainly have a seat at that table.” (Aycock’s school finance-reform bill failed to gain traction last spring.)
The lawsuit was filed in 2011 after the state slashed education funding by $5.4 billion, post-recession, by coalitions of hundreds of public school districts that mostly serve minority children in low-property-tax areas. They argue that the state system doesn’t properly fund schools and that it inequitably distributes the aid it does supply. For the first time in years of related litigation, the charter sector got involved in this fight (Texas Charter Schools Association is a plaintiff), with an eye on winning facilities funding.
Back in the Marriott ballroom in San Antonio in October, it was likely that some of the same charter school educators listening closely to Straus were among the hundreds of school choice supporters who had rallied on the steps of the state Capitol, and visited his office in Austin just 10 months earlier, as the 2015 legislative session opened.
At the time, the ralliers (organized in part by the Texas Charter Schools Association) had high hopes of persuading Strauss, Aycock and other members of the Republican leadership that their education reform measures deserved urgent attention.
They went home disappointed as the session ended with few gains. But the appointment last month of a new, reform-minded state education commissioner, Mike Morath, could signal an opening for school choice in the upcoming 2017 legislative session, as could the eventual replacement of Aycock as House education committee chair.
Aycock remains on the state payroll through 2016, though he has already shuttered his official website, released key staff members and has made it no secret on social media that he’s eager to retire.
Texas lawmakers are elected to serve two-year terms but they officially convene in Austin every other year, using the interim or “off” year for research and committee hearings on potential agenda items (not to mention campaigning). 2016 is one of those “off” years, and Straus has directed the House education committee — under Aycock’s waning leadership — to use it to study up on school choice programs in other states and examine how one might work in Texas.
Lawmakers should "recommend whether an expansion of school choice in Texas is needed, and suggest ways to ensure that any school receiving public support is held accountable for its academic and financial performance," the Texas Tribune reported in November.
Coupled with Gov. Greg Abbott’s December appointment of Morath — a former Dallas school board member credited with championing a public school choice initiative and a teacher evaluation system that ties compensation to performance rather than seniority — reformers may have reason to renew hope.
In fact, Texans for Education Reform Chairman and Board President Florence Shapiro went so far as to deem the governor’s choice “visionary” in a statement the day of the announcement: “Mike (Morath) makes academic achievement a priority at Dallas ISD and works tirelessly to assure that decisions focus on what is best for children in our public schools,” Shapiro said. “This is a visionary appointment by the Governor and we believe it is monumental for students, families, and educators in Texas.”


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