TEA Is More Aggressively Closing Charter Schools, but Is It Targeting the Right Ones?

No one wants to give kids a crappy education with taxpayer dollars, but Texas regulators are now cracking down on a few charter schools that aren't actually the most embarrassing ones in the state.

In an announcement this month, the Texas Education Agency called out six charter schools that it plans to shut down in June, though the specifics of what the schools did wrong were vague. "The Texas Education Agency has identified six open-enrollment charter schools that meet the legislative criteria for mandatory revocation of their charter under Senate Bill 2," is the official explanation.

Looking at the numbers, the picture gets murkier. For example, one of those six schools getting the axe is American Youthworks, a charter school based in Austin. The TEA sent the school letter with the bad news on December 18.

Yet academically, American Youthworks has actually been doing okay, even as many other charter schools haven't kept up.

In fact, this August the TEA released academic ratings for all of the state's charter schools and gave 20 percent of the charters a failing "improvement required" grade. But Youthworks was not one of those failures. Instead, the school's academics won it a "met alternative standard" seal of approval from the TEA.

"We are academically strong," the school said in a statement. "The only negative [academic] ratings we have received are for a campus that we closed in 2010, by our own choice."

The TEA plans to move ahead to and revoke the charter anyway. The agency doesn't provide a reasoning so much as the law. Under Senate Bill 2, a charter-reform bill that passed in June and went into effect in September, the TEA gets a simple, predictable formula for deciding which charter schools don't deserve their charters anymore. Specifically, the TEA can revoke a charter that failed to pass either an academic rating or a financial rating for the past three years. In other words, a failing financial rating from 2010 counts the same as a failing academic rating from 2013.

"Failure can include three years in one specific area (academic or financial), or any combination of the two," the TEA explains on its website.

The Texas Charter Schools Association, which represents many of the big charters, has been supportive of Senate Bill 2. Among many other measures, the bill also makes it easier for new charter schools to open, lifting an old statewide cap on the number of charter licenses the state can grant.

But the schools now being closed under the bill are obviously not thrilled. They say they are being targeted by a rigid "one size fits all policy" that punishes schools for past academic and financial mistakes, even mistakes that have since been corrected.

With American Youthworks, for instance, the letter that the TEA sent points out the failing academic marks the school got during the 2010-2011 year. Though Youthworks has since corrected that, it still apparently counted against the charter. The TEA letter also says that Youthworks failed financial ratings for the past three years.

Youthworks contests that its finances are in trouble. "We would love for the TEA to review our books," the school says, claiming to have both a "positive bank balance," no outstanding payments and a $3.5 million endowment.

Another school with a complicated history set to close is Honors Academy, a Dallas-based charter school district with seven campuses across the state. In this year's academic rankings, three of its campuses were marked as needing "improvement" for either low STAAR test scores or low college preparation scores, which is based on the drop-out and graduation rate. The other four campuses did OK academically, all meeting state standards. Overall, the district met most of its academic standards but got an "improvement required" academic rating because of the college prep scores.

Honors claims in a press release that it had already made an arrangement with the TEA to work on its graduation and drop-out rate. The school says that last May, a TEA monitor even agreed to stop monitoring the school after Honors came up with an "action plan."

"TEA agreed with the action and progress made with the corrective action plan," the school says in a statement. John Dodd, the CEO of Honors, says he plans to appeal.

The other schools targeted for closing are the Richard Milburn Academy in suburban Houston, which also "met alternative standard" this year; the Azelway Charter in Tyler, which hasn't been ranked academically this year; and the Jamie's House Charter School in Houston and the Koinonia Community Learning Academy in Houston, both of which did worse, failing the academic ratings.

The schools all have a chance to appeal, but that could be tricky, because the rankings themselves that lead to the closure "are now final and not appealable," the TEA's revocation letters say.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn