AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The top proponent for school choice in the Texas Legislature vowed Wednesday that his much-watched effort to expand charter schools in Texas will become law — even though it could still face a tough road in the House.
Speaking to a midday charter school rally at the state Capitol featuring hundreds of activists, parents and teachers — some of whom brought their classes from Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — Sen. Dan Patrick cried, "I feel really good!"
"For the first time in almost 15 years, this Legislature is going to pass a bill addressing charter schools," Patrick said. "Raising the cap, allowing for more flexibility, innovation and an opportunity for those 100,000 parents who are on a waitlist."
Charter schools were first legalized in Texas in 1995 but the Legislature has not passed major legislation on them since 2001. Patrick, a tea party-backed Houston Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would gradually lift the current cap of 215 charters issued statewide, allowing it to increase to 305 over the next six years.
He originally wanted an unlimited number of charters, but had to scale back his proposal dramatically in order to win approval in the Texas Senate last month.
For now, Texas has issued 209 charters. Because operators can use a single charter to run multiple campuses, though, the state has 506 total charter schools educating 154,278 children, or around 3 percent of its 5 million-plus public school students.
Patrick and other advocates point to a survey conducted last summer by the Texas Charter School Association in claiming that nearly 102,000 more students across the state are waitlisted for charter schools that don't have the space to accommodate them.
The bill has yet to be heard in the House, however, and charter school legislation that passed the Senate died in the lower chamber during the last two legislative sessions in 2011 and 2009.
"It needs to get to the House floor, it needs to pass and we need to get this to the governor's desk sooner rather than later to give every child an opportunity," Patrick said. "The greatest day for education in Texas will be the day that no one depends on a random lottery to determine their choice of the school they want to attend."
That's a reference to a lottery system many charter schools use to determine which applicants they accept.
In the past, House Democrats opposing charter schools in defense of traditional classrooms have teamed with Republicans from rural districts too small to accommodate charters. But Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he expects Patrick's bill to pass this time.
"There's less opposition to charters in general than there used to be," Aycock said in a phone interview. "It's been across party lines far more too."
The bill also calls for closing poor-performing charter schools after three straight years of low state accountability ratings. Currently, struggling charters have been allowed to remain open for extended periods as they battle state efforts to close them in court — and critics have questioned why Texas needs more charters when many existing ones aren't succeeding.
Teachers groups and other education organizations generally don't oppose charter schools and their expansion in Texas, but they also note that they never meet advocates' expectations of being a "silver bullet" for all that ills traditional classrooms.
Wednesday's rally also featured Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who controls the flow of legislation in the Senate. He said too many schools around the state attend schools that have received the state's lowest rating on statewide accountability scales.
"I'm very, very worried. We've got over 530 campuses, 315,000 children, that are in schools that are failing, that are academically unacceptable, and that's not right," Dewhurst said. "One of the ways we're going to change that is open more public charter schools."