By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — A top state senator said Wednesday that a new law dramatically expanding the number of charter schools allowed in Texas might never have passed if the authority to approve new charters hadn’t been stripped from the State Board of Education.
Dan Patrick heads the influential Education Committee in the Texas Senate and authored the law, which the Legislature approved overwhelmingly, It increases the maximum number of charter schools licenses from 215 now to 305 by 2019 — the largest expansion of its kind in Texas since 2001.
It also shifts approval of new charters from the State Board of Education to Michael Williams, the commissioner of education appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
That’s angered many of the board’s 15 members, some of whom have noted publicly that they’re elected while Williams is not.
Patrick is a tea-party favorite from Houston who is running for lieutenant governor.
Appearing before the board to explain his law, he said there was no intention to punish the board. But he also conceded: “There are members in the Legislature, in both parties, that didn’t want you involved at all.”
He said their ranks were “not a lot, but enough to make a difference in a bill.”
Patrick said some of his colleagues believe the board already has enough to do setting academic curriculum and approving textbooks for use in classrooms.
He did not mention the concerns of some lawmakers that the board has in the past been dominated by social conservatives who have tried to promote ideological agendas in classrooms.
For now, the state has issued 209 charter licenses.
Because operators can use a single license to run multiple campuses, Texas has about 500 total charter schools educating about 154,000 children, or around 3 percent of its nearly 5.1 million public school students.
Board member David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican and outspoken proponent of charter schools, noted Wednesday that Perry and Williams are also major charter-backers.
But the governor isn’t seeking re-election next year.
“If we had a Gov. Wendy Davis, would you still have done the same thing?” Bradley asked, referring to the Democratic state senator who is mulling a gubernatorial run.
Patrick responded: “I can’t tell you what the next commissioner’s going to do or the next governor is going to do. … But, at the end of the day, there was a compromise made.”
That’s because the initial bill sought to completely erase the cap on charter school licenses and create a special body to oversee what Patrick assumed would be a flood of new charter applications.
But to win bipartisan support, Patrick softened his bill to allow for a far more gradual expansion of charters schools while scrapping the idea of a new approval group.
The original plan for a separate charter approval authority came from a national advocacy group that helped Patrick draft the initial legislation.
When pressed about that, Patrick got testy, saying it was up to the Legislature — not the Board of Education — to debate legislation.
“That’s our purview,” he snapped. “OK?”
In a subsequent interview, Patrick said he thought the tone of the meeting stayed positive.
He also clarified that while the commissioner now will prepare a list of charter licenses he would like to approve each year, the Board of Education can still veto any it wishes.
Its members cannot, however, put charter applications the commissioner has already decided to deny back on the approval list.
“It is real power,” Patrick said. “The commissioner cannot approve a charter without the permission of the State Board of Education.”