This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Senate Bill 1882 allows a school board to partner with an open-enrollment charter school or other eligible entity (such as a university or nonprofit) to operate a district campus, including as an alternative to state intervention under accountability statutes. The bill, passed during the 2017 session, provides incentives for public school districts to enter into such partnerships, but also comes with potential risks to teacher, student and parental rights and benefits.

How it works

Lawmakers introduced SB 1882 as a way for districts to help chronically failing campuses improve while offering a reprieve from state sanctions. Under this arrangement, districts give up operational control over a campus to an approved partner, which can include an open-enrollment charter operator, college or university, nonprofit organization, or similar entity approved by the commissioner of education.

Once a deal is approved, districts are eligible for incentives, including a potential increase in state funding and a two-year reprieve from certain accountability interventions to give the campus a chance to improve. The Texas Education Agency requires the partner to have the following controls:

  • responsibility to hire, select, approve assignment of and manage the chief operating office or principal of the campus; 
  • responsibility to hire, select, approve assignment of and manage instructional staff that serve a majority of the students on the campus;
  • initial and final authority over decisions related to curriculum, calendar, and assessments. 

The charter partner’s board may not include any member of a school district’s board of trustees, the superintendent or any other district personnel “involved in the review, approval, monitoring or renewal of the Subchapter C charter or performance contract.”

Senate Bill 1882 allows three general types of partnerships:

  • Turnaround — for an Improvement Required campus flagged for consecutive years of poor performance. The new partner would revamp the school’s programs and improve performance on the state’s accountability measures.
  • Innovation — for a campus currently in Met Standard status. These partnerships are generally formed to replicate high-performing school models or to implement an innovative approach to education, such as a STEM-focused school or a campus focused on the arts. 
  • New school — for a new campus. Each partnership agreement outlines the population served, the programs offered and the approach used to teach students.

Each type of partnership has different timelines and submission requirements. The process is often lengthy, taking several months to complete. (For more on TEA’s requirements, click here.)

Potential risks

On paper, SB 1882 offers districts flexibility in the partners they approach and the type of campus they decide to operate. It also allows districts with one or more failing schools a chance to turn them around without accountability sanctions, such as creating TEA-approved turnaround plans, or having a school shut down or taken over by the state.

But districts that choose this process give up control of their campuses to an outside entity. That could spell trouble for teachers, students and parents. Charter schools are not required to follow as much of the Texas Education Code as traditional public schools. That means certain teacher rights and benefits could be taken away, such as contract provisions, duty-free lunch, planning time or the ability to remove disruptive students from classrooms.

While a partnership contract can include provisions that provide some protection for educators, a draft can be changed substantially, without employee input, before the district’s board of trustees and the new partner finalize a charter contract. Even if a final contract protects most teacher rights and benefits, it is unclear whether current TEA rules allow such protections and whether the commissioner of education would approve such a contract.

Few districts seek partnerships

In 2017, 60 Texas schools were considered failing for four or more years, making them eligible for a SB 1882 turnaround partnership. Due to the strict timelines and extensive requirements to get TEA approval, only six completed applications for turnaround partnerships. TEA rejected one outright, approved another pending some technical changes, and requested interviews with proposed partners for the other four to get more information before making a final decision. 

One district that decided not to pursue a turnaround partnership was Dallas ISD. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the Texas Tribune in June that he was “unwilling to wait months to decide how to proceed with three schools that had been listed as failing for four or five years.” School districts received guidelines in late February and had until April 30 to submit plans to TEA, and Hinojosa told school board members that wasn’t enough time to create a viable plan. After several board members and many parents spoke out about giving up local control of campuses, the district decided to close or consolidate some campuses and use its own program of recruiting high-performing teachers to work at struggling schools and turn them around.

With 10 failing schools putting the district at risk of a state takeover, Houston ISD proposed a turnaround partnership with a charter group called Energized for STEM. Community members turned out to protest the proposal at a school board meeting in April that ended in multiple arrests, according to the Houston Chronicle. Facing public outcry and tight deadlines, Houston ISD abandoned the partnership.

One of the districts with an approved SB 1882 turnaround plan is San Antonio ISD. SAISD already has 20 in-district charter schools, but Stewart Elementary will be the first one run by an outside charter operator. New York-based Democracy Prep will take control of the campus this fall, and Superintendent Pedro Martinez told staff the benefits of the partnership include an expansion of a dual-language program for students in pre-K through fifth grade.

EmpowerED! partnership in PSJA

TEA has not released data on the number of SB 1882 innovation or new school partnership requests it received as of its July 2 deadline, but teachers in at least one district reached out to TCTA regarding an innovation partnership last spring. 

TCTA members in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD asked TCTA’s Legal Department for assistance when Superintendent Daniel King informed them they would be asked to vote on a proposal called EmpowerED! King was spurred to propose the model based on estimates for additional state funding of as much as $28 million, which he envisioned using for multiple purposes, including teacher pay raises. The proposed partnership might have turned over control of potentially all campuses in the district to nonprofit organizations.  

TCTA lawyers examined the proposal and had several conversations with the superintendent, other school representatives and TCTA members, and sent emails to members in PSJA explaining the law and highlighting potential risks. The plan contained many unknowns; among other concerns, it was unclear how long additional funding would last and whether teachers would have contract protections in place. 

Although the law does not require a vote by school employees to enter into a partnership, King promised to only implement partnerships on those campuses with a majority of employees approving the arrangement. After an overwhelming vote against the proposal in late May (it failed on all but seven of the district’s 42 campuses), PSJA officials opted not to pursue the plan on any of its campuses.

Road ahead

When accountability ratings for 2018 are released, the number of campuses facing state sanctions could increase, as could the number of applications for SB 1882 partnerships.

San Antonio ISD has five other schools at risk of sanctions when new accountability ratings are released this month. With one SB 1882 turnaround partnership formed, others could be on the way. 

Houston ISD also has several campuses facing a fourth year of failing ratings that could again force discussion on what steps to take to turn them around. Some pressure may be relieved as the district gets a temporary reprieve for campuses that qualify for exemptions from accountability ratings due to Hurricane Harvey.

Now that school administrators are more familiar with the law, they’ll have more time to plan, discuss options and submit applications for partnerships in 2018 and 2019. TCTA urges members to pay attention to accountability ratings when they’re released and to keep an eye on school board agendas to see if partnerships are proposed for struggling campuses. But it is also important to remember that these partnerships are not limited to low-performing campuses, so it’s a good idea to monitor all school board meetings.

Some districts may follow PSJA’s lead and give employees the chance to vote on partnership agreements before finalizing deals, but others may not. The law says only that a district must consult with campus personnel regarding contract provisions. If your district is considering a charter partnership, reach out to TCTA’s Legal Department for help.