The San Antonio Express-News published a guest column on February 6 from TSA President and Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods and Mark Henry, the Superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD. The full piece is below.
By Brian Woods and Mark Henry, Feb. 6, 2023
The recent report from Hearst Newspapers on Texas charter schools’ use of land purchases reminds us once again that weak oversight and ineffective state laws allow charter schools to take advantage of their students and Texas taxpayers.
The Hearst analysis “found cases in which charter schools collected valuable real estate at great cost to taxpayers but with a tenuous connection to student learning.”
“In others, charter school administrators own the school facilities and have collected millions from charging rent to the same schools they run,” it reported. For example, the superintendent of a Houston charter school owns or controls four facilities used by the school, “allowing him to bill millions to schools he oversees.”
A different Houston charter school owns condominiums in upscale neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, claiming to use them for storage.
Charter schools have operated in Texas for a quarter-century and by now, stories of their abuses of taxpayer funds have become commonplace — even, perhaps, expected. However, we do no favors to the more than 300,000 students in charter schools or the taxpayers of Texas by simply accepting these improprieties as inevitable.
It warrants saying that many charter schools manage taxpayer dollars and educate students well. However, it is also important to recognize repeated instances of financial malfeasance at Texas charter schools, from schools that inflate attendance figures to receive extra state funding to the use of taxpayer funding for extreme personal benefit at the state’s largest charter network within the last couple of years.
One consistent pattern among charter schools that misuse state funds is that they take advantage of lax oversight and limited accountability.
Charter schools are public schools, meaning they are funded with taxpayer dollars, and they do not charge their students tuition. The State Board of Education has authority to approve new charter schools but has no role in approving the expansion of existing charter schools. As a result, charter schools lack the same systems of public oversight and accountability as traditional school districts, which are governed by locally elected trustees who are ultimately responsible to voters and taxpayers in their communities.
Investigations such as Hearst’s are important for two reasons. First, the Texas Legislature is in the early stages of its biennial session and has the opportunity to create more responsible and reasonable oversight of charter schools. Such oversight would aim to prevent schools from misusing taxpayer dollars that are intended to help educate children.
Second, some of the state’s highest-ranking leaders have called for programs that would allow students to attend private schools with public funds. These private schools would be even more susceptible to corruption than charter schools because they are not subject to state or public scrutiny of their finances. For example, private schools are not subject to state open-meetings or open-records laws. The opportunities for fraud that run through the Texas charter school experiment would metastasize if Texas began to send tax dollars to schools with even less accountability in place.
Private school vouchers are often hailed as a conservative policy solution, but what exactly is conservative about sending tax dollars away with no accountability for the quality of education children receive or the propriety of how the school uses those dollars? Is it not conservative to require transparency from an organization taking revenue from taxpayers?
We ignore fiscal mismanagement within the charter school system at our own peril. Taxpayers need stronger oversight of charter schools to curtail future abuses. And the last thing our elected leaders should do is make the problem worse by sending public dollars to schools that do not have any oversight at all.
Brian Woods is superintendent of Northside Independent School District and president of the Texas School Alliance. Mark Henry is Superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.