By now you have probably heard the buzz and excitement about the addition of five new charter schools that were officially announced by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) on Friday, June 23rd. Here’s a snapshot of the five new charters opening in August, 2018:
Bridgeway Preparatory Academy, which will be located in the Carrollton/Farmers Branch area of Dallas and eventually expand to Tarrant county with an initial PreK4 - 2nd grade enrollment of 286 and a maximum PreK3-5th grade enrollment of 1,560. Bridgeway plans to use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) instructional model to provide individualized instructional approaches to all students with an emphasis on students with unique learning needs.
Etoile Academy, which will open in Harris County/Southwest Houston and eventually grow to two campuses with an initial grade 5 enrollment of 150 and a maximum 5th – 8th grade enrollment of 1,500. Etoile will focus on a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum focused on first-time college goers and educationally disadvantaged students.
Legacy the School of Sport Sciences, which will start with one campus in North Houston and eventually add an additional campus in Southwest Houston with an initial 6th – 10th grade enrollment of 550 and a maximum 6th -12th grade enrollment of 2,400. Legacy will offer a unique instructional approach that will feature a rigorous curriculum based on all aspects of the worldwide sports industry, athletics, and sports technology.
Valor Public Schools, which will begin with one campus in the Austin area and eventually operate three campuses in Travis County with an initial K – 9th grade enrollment of 574 and a maximum K-12th grade enrollment of 4,200. Valor will offer a curriculum that combines classical education with a technology-infused, STEM-based instructional approach.
Yellowstone College Prep, which will operate one campus in Houston with an initial 5th – 8th grade enrollment of 240 and a maximum 5th – 12th grade enrollment of 1,000. Yellowstone is unique in that it will share facilities with the existing Yellowstone Academy and will offer a rigorous college preparatory education to students living in Houston’s historic Third Ward.
The Current Charter Approval Process
So what does the approval process look like for a new charter in Texas? To put it simply, there are four steps after the charter application is submitted to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). I like to call them the “views”: TEA Internal Preview, Independent External Review, Stakeholder Committee Interview, and State Board Review.
TEA Internal Preview is the first step and happens immediately after the charter application is submitted, and is simply a process where TEA Charter Division staff checks each application for missing components and conducts a plagiarism check. Next, an Independent External Review is conducted for all applications deemed complete. External reviewers are selected from applicants who respond to a request for quotation (RFQ) from TEA, with the expectation that reviewers have a solid educational background and an in-depth knowledge of charter schools. Individuals selected are provided a day of training with TEA staff on all eight application components and 90 indicators and in procedures for accurately grading each section. Reviewers are generally assigned six to eight applications to score (each application is scored five times) with about a 30-day window to complete the task.
Next, the Stakeholder Committee Interview is conducted for applications that meet or exceed external review cut score, currently set at 85 percent. This is where TEA staff and State Board of Education members probe projected school staff and governing board members about every aspect of the projected school plan.
Finally, based on the recommendations of the interview committee, the TEA Commissioner will recommend charters to the SBOE for approval, who, in the State Board Review, ask questions of commissioner-recommended applicants. Based on a full board vote, the SBOE will either take no action and thus approve the commissioner’s recommendation or choose to veto any of the commissioner’s choices.
Strengthening the Charter Approval Process
The approval procedure is arduous, and TEA Charter Division staff and Deputy Commissioner A.J. Crabill do an excellent job holding applicants accountable for fidelity to their proposed mission and vision and the tremendous duty to educate Texas students and responsibly manage taxpayer resources. But like any task of great importance, there are opportunities to improve the current approval process. The main area that should be strengthened is the Independent External Review.
Currently, independent reviewers work with TEA staff, but there is no process in place for reviewers to talk with one another and establish inter-rater reliability regarding common applications they are scoring, and there is no procedure for identifying and mitigating large variations in scores on the same indicator. One suggestion to improve the process is to conduct score panel conference calls, facilitated by a TEA staff member, where reviewers discuss common applications they have scored and share comments they have written about each item and the score they have assigned to the indicator. This is important for several reasons. First, panel reviews eliminate the possibility that when scoring an indicator a reviewer might miss details imbedded in the application narrative and any accompanying attachments. Second, the possibility for wide variations in scores will be lessened, especially if reviewers are required to explain any differences greater than a 20 percent difference in an individual indicator score between reviewers. Finally, panel reviews tend to hold reviewers accountable, as reviewers would have to justify their scores to the rest of the review panel. Ultimately each reviewer would independently score their assigned applications, but the score panel conference call procedure would help to improve the overall consistency and quality of the external review process.
Current commissioner’s rules would allow for these changes in the external review process to take place. Although no process for scoring applications is perfect, with some minor adjustments the entire external review process, and ultimately the entire approval process, would be greatly strengthened. At TCSA, our goal is to support and strengthen a diverse set of high quality charter schools, and any adjustments to improve the approval process will help to ensure that only the best applicants will be selected to provide Texas students a quality public charter school education.