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Permanent school funk

Last week, perhaps bored by the lack of opportunities to call our President Barack HUSSEIN Obama, State Board of Education member David Bradley (R-Beaumont), chair of the Permanent School Fund Committee, introduced a motion to use half a percent of the $23-billion Permanent School Fund to provide funding for charter-school facilities.

“Charter schools are essentially fully funded by the state,” David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association and former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, reminded the QueQue, “but they get zero funding from the state for facilities. Unlike school districts, charters can’t levy property tax or raise any kind of tax revenue.” They also aren’t able to secure bonds at the rate of school districts, which can use the Permanent School Fund as their bond guarantee; they pull a BBB rating to the districts’ standard AAA. Dunn claims this forces many charters to take up residence in abandoned grocery stores, strip malls, and other bizarre locales.

On a recent drive-by tour of 10 local charters, there was indeed a charter housed in a lonely shopping center off Hillcrest Drive, one in a shabby two-story house, and one in what appeared to be a former small apartment complex on Blanco. Some charters, like KIPP and Dr. Harmon W. Kelley Elementary, have managed to invest in large, school-like buildings, however. Bradley proposed using the Permanent School Fund to buy properties and then lease them to charter schools. Opponents of the plan wonder if charter schools pass the legal requirement that the Board invest Permanent School funds in minimum-risk/maximum-return ventures. Lawyers for the SBOE advised against the plan and outside management hired to consult on Permanent School Fund investments refused to make a recommendation.

“I’m totally against this allocation, I have publicly voted against it,” said Rick Agosto (D-San Antonio), a member of the Permanent School Fund Committee and chairman of a global real-estate and investment firm. “If you understand investments, you know that returns are driven by allocation ... but I don’t even know what a charter-school allocation is.” Moreover, Agosto wondered whether the financial incentives would tend to promote economic inequity: If you’re investing in charter schools for a maximum return, why would you choose a charter in a struggling, poor area rather than in a well-to-do area?

Agosto voted against the plan last Thursday in the committee of the full board, helping to kill the measure in a 7-7 split. He checked into Friday’s final meeting and then left due to business commitments. Little did he know the board would reverse itself while he was gone.

“Friday is just an overview of the committee, there’s never any amendments,” said Agosto, still baffled. He believes Bradley and others in the conservative voting bloc saw that Agosto and fellow Democrat Mary Helen Berlanga would be absent and, with the secured vote of Rene Nuñez (D-El Paso), jumped at the opportunity.

Following the November elections, Agosto and Dallas-area Republican Tincy Miller are off the board, as is Cynthia Dunbar, who made the motion to adopt Bradley’s plan, and Don McLeroy, the former chairman, who voted for it. Agosto noted that a new board could move not to fund this allocation. Michael Soto, the Trinity University professor running for Agosto’s open seat, questioned whether such financial support of charters was consistent with the free-market economic theory the conservative bloc has favored in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards. “It’s the kind of practice that conservatives like to belittle except when they themselves are doing it,” he said. His Republican opponent, Tony Cunningham, thought the allocation was fine, but had little else to say on the matter. Rebecca Bell-Metereau, running against Republican incumbent Ken Mercer (who could not be reached for comment), said she wouldn’t have hesitated to vote against the motion. “It’s not a matter of whether charter schools are good or bad,” she said. “It’s a matter of making good, sound investments.”


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