This article in The Houston Chronicle is infuriating. The subtitle might well be, “If the state board turns you down, buy it.”

As I read it, I felt my blood was coming to a boil. This is a portrayal of tank corruption, corruption of education and corruption of the democratic process. The elected state board of education in Texas denied the charter application of four out of five charters. The charters struck back by dumping vast sums of money into the election for state board and electing hand-picked candidates to give them the approvals they wanted. As I have shown in previous posts, charter schools in Texas are generally low-performing and compare unfavorably to public schools,

The article begins:

The State Board of Education last month denied, for the third time, efforts to launch Heritage Classical Academy in Northwest Houston, a school designed as a conservative response to anti-racism, LGBT-inclusive sex education and other progressive themes in public schools.

But despite Heritage’s recent failure, its future — and that of other charter schools like it in Texas — looks bright.

The state’s fight over charter schools has bubbled slowly for decades since they were first authorized in the 1990s, with the state board standing as the main political roadblock to their expansion.

Now, as Republican lawmakers fight to restrict how teachers discuss social issues in the classroom and generally shift the education system more toward the right, their alliance with charter schools is stronger than ever.

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So much so that three GOP members of the state board, who have sided with Democrats in voting against Heritage Classical Academy, won’t be therenext time — two were beaten in a primary after the family of Heritage’s board chairman donated $250,000 to a PAC supporting their opponents. The third was redistricted out of his seat by the Texas Senate.

Heritage, and other classical academies to come, can count on a more sympathetic board starting in January.

Matt Robinson, the Republican who lost his seat in redistricting — he says he had decided before then not to run for re-election anyway — called his ouster a testament to the power charter school advocates wield.

“There’s a whole pattern here of them really strongly exerting the influence that they have with our elected officials,” he said.

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The pitch for classical education

Heritage is part of the Barney Charter School initiative, a national charter school movement to introduce a more conservative ideology in schools. The initiative was founded by Hillsdale College in Michigan.

The college doesn’t fund or govern schools directly, but provides curriculum and consulting. Dozens of schools have been started so far across the nation, including one in Gardendale, Texas. The schools serve nearly 15,000 students and 8,000 more on wait-lists.

Its “1776 Curriculum” for charter schools teaches that “America is an exceptionally good country” and includes comprehensive lessons about American history through a conservative lens, including descriptions of the New Deal as bad public policy and of affirmative action as “counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders.”

The wife of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ginni Thomas — who reportedly lobbied to overturn the 2020 presidential election — is a former vice president at the college and ran its Washington programs.

Hillsdale is a nonsectarian Christian university with a mostly white student body that touts its role in the abolition movement of the 1800s, when Black activist Frederick Douglass spoke at the campus.

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Across the country, only one Hillsdale-backed charter school serves a majority of economically disadvantaged students, and only two serve a majority of students of color, according to staff at the State Board of Education.

Heritage Classical Academy was voted down for the first time in 2020 by the board, several members said, because of the inclusion of “Brer Rabbit” books in its early grade curricula. The 19th century children’s story has been assailed by critics for promoting racist stereotypes and mimicking dialect used by African-American slaves.

The arguments for and against Heritage over the last few years have added up to more than the sum of their parts. When the board discussed it last month, conversations turned to how racism and slavery are taught, “inappropriate content in public schools,” alleged anti-Islamic Facebook posts made by a Heritage board member, the work experience of the proposed school leadership and more.

Aggressive lobbying from the Heritage board and its supporters also appears to have backfired, becoming a factor in the board’s decision this year to reject the charter.

After the board denied approval for the second time in 2021, Heritage Board Chair Stuart Saunders and his family donated more than $250,000 to a political action committee called Texans for Educational Freedom. That PAC then donate more than $500,000 to local school board races and other candidates who have promoted conservative themes in the schools.

The group donated in four State Board of Education races, including well over $100,000 total in the bids to unseat board members Sue Melton Malone and Jay Johnson, Republicans who opposed Heritage.

In their charter application filed with Texas Education Agency, Heritage reported 17 meetings with public officials ahead of the board’s decision last month, including a July 2021 meeting with TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and state Rep. Steve Toth, who penned the Legislature’s anti-critical race theory law. Signed a year ago by Gov. Greg Abbott, the law limits how public school teachers address systemic racism and the lingering impacts of slavery.

When it convenes in next year after this fall’s elections, the state board will be a more conservative body, with six new members.

“Clearly, (Saunders) was trying to use all his money to remake the SBOE, to buy it,” said Robinson, the board member from Friendswood who is losing his seat in redistricting. “When you really upset wealthy peoplethey don’t take that lightly.”

During an SBOE meeting, Robinson confronted Saunders — who is the chairman of SouthTrust Bank — saying that while Saunders’ donations were legal, they were unethical.

Saunders retorted: “Me and my family have a long history of supporting education initiatives. Part of our involvement includes a history of supporting public policy and education initiatives, and I did give some of my money to a PAC that is involved in education. Their website speaks of wanting to depoliticize the classroom, working to create strong local school boards and to root-out and eliminate sexually explicit materials that have found their way into our schools. And I support those initiatives.”

He said his son was assigned two “inappropriate” books in class, and though he confronted the school’s principal about them, only one of the books was removed from the curriculum.

Texas Ethics Commission records show that the PAC Saunders spoke of donated to SBOE races both before and after he and his family contributed money.

18,000 Texas students in classical schools

Over the last decade, the State Board of Education has generally been a chokepoint to charter school expansion. The board is given final veto power over charter applicants after they are approved by the TEA commissioner. Since 2017, TEA approved 35 schools, but the SBOE only allowed 23 to proceed.

Those who oppose charter schools typically do so because they say it weakens the structure of public education. Charter schools face less accountability than public schools, and when students flee struggling public schools for charters, the school districts lose out on the attendance-based funding they would have received from the state if the child was still a student.

“The idea of 95 percent of kids losing funding and programming and opportunities so that 5 percent can attend a private-light-school and parents aren’t paying a private school bill is just asinine to me,” said state board member Georgina Pérez, a Democrat who votes against all charter applicants.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has been pushing in the opposite direction. The last major change Republicans in Austin made to charter school law was removing the state board’s ability to approve expansions of existing charter schools, in 2013 paving the way for hundreds of new campuses. Charter enrollment has nearly doubled since, to 377,375 students (the state’s K-12 schools serve about 5 million children).

The total number of charter campuses has risen from 588 to 872.

“I always compare charter schools and how they expand to Gremlins if they eat after midnight. Tomorrow morning you’re going to wake up and you don’t know how many of them you’re going to have,” Pérez said.

There’s also an appetite particularly for “Classical” schools such as Heritage, of which there are already a number in Texas, including Aristoi Classical in Katy, the Great Hearts Texas schools, Founders Classical and Houston Classical. Their combined enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year was less than 7,500, and has more than doubled to 18,000, state data shows.

Charter school supporters and several members of the SBOE, they said they expect that another bill will be filed next year with renewed efforts to remove the state board’s authority to approve the schools, leaving the matter up to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, an appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Some members of the state board added that Abbott lobbied their colleagues directly, asking them to approve Heritage’s application and other charter schools over the years.

“Historically it was, (the SBOE wasn’t) approving expansions fast enough, or enough, to keep pace with demand,” said Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Charter Schools Association. “I would not be surprised one bit if a move were made to roll back the board’s authority, even farther.”

Charter school proponents point to a charter school wait-list in the state of more than 58,000 kids. They say families want more options and that public schools aren’t working for everyone. They point to data that show the large majority of charter students are children of color, and that their test scores are better than the public school averages.

“The statute is really clear about legislative intent is that there will be a robust and vibrant charter sector in Texas,” Coleman said. “if the state board can’t agree with that, then I don’t think state legislators feel very compelled to let them continue to be part of the process.”