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Texas Charter Schools Get a Pass On Some Requirements

The San Juan Campus of Idea Public Schools
Photo by Joel Martinez, The Texas Tribune
The San Juan Campus of Idea Public Schools

A crucial vote is scheduled for Monday by the Austin ISD school board. Trustees will decide whether to contract with a charter school operator from the Rio Grande Valley to develop an in-district charter school for children in East Austin.

Some school board members have expressed hesitation about a partnership with IDEA Public Schools. One of Trustee Annette LoVoi’s concerns focused on the transparency of governance at IDEA compared to the Austin ISD.

“We are a school board. We are transparent. We hold open meetings. We disclose all sorts of things,” LoVoi said. “I’d like to see a version of that undertaken by any entity that we contract with.”

“We should know what executive compensation is. We should know how much money goes to administration,” she said.

Tom Torkelson, the founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools was at the meeting and responded.

“The level of transparency with our state requirement with Open Records, Open Meetings, is just as high as it is for you all as well,” Torkelson said. “I think those are actually legitimate things that you all should request, and in fact don’t even need to because they're part of state legislation that governs charter schools.”

Torkelson is right about Open Records and Open Meetings. State law treats open enrollment charter school districts just like traditional districts.

IDEA Public School’s academic results are posted on the Texas Education website. Its IRS Form 990 provides information like total assets ($99.8 million) and Torkelson’s compensation package ($209,629).

But charter schools are exempt from certain regulations, according to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). They sent us this fact sheet on charter schools in Texas, which explains some of the requirements that open-enrollment charters don’t have to meet.

Here are a few from their list:

The charter describes the manner in which an annual financial audit is conducted, rather than requirements that exist for school districts. Charters are not required to employ certified teachers, except in cases of special education and bilingual education. Calendars and hours of operation are determined by the charter. No minimum days of attendance exist; however funding is linked to days of attendance. Charters are only partially subject to curriculum requirements. Charters are only subject to student‐teacher ratios or class size limitations contained in their charter. Charter schools may deny enrollment to students with a criminal record or discipline problems if the charter allows for such an admission criteria.

But the proposed contract between Austin ISD and IDEA Public Schools would negate many of these exemptions. For example, the contract specifically states that full time instructional staff must be certified teachers. The agreement also requires that enrollment and attendance be counted using the same method as AISD, and that IDEA teach kids the same state mandated content that is required learning in all AISD classrooms.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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