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Texas Teachers Unions Sue Education Agency Over Charter Partnership Law

Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune
Two teachers groups are suing Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath in state district court.

Two teacher associations sued Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday, arguing they rolled out a law incentivizing partnerships with school districts and charter schools in a way that weakened protections for public school employees.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, centers on Senate Bill 1882, which lets traditional school districts partner with outside organizations — including charter schools and nonprofit organizations — to turn around low-performing schools and receive a temporary reprieve from harsh state penalties and gain additional state funding.

The Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, argue in the suit that Morath exceeded his authority in releasing schools seeking partnerships from existing state regulations — harming teachers who benefit from those rights. They are set to hold a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Thursday.

"Contrary to legislative intent ... the Commissioner's rules challenged in this lawsuit reduces the number and type of charter operators that must abide by the rules that were put in place to protect public school employees in SB 1882 charter schools and relaxes the requirements that the school district and charter operator need to satisfy before they can qualify for the benefits available under the law," the lawsuit reads.

The groups are asking the court to find Morath’s rules invalid. Requests to the TEA for comment late Wednesday were not immediately returned.

SB 1882 was intended to serve as a lifeline for school districts that needed more resources and more time to get students in chronically failing schools performing better on standardized tests and meeting state standards. Under this law, districts turn over management of their low-performing schools to their partner organizations, which could be universities, nonprofits or charters — public schools with fewer state regulations.

But as school districts started publicly weighing potential partnerships, some heard loud resistance from teachers unions concerned about losing rights in their existing employment contracts and community members angry about giving up the management of their struggling schools, many of which are located in majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

In early May, the San Antonio teachers union filed a lawsuit against San Antonio ISD to stop it from moving forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep, a charter school operator based in New York.

The teachers argued that district officials violated state law by entering into a contract with Democracy Prep without consulting Stewart Elementary School's staff. The contract, ultimately approved by the state, lets Democracy Prep make all hiring decisions and forces San Antonio ISD teachers to reapply to work at the school.

Wednesday's lawsuit cites this local battle. Responding to San Antonio ISD's proposed partnership in late May, Morath said school district officials did not have to consult with school employees about the contract because Democracy Prep is not a Texas-approved open-enrollment charter.

That letter counts as an interpretation of state law, and one that did not happen through the official state-required process, "making the rule invalid," TSTA and AFT argue in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that two of the guidelines Morath set out for SB 1882 violate existing state education law. One of the guidelines require the low-performing campus to be exempt from all district policies, beyond those agreed to in the partnership. The other gives Morath the authority to approve a partnership request if he determines it will "improve student outcomes" at the campus.

"It is an invalid rule that illegally usurps the authority of local school districts to apply their own local policies to SB 1882 arrangements and illegally subjects the rights and benefits of the plaintiff's members, as provided for in local district policies, to unwarranted control by the commissioner," the lawsuit says.


From The Texas Tribune

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.
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