The Texas Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the state's most dramatic potential expansion of charter schools since they were first authorized 18 years ago, but only with major modifications that weakened a sweeping proposal supporters had hoped would transform classrooms statewide.
Sen. Dan Patrick's bill sailed through the chamber 30-1. What little debate there was featured senators mostly congratulating themselves for bipartisan cooperation.
"This is how 31 people work together for the best interest of all Texans," said Patrick who hugged and shook hands with a line of colleagues after the vote.
The tea party-backed Republican from Houston chairs the powerful Senate Education Committee and spent months campaigning to do away entirely with a state law that allows authorities to issue no more than 215 licenses for charter schools. Patrick also proposed creating a special board to oversee a flood of new applications he expected would follow.
But the proposal approved by the Senate calls for far more gradual expansion, increasing the cap by 10 for the 2014-2015 school year. It would then keep rising incrementally until hitting a maximum 305 by September 2019.
"I'd like to have a few more, but that's part of the negotiation process," Patrick told reporters following the session.
The measure now heads to the House, where it may face a tougher road. The Senate passed less ambitious charter school bills in 2009 and 2011, but neither cleared the lower chamber.
Still, Patrick said he likes this bill's chances, saying he thinks people who were previously skeptical of charter schools may be swayed to vote for it. He said competition from charters can push traditional schools to improve.
For now, the state has issued 209 licenses. Because operators can use a single license to run multiple campuses, Texas has about 500 total charter schools educating about 154,000 children, or 3 percent of its 5 million-plus public school students.
Charter school advocates say more than 100,000 students are on waitlists for charters that don't have space for them.
Patrick agreed to count out-of-state charter operators who want to run multiple campuses in Texas against the cap, while providing exemptions for special "drop-out recovery" charters that specialize in getting students who have previously abandoned their studies to return to school.
The bill approved Thursday also scraps the idea of a new charter school board while giving the governor-appointed state education commissioner the power to shut down poor-performing charter schools after three straight years of low ratings. Currently, poorly rated charter schools have been allowed to remain open for extended periods as they file multiple appeals against state efforts to close them.
That's an important concession. About 50 of the 500 existing charter school campuses are low performing, and critics have long questioned why Texas needs more charters when so many existing ones aren't succeeding. "It's going to put real teeth to closing down bad charters," Patrick said.
Those moves ushered in such good feelings that Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat who sits on the Education Committee, jokingly told the Senate, "I want to introduce you to the new Dan Patrick."
Indeed the floor vote was a far cry from just a few weeks ago, when Patrick suggested that anyone who opposes more charter schools is opposing students and families who weep when they try to attend charters but are waitlisted. Patrick himself has also fought back tears when advocating for charters and other educational reforms.
Asked if he was now softening, Patrick replied: "I am a conservative and I am a Republican. But I care about every Texan and particularly those who are the poorest of the poor. And without education they have no hope."
He called the charter proposal "probably the most important bill we're going to pass this session, if we pass it."
"We know that good charters work," he said. "We know that poor students who are going to failing schools go to a good charter school and graduate rates skyrocket."