Teacher unions to clash in court with Commissioner Morath over charter school law

Originally published in the Quorum Report on August 31, 2018. Republished here with permission.
By: Kimberly Reeves

Teacher unions to clash in court with Commissioner Morath over charter school law

Groups file suit, accuse Morath of going beyond the legislature’s intent and weakening protections for ISD employees, Sen. Bettencourt argues ISDs would lose if the teacher groups win

 Editor’s note: A copy of the lawsuit filed in Travis County is available to our subscribers at the end of this story – SB

Two teacher unions are heading to court to try to vacate Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s rulemaking to implement so-called “turnaround partnerships” passed by lawmakers last session.

These turnaround partnerships – where a district turns its failing school over to a charter provider – were intended to provide school districts with more latitude to rescue failing schools, rather than forcing districts to turn those schools over to a board of managers, as required by a sanctions bill, House Bill 1842, passed during the 2015 session.

The Texas State Teachers Association and Texas American Federation of Teachers never liked the turnaround partnerships bill, Senate Bill 1882. They freely admit that fact, but the two groups hoped teachers on failing campuses would at least have some input into the future of their schools, given that many had spent years, or even decades, on those campuses.

The two associations feel they lost that opportunity in the San Antonio Independent School District, which is working with Democracy Prep. A legal effort to stop the school failed.

In this second round, the two groups have faulted Morath with overstepping his authority when he issued rules to implement the partnerships, and even reversed a portion of his own rulemaking a month after the rules went into effect.

“What we are seeing more and more is a real power grab, that has been characterized as going well beyond the authority given to the commissioner in statute,” said Louis Malfaro of Texas AFT. “We feel we have an imperious bureaucrat who has again overstepped his authority, and undercut the authority of the local school districts.”

The mantra almost every education group – and Morath – has embraced in recent months is that the quality of the teacher is the biggest component in a child’s educational success. But executing on that is where the difference lies: For the teacher unions, it’s more input and participation of teachers in the solution to failing schools. From education “reformers,” it’s the ability of a school leader to remove and replace bad teachers.

Texas Aspires labeled the lawsuit frivolous, tying the hands of school leaders looking for the resources to resolve education issues. While teacher groups were slamming Commissioner Morath, Texas Aspires was defending him.

“It is beyond a stretch to claim TEA’s rulemaking is not a faithful extension of lawmakers’ legislative intent,” said Texas Aspires’ executive director Will Fullerton.

“Local community leaders and educators across the state are already hard-at-work transforming the schools that will shape our future with supports provided by SB 1882. And rather than focusing on the hard work of changing our state’s educational landscape, union leaders in cahoots with powerful national organizations are playing a game of smoke and mirrors,” Fullerton said. “It’s not the right thing to do, and it ultimately hurts Texas students.”

The teacher groups want the section of education code that applies to teacher contracts – Chapter 21 – to also apply to in-district charter schools. Education reformers consider a charter’s freedom from teacher contract regulations – and the ability to fire at will – to be a tool often used to improve school performance.

The Texas Charter School Association declined to comment on the litigation. That’s because the association is not named in the lawsuit and has not collected data to determine how often, or under what circumstances, the waiving of Chapter 21 has played a role in the success of the charter schools in the state.

In the case of SAISD’s Democracy Prep, members of the local chapter of TSTA/Texas AFT apparently were at the table during the monthly discussions. The district’s position is that the input the unions wanted – formal consultation – was not necessary because Democracy Prep did not fall under the category of the typical open-enrollment charter school.

School leaders and school boards are nowhere near this fray, but they would likely be the ones to suffer if the teacher unions prevailed in their concerns, said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. 

Bettencourt, who co-sponsored SB 1882, had yet to read the lawsuit, but told Quorum Report that it would be school districts that to lose out if teacher groups win in court.

“The intent was to give extra benefits to districts to do what was outlined in the bill. The only people who didn’t support it were the unions, and even they were neutral in their testimony,” Bettencourt said.

“The ironic part about this is that, if they were somehow successful, the only thing that would happen is that the district would lose these benefits, and these schools on the IR list would have to be closed,” Bettencourt said. “That would be the solution.”