It’s easier than ever for state officials to close a Texas public charter school thanks to a “three strikes and you’re out” law passed in 2013. One school in North Texas - Honors Academy - that lost its charter has sued the state to reopen.
The signs were there all year. The Texas Education Agency put Farmers Branch-based Honors Academy on notice a year ago that its charter would be revoked. It said the school failed to meet academic or financial standards three years running. Honors, like the other five charters around the state given notice, appealed but lost.
“That revocation was effective June 30, 2014,” says DeEtta Culbertson with the TEA. She says Honors opened anyway this past semester, with hundreds of students at campuses in Farmers Branch, as well as Dallas, Fort Worth, and four other towns.
“Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, Honors was operating as a de facto private school, but falsely holding itself out as a public charter school, which is a violation of the Texas education code,” Culbertson said.
Honors’ lawyer told school leaders it had a strong case to stay open. Then, earlier this month, the TEA swooped in to lock Honors down. Its more than 600 kids, most of them low-income, and some 75 teachers - had to find other schools after Thanksgiving. Retired Waxahachie Superintendent Bobby Parker was installed to run Honors.
“This is one of first times Texas has gone through this process after closure was ordered and after revocation of the charter,” Parker said.
As Honor’s new superintendent, Parker’s not dealing with students but inventory, like he’s overseeing a bankruptcy.
“One of the unfortunate things that we’ve had to do is secure the building, change the locks on the building, because of potential vandalism, looting, theft," Parker said. "We’ve got 30 vehicles, we’ve got cartons of paper, we’ve got desks, we’ve got chairs. We have laptops and projectors. We have a massive amount of equipment."
And those are just state assets. Parker also has to study the books to find where federal dollars went.
“One of the things we were always taught in administrator school [is] you just don’t fall out of non-compliance when you’re dealing with federal funds,” Parker said.
Honors’ lawyer, however, says "hold on."
“If they win the appeal that’s pending before the Austin Court of Appeals right now, they will re-open," says Kevin O’Hanlon, Honors’ lawyer. He sued the state saying the charter school was unfairly treated. He argued the three strikes law, part of Senate Bill 2 that gave lawmakers more power to close charter schools, should not apply. That’s because he says scores in the 2011-12 school year, when the new statewide STAAR test was used, shouldn’t count.
O’Hanlon says every Texas public school that year got a pass. Not Honors.
“And that was the sole reason why they were terminated,” O’Hanlon said. “And the use of that data was prohibited by express language of Senate Bill 2.”
So Hanlon’s optimistic. He says the case comes up in appeals court this April.