EDITORIAL: Charter schools have proven they deserve to be expanded

Charter schools in Texas began as a small experiment to see if alternatives to traditional public schools. The experiment has proven fruitful; some charter schools now operate large, modern campuses that compete with public schools, and some even are fielding sports and academic teams that compete in University Interscholastic League events.

And generally, they do it with much less taxpayer funding.

Jubilee Academy, a San Antonio-based charter that has several campuses in the Rio Grande Valley, recently announced it is building a new, $10 million campus in Harlingen that will absorb students from two smaller schools in the area and can handle twice the number of students that those two schools currently teach.

Those extra seats should fill up quickly.

More than 270,000 Texas students currently are enrolled in charters schools — about 5 percent of the state’s current public school enrollment — but another 140,000 applications are on waiting lists, unable to find spots at existing schools. Several of the largest charters are expanding rapidly, will campuses filling as soon as they open.

They’ve proven their worth, and deserve to be allowed to expand.

Although charter school campuses are growing across the state, most of them belong to just a few large, successful operations that have the resources to expand. New schools are locked out by a limit the state so far has refused to adjust to meet the obvious demand.

Charter schools are alternative public schools that originally were created to serve students who weren’t succeeding in traditional school environments, primarily minority and low-income students whose public schools were underperforming. Charters are given more freedom to try new teaching methods than traditional schools, but are more closely watched to ensure that their students receive the education they should. Schools that don’t perform well are shut down if they don’t improve immediately.

It’s happened several times, since not all charter schools have been successes. Some have not met state or federal goals for student achievement, and the fiscal administration of some charter school organizations has been called into question.

But that’s one of the benefits of the charter system: If the school isn’t doing its job, students are removed to another school; they aren’t allowed to languish at an underperforming campus, as can occur at traditional schools where taxpayers’ investment is simply too great and the student population too large to make rapid, wholesale changes.

Texas lawmakers authorized charter schools in 1995, but limited the number of charters the state could award to 215. That limit was reached in 2008, and the legislature has refused to raise the limit. An existing charter holder can build new campuses, but a new organization that wants to teach our children must wait until an existing charter is surrendered.

The Valley has benefited from the existence of some of the state’s top charter schools, and some say the competition has been a factor in the overall improvement of many traditional public schools in the area as well.

Many of the existing charter schools have proven successful. But limiting expansion threatens to provide those charters a monopoly that could undermine their motivation for continued excellence. The cap on charters should be raised significantly.