The Separation of Public Charter Schools vs. Church Charter Schools

The New York Times


August 10, 2013

In Texas, the Beta Academy, a private elementary schools hopes to  transform itself into a publicly financed charter school operating out of the Houston Christian Temple Assembly of God Church.

If the state of Texas approves Beta’s application this fall, it will join the many charter schools that have partnerships with religious institutions that have cropped up in cities across Texas since the charter school system was established in 1995. In the past three years, 16 of the 23 charter contracts the state has awarded have gone to entities with religious ties.

Some educators question whether the schools receive the proper oversight to ensure that religious groups are not benefiting from taxpayer dollars intended for public school students — or that faith-based instruction is not entering those classrooms.

The Beta Academy was started when the  Christian Temple closed its private school because of declining enrollment.

Because they are publicly financed, charter schools are required to teach secular, state-approved curricula . When founded by a faith-based organization, they are also required to operate under a separate nonprofit entity. Because charter schools do not receive facilities financing from the state, a leasing agreement with a church, whose grounds often stand empty during weekdays, can be a cost-efficient arrangement for both parties.

Texas Education Agency auditors have found inappropriate use of state money in such arrangements. Last summer, in the most recent example, it discovered that a San Antonio-based charter school’s superintendent had used school funds to buy a former church, then leased that building to the school she led.

In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill aimed at expanding the state’s charter school system. Though provisions in the legislation increase state oversight of charters and beef up the vetting process for proposed schools, it does not contain language aimed at charter schools with connections to places of worship.

That is because state and federal laws already impose strict boundaries on public schools with any religious affiliations, said David Dunn, the director of the Texas Charter School Association. While there have been instances of abuse in the past, he said, charter operators overall were “very aware” of those restrictions.

Bracy Wilson, a McKinney-based education consultant, has found a niche business helping build relationships between charter schools and churches. Since 2010, he has worked with nine clients connected with churches, including Beta Academy, through the state’s charter school application process.

The issue is not so simple for others in the education community. In the 15 years that Jack Ammons spent auditing public schools across the state as a monitor for the education agency, he said he found it was “nearly impossible” for charter schools operating out of church facilities to avoid spending state funds on students in ways that also benefited the church.

“There are schools once again where preachers are making good money off of keeping the charter schools in churches,” he said.

Obviously, this calls into account the U.S. Constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state.  What is your reaction?  Should charter schools be permitted to operate out of churches?