HARLINGEN, Texas – The future of charter schools in Texas came up at a recent series of candidate forums hosted by Raise Your Hand Texas.

This nonprofit was set up by HEB’s Charles Butt to support public education in Texas.

Three of the forums featured four Texas House of Representative races. A forum in McAllen focused on House District 41. A forum in Mission focused on House District 36. And a forum in Brownsville focused on two primary elections, House District 37 and House District 38.

The question posed to the eight candidates who showed up for the forum was:

The increase in the number of charter campuses is drawing more attention across the state. There is concern that the state is now running parallel school systems when it comes to facilities, student funding levels and enrollment policies. What is your opinion on charter schools. And are any state policy changes needed?

Here are the answers they gave:

House District 41:

State Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, a Democrat from McAllen:

“Under Texas law, charter schools are considered public schools. And I support public schools. The legislature limited the number of charter schools and that is very important to the process. However, I, like I am sure most of you, saw the news about a charter school that wanted to lease a private jet. I was appalled when I read that. They also had box seats at a Spurs game. And I was appalled to read that. When our schools need so, so, much more than private jets and private boxes at Spurs games. I understand that charter schools receive private donations and grants but I do not believe that leasing a jet is a core mission of what our charter schools have set out to accomplish. Bottom line is, charter schools need to have more oversight by the Texas legislature. I can almost assure you that issue will be coming up next session.”

Dr. John Guerra, a Republican from McAllen:

“Well, I agree with Representative Guerra concerting the findings of what was going on with the charter schools here in the lower Rio Grande Valley. There is a big fight between the independent school districts and the charter schools. We also have to take in the religious schools that are there. You have to take in those families that decide they want to teach their children at home. And so there are all multiple types of education that is going on here. We all have the opportunity in this great state of Texas, in picking and choosing which school we want our children to go to. Sometimes some people do not have that opportunity and they have to be in the independent school district. And so, in the independent school district it has to be satisfied and be the top notch schooling that can compare to these other schools.”

House District 36

State Rep. Muñoz, a Democrat from Mission:

“As I mentioned earlier, what we need to do is work with our schools that are facing challenging circumstances or that are struggling, before we start looking at a parallel system in the state of Texas. There has always been a question as to the accountability in terms of finances, etc., when it comes to our charter schools. In fact, recently we heard several reports about how some of that state money is being used on things other than education.

“For us going forward, what we need to do is bring the power back to TEA (Texas Education Agency), which would be a lot stricter in terms of allowing new charter schools to be created. Instead of slowly withering away the authority to do so with the TEA commissioner. That position should not be political. It should be somebody that believes in the school system that we have and that is committed to making it better. When it comes to accountability, we want to make sure that the board is elected by the people, just like we have in our public schools. As for finances, we need to have the same rules and regulations when it comes to charter schools.

Abraham Padron, a Democrat from Pharr:

“Over the last few weeks or so there have been questions as to how the money is being spent. I beg to say the same questions could be raised with regard to public schools. Do we need to look at both systems? Absolutely. I can remember 20 years ago, when charter schools started. They started as an experiment to see if they would work. It has developed. It has grown tremendously. Today we need to re-evaluate to see what systems work. We need to take the best practices from both public schools and charter schools and maybe implement them in both because I believe that if we really look down we can see some great things that charter schools are doing and we can also see some great things that public schools are doing. We need to see how we can implement both of their best practices, as well as have accountability. We need to have accountability for both public schools and charter schools. At the end of the day there is federal money and state money. It is our tax money that is being used and as such I demand accountability.”

Texas House District 37

Amber Medina, a Democrat from Brownsville:

“The situation is very complicated. My job as a state representative will be to look after all students and all teachers. We need transparency in the process, and we need to see equality across the board. When I talk about equality, I am talking about how much is spent per child. Our public school children should be worth the same amount as a charter school child. What does that say when they are not? What does that say to our kids? They see themselves differently. I don’t think that is right.

“The same thing with the teachers as well. All teachers should have the same rights and responsibilities. The charter school teachers don’t have some of the safeties that our public school teachers have. The same with the funding. We see so much money going to the charter schools. We need to have equality in the funding, for the teachers and for the students.”

State Rep. Alex Dominguez, a Democrat from Brownsville:

“We need to give TEA a lot more ability for oversight of all schools, especially charter schools, and provide them the tools so they can have the staff to be able to visit campuses. I think the state should be looking at further restricting the number of charters given out. If the charters have been successful we strongly applaud those efforts. But if some are failing or they are merely changing their name to get a new charter application, some are merely changing their names on the marquee, instead of looking at how the charters have failed. As it is, current law means charters can be closed down way faster than any public school can. So, they are under a lot of scrutiny as it is to succeed quickly. But, I think, as a whole we need greater oversight by TEA and by the legislature to make sure everybody is playing by the same rules and all of our students are succeeding.”

Texas House District 38

Erasmo Castro, a Republican from Brownsville:

“My answer has always been the same, even as a school board member. Charter schools offer our school districts competition. At the state level they should be treated exactly the same as public schools. They should have the same requirements. For us a school district we have to see charter schools as competition. We in the school districts must offer the best product. They offer better quality, all the charter schools here in Brownsville and here in the area. We actually do offer the best product, we have certified teachers, teachers that have been part of the community for so many years. We have individuals that have been teaching at the same school for decades. So we have amazing talent and amazing programs in our schools. We have not marketed all the things that are happening in our school districts. They are competition but at the state level there should be equity. If we continue to offer the best product out there we will not have an issue with charter schools.”

State Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, a Democrat from Brownsville:

Charter schools pre-date me becoming a legislator. They started in urban cities, New York Chicago, in the highest risk neighborhoods, in communities that were hurting. They had success. This attracted attention elsewhere. They have gone way beyond the scope of just going to areas that have struggling school districts. They are, like Mr. Castro said, competition for public schools. As they grow and become part of every community and have multiple campuses in every community, if we are going to use public dollars. There needs to be parity with accountability, the same transparency that we have with our public school systems. We are not going to send public dollars to any institution that his treated differently than our public school system. Same should be with charter schools. That competition has created a better product with everybody in the system. I have seen it with my children. My daughter, maybe it is a low bar but she is definitely a lot better prepared for 5th grade, reading at a higher level and writing at a higher level, doing much more amazing things. Competition has created innovation. But there needs to be transparency.”

Erin Gamez, a Democrat from Brownsville:

“Charter schools addressed an at risk population. It was an emergency. It was a last minute resort. However, that growth has expanded much faster than we can control it. In Cameron County we have felt it. We have seen the closure of at least three public schools, as a result of this competition. It is my understanding that as a result of the lack of potential oversight and equality, charter schools can come in and in six months say, hey, ISD I am opening up, ready or not and I am going to enroll 400 students. They are coming. I am sorry about the teachers that are depending on the classes next year. I am sorry about the programs you have and how you are dependent on the students for funding but we are opening up and there is nothing you can do about it. That is hard. That is difficult to deal with and we have felt that first hand here in Cameron County.

“I do not think we can support any further growth until we address the system in place right now. It needs our help and immediate attention. We need equality, parity amongst the schools. If you are receiving public dollars you should be held accountable to the same standard public schools are held at. We have seen in the newspaper recently how these funds are being used. You know what I am talking about. We do not see that in an ISD situation. Our students should be treated the same and should be worth the same.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra at a Raise Your Hand Texas candidate forum in McAllen.