When Pine Burr Elementary School in Cleveland, about an hour northeast of Houston, opened its doors in August, the classrooms still smelled of fresh paint and carpet glue. The school was set to welcome 1,050 children, in a town where the student population has nearly doubled over the past five years. Within a month, however, the new facility was already projected to overflow, as Cleveland Independent School District welcomed an additional 400 students. Men wearing bright yellow construction vests installed a portable building just outside the spotless glass doors of the prekindergarten wing at Pine Burr, adding ten classrooms. It was the latest in an irruption of temporary classrooms—186 in all—cropping up at every campus in the district.
This is life amid what Cleveland ISD superintendent Chris Trotter calls “hypersonic growth,” and he says the Texas school finance system is not ready for it. Ten years ago, dense pine forest covered the land where Pine Burr Elementary stands. But now Cleveland, historically a town of loggers, train mechanics, and staff for nearby state prisons, is one of Texas’s fast-growing exurbs, its future scripted in pavement that winds between today’s pines and tomorrow’s Starbucks stores. Soon the segment of Texas Highway 99 connecting the northern and eastern parts of the Houston metro area will be complete, making Cleveland as accessible to Beaumont as it is to Space City.
One community, Colony Ridge, is growing faster than the rest, spurred largely by Mexican American families and other immigrants eager to own new homes. Since 2011, developer Trey Harris has acquired land to subdivide into about 30,000 lots, mostly between one quarter and three quarters of an acre, that he markets primarily to Spanish speakers. More than 150 families move into Colony Ridge each month, Harris said. And he expects the growth to continue. He’s less than halfway through the 25 square miles he intends to develop at the southern tip of Cleveland ISD.
To keep up with a coming “tsunami” of students, Trotter told the Cleveland school board this year that it would need to build two more high schools, five more middle schools, and ten more elementary schools over the next ten years: a project that would cost about $1.6 billion. After half a decade of approving bonds to build new schools, however, local voters are beginning to balk. In three recent elections, Cleveland ISD residents approved bonds to build Pine Burr Elementary and three other schools, but a bond issue vote that would have raised the tax rate to fund new school buildings failed in May 2019. A smaller bond with no tax increase passed in November 2019, and another is on the ballot in November 2021 for $150 million—the largest sum the district can borrow without raising property taxes, given that Cleveland doesn’t have many commercial properties or million-dollar homes.
Even if that passes, it won’t be enough for the district’s imminent needs, so Trotter decided to head to Austin to secure funding. During the last regular session of the Legislature back in the spring, he asked lawmakers to grant him more flexibility in how he spends the school district’s money. He also lobbied the governor’s office to designate more state or federal funds to supplement local taxes. The Legislature allocated additional money for fast-growing districts, but not nearly as much as Trotter needed.
So, on May 20, he talked with Texas Education commissioner Mike Morath, hoping to find a solution for Cleveland and for other districts in the same boat, such as Hallsville ISD outside Longview and Prosper ISD north of Dallas. Morath, who declined our request for an on-the-record interview, is an appointee of Governor Greg Abbott. In his role as the state’s top education official, he has rankled some public-school leaders over his support for charter schools, including his advocacy for a 2017 law that incentivizes districts to bring in charter networks to operate low-performing schools.
The day after chatting with Trotter, Morath called Eddie Conger, the superintendent of International Leadership of Texas, one of the fastest growing charter-school networks in the state, which operates 32 schools in metro Houston and Dallas and is headquartered in Richardson. In June, Conger notified Trotter that he would be visiting Cleveland. Just a month later, Trotter received official notice that ILTexas would be opening several new schools in Cleveland ISD.
At first, he was hopeful. Trotter thought the charter network might be willing to form a partnership under the governance of the school district. Such an arrangement would allow the district to set performance standards and enrollment guidelines ensuring that the charter was serving all kids in the neighborhood, as a school district would, and not just those whose parents were the most engaged and won spots. Conger, however, felt that partnering would put the charter network at an unfair disadvantage and told Trotter he’d operate his schools independently.
Trotter was perplexed by the whole saga. Instead of offering funding and flexibility to the public schools, he said, the state fast-tracked the expansion of charter schools that aren’t held to the same standards of community accountability or required to find a seat for every student regardless of ability or disciplinary status.
When ILTexas first arrived in Cleveland, Conger promised locals that he was “going to be the best neighbor that you’ve ever had.” But neighborliness will be difficult to achieve in the ever-intensifying conflict between charter and public schools. Each type of school is funded based on student enrollment. When Cleveland loses kids to ILTexas, it will lose money. It’s a story that’s played out across the state.
When a charter school network wants to establish its first school in the state, it must apply to Morath and the Texas Education Agency and, once approved, go before the State Board of Education. The fifteen elected members of that board can veto new charter approvals, a power they’ve used more frequently as public school districts have sounded alarms about the new costs they face when charters pop up in their areas. But the state board does not have veto power once an approved charter network wants to grow beyond its original boundaries, increase its student population, or add campuses and grade levels. In such cases, Morath’s approval is final. Since 2015, some 29 charter school networks have opened their first school in Texas, receiving the approval of the State Board of Education. Morath has allowed those 29 networks to open an additional 586 school campuses.
Many laws and rules govern the state education commissioner’s powers to approve the expansion of charter networks, so the process is usually fairly slow, taking around two months. But that wasn’t the case in Cleveland. On July 30, 2021, ILTexas applied to increase its enrollment capacity by seven thousand (about 60 percent of Cleveland ISD’s projected enrollment for 2022), add five new schools over two years “in the Cleveland area,” and expand its boundary into fourteen neighboring districts. The request was approved three days later, on August 2, which in the context of the state government is the equivalent of light speed. (It took more than a month for the State Board of Education to change the mailing address for ILTexas earlier this year, when the charter network moved its headquarters 0.3 miles south of its old one.) To green-light the network’s expansion in just three days, and nearly double the number of schools in Colony Ridge, Morath waived at least three administrative deadlines and limits on expansion.
Public school advocates worry that the process circumvents public accountability. Charter growth is driven by decisions made in Austin and charter network headquarters, not by the communities where those schools will be located or their elected school boards. In this way, the undercutting of school districts in favor of charters seems part of a pattern evident in the Abbott administration, which has rapidly encroached on what traditionally have been local decisions about everything from public health measures such as mask mandates to whether plastic grocery bags can be outlawed or ancient trees protected.
Kevin Brown, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said that when decisions are made in a public school district about anything from curriculum to adding new schools, democratically elected boards create a conduit for parents and community members to offer their views. Charters, by contrast, whose appointed boards often do not live in the cities and towns whose students they serve, do not need a community’s approval to open a new school next door. “To a local community, it often feels like an invasion from outsiders,” Brown said.
Charter networks don’t see it that way. “I don’t want to be disruptive to the community,” Conger said, responding to Brown’s criticisms. He and other charter superintendents believe they offer school choice to parents who might want, or need, it. He anticipates ILTexas’s English-Spanish-Mandarin trilingual model—in which every student learns all three languages, as opposed to Cleveland ISD’s bilingual education—will be appealing to families in Colony Ridge, in particular. “Let them choose to participate in that, let them choose to not participate,” Conger said. “The families ultimately are going to be able to decide.”
The State Board of Education has no oversight over the expansion of ILTexas that Morath approved, but its members did raise some concerns. At a September 1 board meeting, Republican Pat Hardy, who represents the Fort Worth area, questioned whether the charter network met the academic requirements for expansion. State law requires 90 percent of a network’s campuses to be rated as academically “acceptable” if the network wants to expand. Two of ILTexas’s 32 schools had earned F’s and six had earned D’s in 2019 the last time schools were rated by the state. But state policy allows certain D ratings to be passing grades: those received in 2018–19, the first year of an A-to-F grading system Morath implemented, are “acceptable,” while future D’s will trigger accountability. With only two F campuses out of 32 total, the network was above the 90 percent threshold.
Hardy accepted that the policy allowed expansion, but pushed back: “I really think that any charter school that has an F should not have the privilege to expand.” Morath advised her, politely, to take up the issue with the Legislature.
Cleveland has unwittingly become the newest theater of the charter-district conflict. On August 9, Trotter sent a letter to Morath asking for a rescission of ILTexas’s permission to expand. Twelve Liberty County districts included in ILTexas’s new recruitment boundary cosigned the letter questioning the charter’s track record with low-income students whose first language isn’t English.
On that same day, Conger and ILTexas chief financial officer James Dworkin broke the good news of their expansion on a call with investment managers. “If somebody’s looking for ‘where’s the local school?’ they’ll be pointed to an ILTexas school,” Dworkin said. “That is a change to the charter industry as I’ve seen it in my time here, and I’m proud to be part of ILTexas leading the way.”
Conger told Texas Monthly that Dworkin’s comment had been an overstatement. There are plenty of students to fill both charter and district schools to capacity, and now, he said, parents have a choice of which schools they want for their kids. In response to criticism about the network’s record with low-income students, Conger acknowledged the low scores and said the first two years for high-poverty schools are always rough, from a test score standpoint, but he is confident the network’s model will deliver for the kids of Cleveland.
If it doesn’t, Trotter worries, the students whose parents choose to leave ILTexas will still need seats in Cleveland ISD schools, and he can’t tell them he’s full. His growth problem, as he sees it, hasn’t been solved—rather it’s just gained another variable. He’s still on the hook for a solution, and he’s determined to find one. Unlike the leaders of charter school networks, he said, “We live here. We eat here. We worship here.”