- Associated Press - Friday, July 18, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A board with veto power over new charter schools in Texas voted unanimously Friday to allow its members to take privately-funded trips to see such schools in other states, even though critics contend it could lead to junkets and conflicts of interest.

The “fact-finding missions” for Texas Board of Education members can be funded by private foundations or individual donors but not taxpayers or the charter schools themselves. They also would be limited to charter networks seeking to expand into Texas.

Board members said tight restrictions will help ensure that those taking such trips won’t be unfairly influenced. Its 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats approved them after little debate. Previously, members could take only one out-of-state trip per year which didn’t have to be related to charter school business but was paid for using state funds.

“What you see on paper is one thing, but going there and seeing the reality of the school and the students is another,” said Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican who helped draft the new rules. “We need to be able to make sure that what’s on paper and reality match. And if they don’t, that school shouldn’t be authorized to operate in Texas.”

The move comes amid a major push, backed by top conservatives including Gov. Rick Perry and Republican lieutenant governor nominee and state Sen. Dan Patrick, to expand charter schools in Texas and make it easier for charter networks that have succeeded elsewhere to open campuses in the state.

Education board members taking such trips will have to get approval from the full board, but there’s no limit on how much they can cost. Groups paying travel expenses can’t run, or be associated with, charter schools in Texas or around the country.

Still, some worry privately-funded trips will sway decisions about which charter operators are ultimately approved to receive public classroom funding.

“In our mind it’s a clear conflict of interest,” said Craig McDonald, executive director of the government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “If there’s a real need to travel to evaluate these schools, it should be paid for by public institutions.”

Marty Rowley, a Republican board member from Amarillo, acknowledged that the entire issue was “fraught with peril” and said he supported the new rules “with a great deal of reluctance.”

“These guidelines should alleviate concerns that these trips be used to curry favor,” Rowley said.

San Antonio Democrat Marisa Perez said she initially opposed taking such trips, but that what was approved is “limited and restrictive enough” to avoid the appearance that board members are going on junkets.

“We’re walking a very fine line,” Perez said. “We’ve got to be careful.”

McDonald countered that adding restrictions and limiting the scope of such trips “doesn’t change what was bad policy from the get-go,” arguing that any trips to charter schools outside Texas should be publicly funded. Bahorich said she’d support the idea of the Texas Legislature allocating funding for such travel - but in the meantime the board had to take this step.

In 2013, Texas lawmakers raised the maximum number of charter school licenses the state can issue from 215 to 305 by 2019, while shifting approval from the board of education to the governor-appointed commissioner of education. But Board of Education members can still veto commissioner approvals.

Charter schools educate only about 3 percent of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students, but that percentage is expected to now rise in coming years.

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