- Associated Press - Friday, July 18, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A board with veto power over new charter schools statewide is set to vote on allowing its members to take all-expenses-paid trips to visit out-of-state charter networks that want to expand into Texas.

The fact-finding missions for Texas Board of Education members would be funded by private foundations or wealthy individual donors - not taxpayers or the charter schools themselves. But they require new ethics rules, which the board’s 10 Republicans and five Democrats are considering during their meeting Friday.

Rules up for approval require that funds go only to “reasonable travel expenses” and prohibit those financing trips from operating or being directly associated with charter schools in Texas or elsewhere around the country. There are no proposed limits on how much such trips can cost.

Critics deride the idea as junkets and say privately funded trips shouldn’t be allowed to influence decisions about what charter operators are ultimately approved to receive public funding.

But Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican who chairs the committee that brought the travel proposal to the full board, said that seeing charter networks firsthand is more important than ever amid calls by the Legislature to expand the number of out-of-state charter school operators approved to open campuses in Texas.

She also said board members will have clear directives about what they want to accomplish on every trip and are going for work, not fun.

“We’re not going to be unaccompanied minors, if you will, out on a junket,” said Bahorich.

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 education board to the governor-appointed commissioner of education. But Board of Education members can veto commissioner approvals.

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

Board members are already allowed to use taxpayer funds for one out-of-state trip annually, but that travel doesn’t have to be charter-school related. Some worry it may be hard for board members to remain impartial about charter approvals after traveling with private funds.

“In our mind it’s a clear conflict of interest,” said Craig McDonald, executive director of the government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Marty Rowley, a Republican board member from Amarillo, said the whole issue was “fraught with peril” because it could present the chance to be influenced by lavish trips. But Rowley said the final rules the board is considering “are so restrictive” about what outside groups or individuals can fund that they should protect against conflicts of interest.

Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for the American Federation of Teachers in Texas, said that even with funding for such trips coming from foundations and not charter schools, there are still concerns such groups could receive indirect donations from charter operators.

“No one’s asking where this money is ultimately coming from,” Quinzi said.

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