Texas State Board of Education rejects conservative-backed Heritage Classical Academy charter school for third time

State Board of Education members meet in Austin on Jan. 29, 2019. (Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune, Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas State Board of Education Friday again rejected an application of a Houston charter school whose founder gave money to a political action committee that backed anti-critical race theory candidates for the board and whose board member accused organizers of the Women’s March of trying to impose Sharia in America.

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The Heritage Classical Academy, which had plans to open in 2023 using a curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College, was one of four applicants for charters that were rejected by the board this week. The elected body made up of nine Republicans and six Democrats did move forward with a new charter school in Fort Worth, the Academy of Visual Performing Arts for sixth to twelfth grade students.

The Heritage charter’s application has been vetoed multiple times, most recently in June 2021. Members voted 8 to 6 on Friday to deny its application after a lengthy debate on the issue the day before.

Two Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to reject the charter’s application, including Jay Johnson, who represents the Panhandle, and was defeated by a candidate endorsed by a PAC that had received money from Heritage’s board chair. The other Republican who voted against, Matt Robinson, is not running for reelection.

On Thursday, board member Aicha Davis, a Democrat from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, questioned Heritage’s board chair, Stuart D. Saunders, about his $52,500 political contribution to the Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC. That PAC has raised over $600,000 since Jan. 1 and supported state education board candidates who oppose critical race theory, which is a university-level discipline that studies the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It has become a catch-all phrase for conservatives worried about discussions and lessons about race in public secondary schools.

Two conservative candidates backed by the Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC won their Republican primaries in March: LJ Francis and Aaron Kinsey, who defeated Johnson. The PAC has also supported Will Hickman, Republican member from Houston, who made a last minute plea in support of the charter.

“I’m voting in favor to provide an opportunity to parents and kids in northwest Houston who want a public classical option that's not currently available,” he said.

Last year, the Texas Legislature banned critical race theory in public schools, though the concept wasn’t included in the Texas public school curriculum standards.

“When we really look into [it], it's an effort to stop diversity and inclusion in our school and you can't stop that because Texas has more Black and brown kids and it's growing every year,” Davis said. “It's well documented that you are trying to do this politically. You’re trying to affect our kids through schools. It’s a hard no for me.”

Saunders pointed to the Legislature’s decision to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools and said he supports the PAC’s other initiatives such as strengthening school boards and squeezing out sexually explicit materials from schools.

Robinson, a Republican from Friendswood, questioned Saunders' ethics, saying it seemed that he was trying to remake the board after his charter was denied before.

“It speaks to your credibility,” Robinson said.

Saunders in response said he wasn’t involved in where donations went.

“My family and I have a long history of supporting education initiatives and part of our involvement includes a history of supporting public policy and education initiatives,” he said.

During the questioning of Heritage Classical Academy, state education board member Georgina Pérez, a Democrat from El Paso, also read a Facebook comment of the school’s board secretary, Kathryn van der Pol. She posted a comment five years ago about the Washington’s Women’s March that said the organizers wanted to impose Sharia, Islamic law, on the United States.

“Why would this person with these beliefs be your choice for school leadership?” Pérez asked.

Saunders told the board that van der Pol told him the comment was being taken out of context and she was actually quoting someone else. Board member Ruben Cortez Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville, said he was not buying it.

“Clearly you want to defend your member and that's okay, I understand, but that’s very telling to me,” Cortez said on Wednesday. “You guys have been here … every time you've had an opportunity to fix anything that could have seemed just out of bounds for some of us, each time you all come back and it just seems like you'd dig a deeper hole.”

Unlike traditional schools, charter schools cannot levy local taxes, and they receive all their funding from the state. Texas has 185 charter school operators that oversee 872 campuses across the state where 377,375 students are enrolled.

The board voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reject the other three charter school proposals for ONE Collegiate Charter School in Houston, Patterns High School of Technology in Del Valle and Spelligent in San Antonio.

Board members questioned the schools’ leadership and curriculums and said the charter hopefuls did not have plans to take care of children that were not to the board’s standards.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath gave a glowing review of each charter school before the board spent the rest of the day Thursday and some of the night debating with the charter leaders and hearing public testimony.

“[These are] the charters that we think are fit to have the opportunity to educate eager young minds,” Morath said.

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