By Morgan Smith, Texas Tribune
Three years, 5,000 door hangers and several garage sales after its opening, Beta Academy has a long waiting list but an empty bank account.
But if the school’s founder, Latisha Andrews, has her way, Beta, a private elementary school that operates out of the Houston Christian Temple Assembly of God Church, will soon transform into a new operation: a publicly financed charter school.
If the state approves Andrews’s application this fall, Beta Academy will join the many charter schools that have partnerships with religious institutions that have cropped up in cities across Texas since the charter school system was established in 1995. In the past three years, 16 of the 23 charter contracts the state has awarded have gone to entities with religious ties.
While charter school advocates say the practice often reflects no more than smart budgeting, some educators and others question whether the schools receive the proper oversight to ensure that religious groups are not benefiting from taxpayer dollars intended for public school students — or that faith-based instruction is not entering those classrooms.
Andrews started Beta Academy after her own church, which is across the street from Christian Temple and where her husband is a pastor, closed its private school because of declining enrollment.
While an elementary school principal there, she saw classes fill up with students from the local community, an economically depressed neighborhood near William P. Hobby Airport.
“We would enroll kids in third and fourth grade, and they couldn’t read and write,” she said.
Not wanting to abandon parents she said were desperate for options beyond the local public schools, she continued the school on her own. Although Christian Temple was a generous landlord, she said, she struggled to keep the school open.
“I sold everything out of my house just so kids could come, and I wasn’t making a drop in the bucket,” she said. “Everyone wanted to come for free, it was hard, and I was trying to help all of them, paying half of their school tuitions.”
Because they are publicly financed, charter schools are required to teach secular, state-approved curriculums. When founded by a faith-based organization, they are also required to operate under a separate nonprofit entity. Because charter schools do not receive facilities financing from the state, a leasing agreement with a church, whose grounds often stand empty during weekdays, can be a cost-efficient arrangement for both parties.
“It’s difficult to turn off the faucet of religion once it’s there, whether it’s in the shape of the building or the people who are running it,” said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit advocacy group that has sued schools in Texas over this issue. “If you are a person of faith you say, ‘I am religious 24/7.’ It’s just really hard to turn religion off if you are as dedicated or as evangelical as many of these groups are.”
Texas Education Agency auditors have found inappropriate use of state money in such arrangements. Last summer, in the most recent example, it discovered that a San Antonio-based charter school’s superintendent had used school funds to buy a former church, then leased that building to the school she led.
In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill aimed at expanding the state’s charter school system. Though provisions in the legislation increase state oversight of charters and beef up the vetting process for proposed schools, it does not contain language aimed at charter schools with connections to places of worship.
That is because state and federal laws already impose strict boundaries on public schools with any religious affiliations, said David Dunn, the executive director of the Texas Charter School Association. While there have been instances of abuse in the past, he said, charter operators overall were “very aware” of those restrictions.
“We think it is working appropriately now,” Dunn said. “The law is very clear. The agency has very clear monitoring and compliance instructions.”
He cited examples of schools going to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the church-state boundary. A church bulletin board was covered while school was in session. Leaders questioned whether a church member could walk down the hallway during the school day.
Bracy Wilson, a McKinney-based education consultant, has found a niche business helping build relationships between charter schools and churches. Since 2010, he has worked with nine clients connected with churches, including Beta Academy, through the state’s charter school application process.
His professional interests evolved from a family background in the field. His father, Tom Wilson, founded Life Schools, a charter network that operates six campuses in the Dallas area. The first had its beginnings with the Oak Cliff Assembly of God Church, where he was a pastor at the time, more than a decade ago.
“When we are looking for a location, that church is often the most conservative lease structure or contract that is the least amount of money and most amount of quality for that school,” Wilson said.
The issue is not so simple for others in the education community. In the fifteen years that Jack Ammons spent auditing public schools across the state as a monitor for the education agency, he said he found it was “nearly impossible” for charter schools operating out of church facilities to avoid spending state funds on students in ways that also benefited the church.
While he said state supervision of charter schools with religious ties had improved, Ammons, who left the education agency in 2010, added that “questionable practices” still existed.
“There are schools once again where preachers are making good money off of keeping the charter schools in churches,” he said.
Andrews said that before she approached the church across the street, she had exhausted her options trying to find an alternative location. Fifteen minutes after calling the church, she found herself sitting in the pastor’s office, being told that the church had always wanted to have a school.
This is her second attempt at securing a charter school contract.
Her application failed to make it to the interview process the first time. The State Board of Education, which works with the Texas Education Agency to approve charter contracts, is not required to explain why applicants are turned down, but Andrews has a theory.
She initially applied under a nonprofit foundation that she and her husband had established, Wide Awake Ministries.
“It did have the word ministry in it,” she said. “The feedback I’ve gotten from several people was that they didn’t want anyone affiliated with churches — or Christians — to get those charters.”
With the name of the nonprofit associated with her application now changed to the Beta Foundation, she said she hoped the outcome would be different.
She does not expect the shift from a private Christian school to public charter to be a challenge.
“I don’t use a lot of Christian curriculum right now,” she said. “I know full well what the law says, and I have no problem being in compliance with the law.”