Parents’ passionate pleas pushed the State Board of Education to allow Rocketship Public Schools to establish in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood.
In a narrow 8-7 vote Friday, the board took no action on the charter’s plans — effectively approving Rocketship’ whittled-down plan to start a new network of schools in Tarrant County.
The Stop Six charter will be the first of two schools for Rocketship. Initially, the charter planned to open four schools in Tarrant County, but State Board of Education member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, encouraged Rocketship to begin with a smaller footprint.
“Southeast Fort Worth deserves a high-quality school where Black students, like my kids, don’t feel like they won the lottery, but they have high quality school in a place in their neighborhood. I want an option that is present in our community,” resident Terrence Jones said.
SaJade Miller, the local Rocketship superintendent, wants the charter to keep its commitment to Stop Six before expanding.
The State Board of Education Friday voted on Rocketship’s application. Here’s how the 15-member board voted:
Yes: Marisa Perez-Diaz, D-Converse; Lawrence Allen, D-Houston; Will Hickman, R-Houston; Tom Maynard, R-Florence; Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth; Sue Melton-Malone, R-Robinson; Jay Johnson, R-Pampa; and Kevin Ellis, R-Lufkin
No: Georgina Perez, D-El Paso; Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville; Rebecca Bell-Metereau, D-San Marcos; Matt Robinson, R-Friendswood; Pam Little, R-Fairview; Aicha Davis, D-Dallas
“We’re going to get that right,” he told the State Board of Education this week. “We are going to have A and B elementary schools in that community before we start talking about rapid expansion.”
Education Commissioner Mike Morath has the power to decide whether a charter can expand in Texas. The Texas Education Agency plans to require charters to have an A or B grade in the state’s accountability system before it allows Morath to sign off on additional schools.
Construction on Rocketship’s Stop Six campus, 3520 Berry St., is set to begin sometime next month. The campus, which will offer only kindergarten through fifth-grade classes, is expected to be open for the 2022-23 school year.
“Our public school system will never thrive if it’s built on an unstable foundation of elementary education,” Miller said in a statement Friday. “If we want to create a more equitable and excellent public school system, we need to innovate and we need to collaborate. That is how Rocketship Texas will help improve public education across Tarrant County.”
‘We want to help’
Some State Board of Education members used Rocketship as a proxy for the greater charter school movement in Texas.
“We do not need another rapid expansion charter in this state. Homeowners and property owners cannot further bear the burden of a duplicated system,” board member Georgina Perez, D-El Paso, said.
Hardy pointed out she is a homeowner who pays taxes to Fort Worth ISD, one of the Tarrant County independent school districts Rocketship is targeting. She has seen Fort Worth ISD not perform well. Although Stop Six is not part of her district, which covers the western half of Tarrant County, she said she wanted to represent those residents’ needs and wants.
Aicha Davis, a Dallas Democrat who represents Stop Six on the State Board of Education, opposed Rocketship. This area of Fort Worth, she said, is in such a bad state that is beyond any school’s scope to improve. For Davis, the only way Stop Six will turn around is if the entire public education system in Texas is improved.
“We want to help the parents that came (here during public testimony). I’m telling you putting Rocketship in my district in that area is not going to help those parents,” Davis said. “It’s not going to give them the hope that’s needed.”
Charters vs. ISDs
In Texas, charter schools are public schools that operate through contracts approved by the State Board of Education. While they are privately managed, they are funded entirely by the state or donations.
Independent school districts also receive funding from the state and can levy a property tax. Elected board of trustees provide oversight for traditional public schools. Charter schools have an appointed board of directors.
Traditional public schools must offer services, such as lunch, transportation and special education, to fit the needs of all students. In most cases, charters are not required to do so.
Like ISDs, charters must meet state accountability requirements and will receive an overall letter grade for the network, as well as a grade for each campus in its system.
Board member Jay Johnson, R-Pampa, opposed Rocketship as it made its way through the charter application process. He ultimately voted for it because of the Stox Six residents who made the trek to Austin to voice their support for the charter.
“Those people convinced me they need help,” Johnson said. “I’m afraid if we don’t, they’re desperation, I don’t know where it’s going to take them. I would like to give them that assistance. … They have convinced me that their desire is sincere to help that area.”
Board member Matt Robinson, R-Friendswood, described Rocketship as the next version of IDEA Public Schools, a charter network that started small then expanded across the entire state. IDEA Public Schools recently has been embroiled in controversy over its top leaders misusing money and staff for personal gain.
But Republicans Will Hickman of Houston and Tom Maynard of Florence said parents should have the choice to leave underperforming or failing schools.
“If you’re zoned to a failing school, you should be able to leave instead of trying to fix it,” Hickman said.
Board member Marisa Perez-Diaz, D-Converse, was one of two Democrats to vote in favor of Rocketship. She said she owes it to parents in Fort Worth to take charge of their children’s education and make the best decision that fits them. Perez-Diaz recognized Fort Worth ISD is making changes to improve its schools, but she wanted to know how much progress has been made to support Stop Six families.
“As a young mother myself, I know how important it is for families to make choices,” Perez-Diaz said.
‘They are like yours’
Lake Worth ISD Superintendent Rose Mary Neshyba opposed Rocketship’s plans because she said her district would see a significant negative impact. Her district has about 3,400 students, with a $48.3 million budget. If Rocketship opens a campus near her district, Neshyba estimated Lake Worth ISD would lose $1.2 million to $3.8 million.
“The revenue loss is a significant portion of our budget,” Neshyba said. “We cannot cut dollar to dollar and still provide the services that we’re currently providing.”
Neshyba has been working on turning Lake Worth ISD around, said Hardy, the Fort Worth Republican. However, Hardy noted Lake Worth ISD will not be impacted by Rocketship’s first campus, but it potentially could be if the charter expands. Hardy only wants charters to open in areas where public schools are failing.
“These students in this (area of Fort Worth), they are like yours when you first got there,” Hardy told Neshyba, adding that Lake Worth ISD has time to continue to bring its grades up and possibly prevent Rocketship from entering the district.