State Rep. Sid Miller (R-Stephenville) found himself under attack this week for trying to kill a bill aimed at closing the lowest-performing charter schools.
Critics called Miller’s efforts an obvious conflict of interest because his wife, Debra, is director of a charter school - Erath Excels! Academy - and that Miller shouldn’t be voting on the bill and drafting amendments to defeat it.
The legislation, drafted by Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), would reward the top charter schools and shut down the worst.
“Let’s just say I would be very uncomfortable if it were my situation,” Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands), one of the bill’s sponsors, told the Dallas Morning News.
“Of course, I’d be concerned if the Legislature was messing with my business,” Eissler said. “But I would stop short of pushing any (voting) buttons.”
On Tuesday, Miller said he doesn’t believe his actions on the bill constitute a conflict of interest.
Miller said his wife is “just an employee” at Erath Excels! Academy and that the state of Texas actually “owns it.”
“As far as a conflict of interest, that’s probably a little bit of a stretch,” Miller said. “I’m not invested in it (Excels! Academy). It’s not my school.”
Miller said if what he’s done is a conflict of interest - and he doesn’t believe it is - then it would also be a conflict of interest for lawmakers who are insurance agents who serve on the Insurance Committee or those who are lawyers who serve on the Civil Practices Committee.
He said it’s not any different than a lawmaker who has a wife who is a schoolteacher.
In fact, Miller said, he believes opposing the bill is the right thing to do, especially given the fact that he has three other charter schools in his district - in Dublin, Glen Rose and Comanche.
“These charter schools serve a population of kids that have no other option,” Miller said. “If they close, those kids are back on the street … The odds aren’t good for us if they aren’t in school. The odds are bad for any kid that is a dropout.”
Miller said the bill wouldn’t even result in Excels! Academy closing because, under its guidelines, Excels! Academy would meet the appropriate standards.
“If the bill passes, it doesn’t effect her,” he said.
However, Miller said, he didn’t even expect the bill to come up before the House’s Tuesday deadline to hear Senate bills had passed.
“I don’t think I’m going to have to do anything,” Miller said late Tuesday. “I don’t think the bill’s gonna even come up.”
Miller wasn’t sure if he would vote on the measure - if it did come up - but that he didn’t plan on offering any amendment s. He, however, said he had drafted some and given them to other representatives.
“I think I’d white light it,” Miller said, meaning that if it did come up for a vote he would press a button indicating he was present and not voting.
Even so, Miller said, he believed the bill was dead.
“I don’t think my vote’s gonna make a difference on it,” Miller said.
The Texas Constitution says that any lawmaker who has a “personal or private interest in any measure or bill, proposed or pending before the Legislature” must disclose the conflict to the chamber and not vote.
Until Miller offers an amendment, Shapiro told the Morning News, “technically, he’s still within the spirit of the law.” But Ms. Shapiro said she still has a problem with the appearance that he’s meddling with a bill he shouldn’t be.
Erath Excels! Academy, which has about 115 students in grades nine through 12, has received the state’s worst rating, academically unacceptable, for the past two years. Just 11 percent of students passed all TAKS tests in 2006. About 15 percent of students drop out, and less than half graduate, according to state data.
Charter schools function independent of regular public school districts and are exempt from many state rules on teacher requirements and class sizes. Texas has one of the largest charter programs in the country, with 71,000 students at 358 campuses.
DOUG MYERS is Managing Editor of the Empire-Tribune. He can be reached at 965-3124, ext. 229, or firstname.lastname@example.org