By Holly K. Hacker
Staff Writer, Dallas Morning News
Texas’ charter schools are supposed to be innovative. But once again, some nonprofit groups seeking to open new schools have submitted proposals with striking similarities.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams will announce Friday which applications among 12 finalists will win his approval. He has not said whether he’ll reject proposals with similarities.
One of the aspiring charter operators, High Point Academy of Fort Worth, withdrew its application after learning that parts of it were not original work.
Katie Peterson Stellar said the proposal didn’t live up to the values of honor, integrity and service that her group’s school would demonstrate. “It was an opportunity for us to stand up for what we believed was right, and to be the kind of leader that we expect our students to be,” she said.
But four other groups still hope the state will approve their proposals despite the similar passages.
Charter school applications run hundreds of pages. They cover everything from finances to hiring to educational philosophy.
Beta Academy in Houston would focus on making students better readers. Destiny Preparatory in Waco wants to teach students through technology and team projects. And iWin Preparatory in Terrell wants to produce civic-minded students who will make the world a better place.
But all three proposals, along with the one for High Point, use the same string of sentences to describe how they’ll help students who are learning English.
A fifth proposal, for Excel Center in Austin, uses similar language with a few changes in wording.
That’s one example. The five applications contain other passages with wording identical to other current or past proposals.
Allegations of plagiarism were raised during last year’s application process. The Texas Education Agency added an explicit warning on its website that proposals had to be original. But more may need to be done.
“We’re in the process of making decisions on how to deal with that in the future,” said DeEtta Culbertson, an agency spokeswoman.
Under the current system, the same reviewers don’t always read all the applications. The agency might end up using some type of software or system to catch copied proposals, Culbertson said.
But during interviews this month, state officials questioned three of the 12 finalists — High Point Academy, Destiny Preparatory and iWin Preparatory — about the originality of their work.
Representatives for Destiny Prep and iWin Prep did not respond to requests for comment. A consultant for both, Ted Fujimoto, said during the interviews that they’re adopting national education models.
“It’s very possible that you’re seeing specific language that is familiar, if not identical, because the program is identical,” Fujimoto told state officials.
Stellar’s team from High Point Academy withdrew its proposal after discovering the problems. She said it was “a simple oversight” that goes back three years, when the group consulted other proposals while writing its own. They shelved their plan at the time and came back to it later.
Stellar said her team will submit a new application next year.
The Dallas Morning News found similarities in the applications for Beta Academy and Excel Center.
Latisha Andrews of Beta Academy said her team went over every page of its proposal. “I slaved over that application,” she said. “That is my work. I can stand by it.”
Traci Berry of Excel Center said: “I can’t argue with or fully explain some of the similarities you shared. However, I would suggest that they in no way detract from the overall uniqueness and effectiveness of the proposal.”
Berry said she’s proud of the work her team submitted. The group’s proposal has received nothing but praise from education agency staff, state board of education members and others, she added.
Texas has more than 200 approved charter school operators. A new state law will allow the number to grow in the coming years.
The law also gave the state’s education commissioner the power to approve charters. Before, that job belonged to the State Board of Education. The board still has to confirm the choices, which it is scheduled to do in November. The approved schools would open in fall 2014.
Charter schools receive public funds and are run by private groups. They’re exempt from some rules that apply to traditional school districts. The intention is to allow charters to be more innovative than regular public schools.
That makes copying by would-be charter operators troubling, said Daniel Martin, a management professor at California State University-East Bay who has studied plagiarism.
A good charter school proposal should reflect the unique needs and culture of a particular community, Martin said.
“This is where the innovation is supposed to be,” Martin said. “This is not where you want to see plagiarism.”
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