Charter schools coming to state?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

As Alabama’s schools continue to face constricted budgets due to a weakened economy, some politicians have suggested one unique solution to the problem — charter schools.

Charter schools are schools that receive public money but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools. Private groups who desire to set up a charter school must first apply to the state board of education in order to operate, and the school must continue to meet certain academic benchmarks in order to continue to receive funding. Because charter schools are part of the public school system, they cannot charge tuition and cannot discriminate.

Currently, Alabama is one of 10 states that prohibit charter schools, but that may be changing. Mark Dixon, Gov. Bob Riley’s education policy director, said recently that a bill is currently being drafted that would legalize charter schools in Alabama. In addition, several candidates for governor in 2010 have said they are in favor of charter schools, including Republicans Bradley Byrne and Kay Ivey and Democrat Artur Davis.

Local superintendents said charter schools would be an innovative way to foster educational improvement, but it is not likely the schools would be needed in Covington County.

“I am in favor of innovative programs,” Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart said. “Charter schools may well be that mechanism. I am open to exploring the possibility of charter schools, but my expectation would be that they would be initially limited only to urban areas. My concern is that in a rush to pass legislation, we may end up with a bad law.

“Allowing for charter schools is a 180-degree turn for Alabama, and there should be a great deal more conversation and clarification before any legislation is passed.”

One reason for the state’s sudden interest in charter schools is that Alabama could receive up to $175 million in federal stimulus funding through the “Race to the Top” program. States are eligible for the funding based on a U.S. Department of Education 500-point system, and states without charter schools are penalized. Applications for the first round of Race to the Top funds are due in January.

“I believe there will be legislation to allow the creation of charter schools, so Alabama will be in a position to receive the Race to the Top funds,” Andalusia Superintendent Dr. Beverly McAnulty said. “In areas where schools have not been responsive to the changes needed to advance academic achievement, charter schools would allow creative solutions.”

Like Smithart, McAnulty said she does not believe charter schools are necessarily needed in small communities like Andalusia.

“I think our local systems are responsive to student needs,” she said. “Additionally, except for the graduation rate at the high school, our schools are relatively high performing. Charters are most popular where a student need or niche is not met, or where the schools are continually in ‘school improvement.’”

State Superintendent Joe Morton first discussed charter schools at a Nov. 12 meeting of the state board of education, and the subject will also be on the agenda at the board’s Dec. 10 work session. Morton said charter schools could play a role in areas where traditional public schools do not perform.

“It depends on how the legislation is written,” Morton said. “We can learn from the successes and failures of other states. I have every confidence we can get it right.”

In most charter schools, a board of trustees or separate governing board takes its orders from the state Department of Education, rather than a local school board. As a result, charter schools have greater flexibility in hiring staff, school administration, and in setting curriculum and class schedules — including the length of a school day.

Opponents of charter schools, like Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert, say they will compete with traditional public schools for limited state and federal funds.

“First, you are going to take education revenue away from public schools and give it to these charters, and then you are going to expect public schools to compete against them with less money,” he said. “Education in Alabama is already one of the lowest funded in the country.”