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Gov. Riley wants charter schools

Legislation allowing charter schools in Alabama and thereby putting the state in a more competitive position in the hunt for federal funding is high on Gov. Bob Riley’s agenda for the 2010 legislative session.

“Race to the Top” is an education portion of the national stimulus package approved in Congress last year. States will compete for billions of dollars in federal funding and Riley said in a conference call with newspaper editors on Thursday that Alabama could receive up to $200 million.

Charter schools are elementary or secondary that receive public money but are freed from some of the regulations that apply to other public schools, in exchange for accountability for producing certain results set forth in each school’s charter. Some are formed to focus on a specific area, like the arts, while others are formed to improve general education.

At present, Alabama is one of 11 states that do not provide for charter schools.

“In order to be able to compete (in Race to the Top), one of the boxes you have to check is whether or not you allow charter schools in your state,” Riley said. “If you look at Alabama and this criteria, what you can do is make your system not only better, but be more creative in reaching out to students in a way we have historically never done.”

The 2010 Race to the Top allocations will reward states for innovations in schools. Riley cited the expansion of the Alabama Reading Initiative and the state’s math and science program, AMSTI, as proof that Alabama is innovative. The reading initiative, he said, is a model for other states.

“I really think because of all of that, if we had charter school legislation, not only would we be competitive, but in line to receive a grant of up to $200 million,” he said.

Riley said the legislation he’ll propose would leave the authority for authorizing charter schools with local boards of education. He said the program would not double capacity, but in some instances would allow a charter school to be established in an existing school building.

Pushed to answer how charter schools can be innovative in ways current school systems can’t, especially given recent reform success in Mobile County’s school system, Riley said, “This is not a cure-all for all education problems. We have the ability to have an extra $200 million for the state of Alabama. We need to compete for it, want to compete for it, and think we can win.

Riley said he’ll also ask the legislature to:

Approve a 200 percent deduction for small businesses that provide health care for employees.

Give a $500 tax credit to anyone who hires someone who is on unemployment.

Approve ethics reform bills that call for full disclosure by lobbyists and public officials and give the Ethics Commission subpoena powers.

The governor’s efforts at ethics reform have failed in recent years. He said he is more optimistic this year because “we’ve almost developed a different level of momentum out there today, based on what has occurred over the past few years.”