Do we really want charters?

Published 11:03 pm Friday, February 3, 2012

The Alabama legislature convenes for its 2012 regular session this week. There is little doubt that, before it adjourns, charter schools will be approved for Alabama.

Charter schools are public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement. They cannot charge tuition, teach religion, or have admission requirements.

Legislation that would make Alabama the 42nd state in the union to allow charter schools is one of four points of an education agenda announced by Gov. Robert Bentley and Republican leadership in the legislature.

Proponents of charter schools, like Alabama’s A+ Education Partnership, say that more minorities and disadvantaged students are enrolled in charter schools nationwide than in public schools. Such schools, they say, have more flexibility for innovation, and can make more progress than traditional public schools. They argue that charter schools can help close the achievement gap between students in poor and affluent systems.

Others, like the School Superintendents of Alabama, are concerned that Republicans have been practically mum on what their charter school legislation will look like. As charter schools also are publicly funded, they are justifiably worried about who will ultimately have the authority to approve charters, and how funding will be diverted to those schools.

It seems to us that while charter schools may have some merits, they are designed more for urban than rural areas. Much empirical data shows that dividing relatively small communities into smaller education communities – as in the case of many rural Alabama communities with private schools – weakens the overall public education system.

Further, if faculty input and the ability to innovate are keys to the success of charter schools, wouldn’t ALL of our schools benefit from those freedoms? And if so, why not tackle legislation that removes some of the current bureaucratic limits from our education system.

Finally, many charter schools – at least a third – are run by for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), which in many cases have just taken over existing public schools, primarily in urban areas. If Alabama’s legislation allows this provision, one will have to wonder if it is not being done just to weaken Alabama’s teachers’ union, AEA.

Gov. Bentley owes his office to that powerful organization, now under new management. It will be interesting to watch the development of this legislation.