Selected readings on US charter schools
Republicans will try again in the coming legislative session to bring charter schools to the state of Alabama, at least on a limited basis.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in an interview last week he will make a charter school bill a priority for the 2015 session, which begins in March.
“We believe in school choice,” Marsh said in his office. “We believe parents know what’s best for their children. We also think it’s a way to put pressure on systems we’ve given a good bit flexibility to use that flexibility.”
The legislation has not been finalized, though Marsh and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, who will likely sponsor the bill, said in separate interviews they anticipated legislation that could limit the number of Alabama charters to as few as 10 schools, at least in its first year. Marsh said he did not expect a bill to be filed until at least the first day of the session.
“From what I know for sure, it’s going to be strictly limited in scope, with a very low cap on schools,” Brewbaker said. “It will also be extremely accountable. If someone starts a charter school, there will be a maximum length of five years.”
to revisit issue
The campaign revisits an issue that led to a rare defeat for Republican leaders three years ago, and one that a number of state education groups are, at best, unenthusiastic about. But with increased majorities in both chambers and fears that voters would punish lawmakers for 2013’s Alabama Accountability Act largely dispelled, GOP leaders feel ready to move forward.
“You had a lot of legislators not sure where public was on that, going into an election cycle,” Marsh said. “The success of (the) Accountability (Act) and Common Core were issues in those campaigns, neither of which resonated negatively with voter.”
Charter schools are public schools run by for-profit or nonprofit entities that receive public money but can operate outside some education laws, usually in exchange for a strict list of achievement goals. Advocates say they will allow innovative curricula and provide students in failing schools with choices.
“These are tools for innovation,” said Emily Schultz, a former education adviser to Gov. Robert Bentley and director of the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools, which advocates for the bill. “They’re a way to really think outside the box and try something new. We’re doing great things in public education, but we’re not doing them in enough places.”
Opponents say charters are not proven to provide measurably better results than public schools and have expressed fears about the priorities of for-profit companies that may get involved in the system.
“We support innovation in schools,” said Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, which opposes charter schools. “Every schoolchild deserves the best education they can receive. Re-creating the wheel with charter schools, with the charter school model across the country that does not work, is not the way to do it. We have limited resources for existing schools.”
A message seeking comment from the Alabama Department of Education was not returned.
Stanford University’s CREDO study, which tracks charter school performance, estimated in a 2013 report that there were 6,000 charter schools in the nation, serving about 2.3 million students. More than half — 54 percent — came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Gauging the performance of the charters is complicated. According to the report, performance varied according to a number of factors, including race, poverty, English language proficiency and the state where the charter schools were located. The report found that minority students in poverty and English language learners “gained a substantial learning advantage” in charter schools, though non-poverty students, regardless of race, had similar or worse outcomes.
On the other side of the equation, the report found that just 25 percent of charter schools showed significantly better results for students in reading than public schools, while just 29 percent showed better results in math, though the report noted those numbers showed improvement over a 2009 study.
The study concluded that charters are “especially helpful for some students” but noted that there were “worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need to continue their education or be successful in the workforce.”
Gov. Robert Bentley and Republican leaders attempted to introduce charter school legislation in 2012 that would have allowed for the formation of about 50 charter schools in the state, mostly in “priority” districts with struggling schools. Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said in a statement last week that the governor “is supportive of public charter schools as an option to help children in failing schools.”
However, the bill ran into opposition from the AEA and Democrats and Republicans, in part over concerns about performance of charters and language in the legislation that would have given a state board the power to overrule school boards that declined to accept charters in their communities.
After months of wrangling, a bill came out of the Senate that House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said was “totally unacceptable,” killing the legislation.
Mabry said charter schools “sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but the bottom line is they’re a pig in a poke.”
“You don’t improve education by taking money from it,” he said. “Giving money to charter schools is designed to help people make money in the private sector.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said last week his caucus would likely oppose a charter bill.
“We’re always open to anything, but if this is abandoning public education and taking funding out of the Education Trust Fund, we’re 100 percent opposed to it,” he said.
Other education groups were cautious about the legislation but said that with strict accountability requirements, they could see charters as a possibility in places where other alternatives had failed. Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said in an interview last week that the group wanted to see a “nonpartisan appeals” process and a limit on the number of authorized charter schools.
“We would look at them only being located where there is a demonstrated need to do something very different and out of the box,” Mackey said. “We think they should be publicly accountable on testing and finances — that’s one of our tenets. We think they should be really few in number.”
Option, not a mandate
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she felt charters could be an option where students “are not well served by public schools,” but added that she did not want to see the state’s limited education resources diverted from successful schools.
“We could support charter schools under appropriate conditions,” she said. “But it should be an option, not a mandate. And it should something that should be allowed to be grown up, not forced down.”
Though details are still being hammered out, Marsh and Brewbaker described visions that would broadly fall along those lines. The Senate president pro tem said he believed it would be more likely to see existing public schools converted into charter programs than to see charters directly competing with public schools.
Marsh said a bill would have to require charter schools to meet certain achievement goals within the span of their contract or be closed. The bill would likely have an exit strategy for families of students in failing schools.
“There has to be performance,” Marsh said. “We want to verify that if one has activated a charter school, if they’re not raising grade levels, that they are forced to closed.”
The charter school issue adds another item to a very full plate for legislators this year.
Lawmakers will have to address a General Fund shortfall estimated at $250 million to $283 million. The Legislature is also expected to try to address the state’s overcrowded prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka following reports of sexual violence there.
On charter schools
According to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 42 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of charter schools. In 2013, there were about 6,000 such schools in the nation, with 2.3 million students enrolled.
According to the report:
Source: Montgomery Advisor by
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