But what are charter schools and what effect could they have on the state’s education system?
Charter schools are public schools that operate under a charter with the state and/or local school board. They operate with tax money and do not have to follow many of the state and local educational regulations in hopes that less regulation will help them achieve better educational results.
Charter school rules and administration styles vary from state to state and from charter school to charter school, so it is difficult to narrowly define how they would operate.
Legislation on allowing charter schools is currently pending in the Alabama Legislature. The most vocal advocates for its passage include Gov. Bob Riley and state Superintendent of Education Joe Morton. The most vocal advocate to prevent its passage has been the Alabama Education Association — the state’s teacher union.
Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the AEA, published an article in “Alabama School Journal” in December raising several questions about the perceived benefits of charter schools.
Some of Hubbert’s concerns include money coming from the state’s education trust fund to pay for charter schools, a lack of evidence charter schools perform better than public schools, the possibility of charter schools unofficially segregating white and black students to different schools, and a potential lack of transparency in the management of public money for charter schools.
Morton submitted a column to The Birmingham News in late November laying out the possible benefits of charter schools.
Some of Morton’s positives include the opportunity to offer better alternatives to students in some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, a better opportunity for Alabama to contend for a portion of $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top grants, the fact that 40 other states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed legislation allowing charter schools, and statistics that say more than 60 percent of charter schools in the nation are predominantly nonwhite.
Locally, Sylacauga Board of Education member Steve Marlowe said he had looked at the issue when serving with the Alabama Association of School Boards.
“Under certain conditions a charter school might be acceptable,” Marlowe said, “but with the way the legislation reads at this time, I don’t think it would work.”
Marlowe is worried about the fiscal effects charter schools might have on local school board budgets.
“It would dilute what limited resources we already have,” Marlowe said. “We have a difficult time as it is dealing with the effects of proration right now.”
Marlowe also referenced studies about the supposed academic benefits of charter schools, including a 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.
“(It says) 17 percent of kids in charter schools were performing better than public school students, but it also says 37 percent of students were performing at a significantly lower level, and the balance is basically a wash,” Marlowe said.
He also said that even if Alabama had charter schools this year it does not appear the state would have had a high enough score in the formula for Race to the Top funds to qualify for that federal funding.
Talladega County Schools Superintendent Suzanne Lacey also expressed concern about how the addition of charter schools would affect funding.
“While charter schools promote creativity and innovative practices, questions remain on how funding issues might affect local school districts,” Lacey said.
For this year at least, it looks like any charter school legislation is not going to make it to the House or Senate floor. The charter school bills have been indefinitely postponed in committee in both houses, and it is not expected the bills will be picked back up before the regular session ends.