The Alabama House of Representatives in session on March 14, 2023. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
House Ways and Means Education Committee chair Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, says that Senate Education Policy Committee chair Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, has a charter school bill.
Chesteen says that Senate Judiciary Committee chair Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, has a charter school bill.
Barfoot says he’s working on one, and it’s a “surprise.”
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“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I suspect the public will be able to see what good work we’re trying to accomplish here in the next week or two,” Barfoot said.
It seems every person in the Alabama Legislature is talking about charter schools. It’s less clear if they’re speaking to one another.
Republican legislators expect some legislation on the subject and have been saying as much since the start of the year. Gov. Kay Ivey raised the issue in her inaugural address in January. She called for charter school funding increases and changes to the governance of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, which oversees charter school applications, in her State of the State last month.
Legislators appear ready to consider the issue. But what’s up for debate is anyone’s guess.
“That’s really the extent of what I know about,” Garrett said about Chesteen having a bill. “I think school choice is a topic that’s getting a lot of interest, a lot of conversation, and I think charters are a part of that.”
Chesteen said he had heard about requiring some education credentials to join the commission.
“But to be honest with you, that’s about all I know right now,” he said.
Charter schools are public schools run independently from the local school district. According to a 2022 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 65% of charter schools are “free-standing,” or self-governing, while the remainder are charter schools which contract with external organizations for management.
The first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992. By 2009, 1.6 million students attended charter schools. In the 2019-2020 school year, 8% of the country’s public schools had become charter schools.
It took several decades for charter schools to arrive in Alabama. Students in Alabama have long had options beyond their traditional zoned school through private schools and magnet schools, which have existed for decades in the state.
In 2013, the state passed the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows students at the lowest-performing schools, by standardized test scores, and in poverty to transfer to other schools than their zoned school.
But the Alabama Education Association (AEA), a major force when Democrats controlled the state Legislature, generally opposed charter schools. Even after Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2010, rural Republicans were not enthusiastic about the idea. A message seeking comment was left with AEA on Monday.
In 2015, a bill sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, authorized charter schools. The first Alabama charter school opened its doors in 2017.
There are fourteen charter schools in operation in Alabama. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, all charter schools in Alabama are free-standing schools. Four more are scheduled to open in the 2023-24 school year.
In Alabama, charter schools generally outperform their surrounding schools in rural areas but have lower test scores in more urban areas, according to Trish Crain at Al.com.
According to the NAEP (the “Nation’s Report Card”), traditional public school students tended to score above charter school students in math and reading. Charter school students have generally higher scores in the subject of writing; 4th grade geography; 8th grade visual arts and 4th and 8th grade civics.
Out of 45 states that allow charter schools, the National Alliance for Charter Schools (NACS), a Washington D.C.-based organization, has Alabama ranked at three out of 45 for model legislation. The state only received a quarter of available points in terms of receiving equitable access to capital funding and facilities.
Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president for state advocacy and support for NACS, which developed the 2015 Alabama bill, said that the state could benefit from having more funds for charter school facilities and having local funds follow students.
“I think the areas of the law where it needs work, and this is probably true in just about every state in the country, is around funding and facilities support,” he said. “I think, particularly in Alabama, there’s this question of access to local dollars.”
Republicans generally support the expansion of charter schools, but there are differences in the caucus over the shape that should take. Leading GOP members of the Legislature appear to be walking carefully.
Garrett and Chesteen, said after the State of the State last month that they were drafting legislation on the issue. But those plans seem to have changed.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House Education Policy Committee, is working on legislation related to charter schools. Collins said that she believes that money should follow students if they go to charter schools.
“Right now, with no local money going to charters, you’re seeing that we’re not getting some of those really quality charters from around the nation,” she said. “And we ought to have those.”
Collins also said her legislation will have longer terms for members of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, whose members currently serve two-year terms.
Members of the commission, including chair Ty Moody, have said that they have discussed longer terms as a way of helping the commission do their jobs. Moody said in a recent interview that members of the commission often feel their terms end just as soon as they understand the process.
“It just takes time to learn the commission,” she said.
The process of approval can be long. Under current law, the commission needs to decide whether or not to approve a charter school within 60 days of receiving an application. But charter schools need to obtain a nonprofit status and demonstrate community support, such as hosting town hall meetings, before going to the commission. The commission also recommends that an applicant have a building located when they apply.
Tyler Barnett, head of New Schools for Alabama, an organization that supports charter schools in the state, said that depending on when the application is submitted, the entire application process can take between 23-33 months.
Moody also said that they have talked about having a staff member to help the commission.
Moody said that, right now, the commission functions as efficiently as they can under the circumstances.
“But there’s always room for growth,” she said.
Barnett said that he has also heard calls for longer terms for the commission members. He said it can be difficult to find commission candidates who meet all the criteria to serve on the commission.
“You’re really trying to thread that needle,” he said. “And that can be difficult when you’re trying to do that every single year with numerous vacancies.”
Former Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, a member of the commission, said that there have been complaints about the commission approving charter schools that are too specific or only apply to a limited number of students. Currently, if a charter school meets all of the requirements, the commission has no other option to approve it, he said.
“People feel like some of the charters are too specific about who they seek to serve,” he said. “And, you know, maybe that criticism is legitimate.”
Last spring, one of the state’s charter schools, Magic City Acceptance Academy, an explicitly LGBTQ+ friendly and supportive school, became a target for Tim James, a Republican candidate for governor. James ran an ad accusing Ivey had let this school be approved in the state and repeated anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
James called the school the “first transgender school in the south” and “this foolishness,” while showing photos of those at the school.
Messages seeking comment were left with Magic City Acceptance Academy. Ivey recommends candidates for the Public Charter School Commission but does not sit on the commission or vote on applications.
Start-up charter schools, which the commission evaluates, are graded on a rubric that evaluates the educational program; operations plan; financial plan; overall alignment and viability and whether there are conflicts of interest.
Ivey has kept her specific ideas close to the vest. The governor last month recommended putting $10 million toward existing charter schools. Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that $2.4 million would be put towards charter schools in their start-up phase.
“Governor Ivey, along with multiple stakeholders, want to make strategic changes to the governance model of the Commission to create greater accountability and that will ultimately improve the process for approving new charters and support existing ones,” Maiola said.
Barnett wrote in an email that there is no round number that reflects the amount of money needed to begin a charter school. He said that schools generally need around $250,000 in philanthropy in their planning year. The cost of buildings can go into the millions, depending on location and the condition of the structure.
“There’s just a lot of expenses,” he said. “You’re literally building a new school district.”
In the past, some charter schools have faced opposition from rural Republicans. Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Cullman, said that he would support education saving accounts, which allows money to follow students, as long as it is not limited to charter schools.
“But, again, whether it’s a private school, public school, or charter school, or homeschool or whatever, I just want to be consistent in how we’re doing it for everybody,” he said.
Harbison said that there are no charter schools in his district right now.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who represents a rural west Alabama district, said he would not support money following students to charter schools. He said that not every kid has a “choice” in where they would attend school.
“I just don’t think charter schools are the end all, be all to our education problems,” he said.
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