Is Alabama getting new charter school laws? Maybe

Early in the session, legislators still seem uncertain about what shape the changes could take

The Alabama House of Representatives in session March 14. / Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector
The Alabama House of Representatives in session March 14. / Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector

House Ways and Means Education Committee Chairman Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said Senate Education Policy Committee Chairman Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, has a charter school bill.

Chesteen said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, has a charter school bill.

Barfoot said he's working on one, and it's a "surprise."

"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.

Republican lawmakers 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 address last month.

Lawmakers 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."

(READ MORE: Alabama state superintendent says failing label meant to 'humiliate' schools)

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.

  photo  Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey enters the Old House Chambers for the State of the State address March 7. / Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector
 
 


Charter schools

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 that 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 2019-20 academic 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.

(READ MORE: Thriving school districts in Tennessee could avoid state charter appeals under bill)

But the Alabama Education Association, 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.

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 14 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 academic year.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (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 writing, fourth grade geography, eighth grade visual arts and fourth and eighth grade civics.

Out of 45 states that allow charter schools, the National Alliance for Charter Schools, 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 the Alliance, which developed the 2015 Alabama bill, said 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."


Differences

Republicans generally support the expansion of charter schools, but there are differences in the caucus over the shape that should take.

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 chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, is working on legislation related to charter schools. Collins said she believes 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.

(READ MORE: Alabama House Republicans prefile bill that limits teaching of 'divisive concepts')

Members of the commission, including Chairwoman Ty Moody, have said they have discussed longer terms as a way of helping panel members do their job. 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 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 it applies.

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.

Former Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, a member of the commission, said 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 than 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 of allowing the school to receive approval and repeated anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

James called the school the "first transgender school in the South."

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.


Seeking specifics

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.

"Gov. 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.

(READ MORE: Harrison area group petitions for charter school to combat "Marxist indoctrination")

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 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 he would support education saving accounts, which allow 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 home school 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 student 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.

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.

  photo  Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, listens to debate during a session of the Alabama House of Representatives on March 14. / Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector
 
 

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