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Education Policy Institute brief explores charter

Jordan Cissell

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With highly contested bills in the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate over the past few weeks, charter schools are the hot topic in Montgomery, as well as school systems across the state of Alabama.

But the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Institute is keeping Tuscaloosa informed of the conversation with the release of an analytical brief on the subject.

Wayne Urban, professor of higher education administration and associate director of the EPI, authored the brief, which was released in February and is titled “Charter Schools: An Analysis of the Issues.”

According to the analysis, Alabama is one of only nine states, along with Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia and Washington, which does not have charter school laws.

“Charter schools are often called public schools of choice,” Urban said. “Beyond that, they can be difficult to classify generally, as the school you have depends on the charter, and the charter you have depends on the legislation.”

If parents live in a school district they feel is not providing an adequate quality of education, they can choose to send their children to charter schools.

These public institutions operate relatively independently of state boards of education. The schools are usually initiated through private funding, though they often receive state funds, comparable to those that go to conventional public schools, on a per-pupil basis.

Though charter schools are still held accountable for students’ scores and educational environment, they enjoy a greater degree of freedom from policy constraints than do public school systems.

“Charter schools have greater autonomy over daily operations, academic programs and human resources than do traditional district schools,” according to a 2011 summary by the Alabama Policy Institute. “They have considerable freedom over how they hire, train, evaluate, compensate and retain employees.”

An educational administration professor created the charter school concept in 1988, and Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, according to a 2004 summary on the subject by the Public Broadcasting Service.

Two primary factors motivate charter schools’ recent wave of attention amongst Alabama policymakers: political posturing and educational concerns, according to the EPI brief.

“Political arguments for charter schools are exceptionally strong and powerful,” according to the brief, “while the educational arguments for charter schools, at least those that can be supported by evidence, particularly by student achievement scores of one kind or another, are not as strong.”

New lawmakers in Montgomery have created a pro-charter majority in the legislature and influential voices in metropolitan areas like Huntsville and Mobile, where charter schools would most likely be immediately applied if laws were passed, are voicing more support for charter policies than has been the case in recent years.

“You’ve been seeing this strengthening of the deregulation movement for a while now,” Urban said. “Deregulation is in right now. You see it with the Tea Party movement, among other things. Charter schools are another facet of that call for deregulation that is currently so popular.”

Factual data in support of charter schools’ educational quality is not so clear-cut, however.

The EPI brief cites the results of a 2009 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, which compared the mathematics and reading scores of children in public and charter schools in 15 states and Washington, D.C.

The study’s results are fairly inconclusive — they show 17 percent of charter schools demonstrated superior education to conventional public schools, about half delivered similar results and 37 percent displayed lower scores.

The EPI’s brief recommends either no state funding for charter schools or funding them carefully with substantial control and accountability mechanisms, but it acknowledges the charter movement’s recent momentum may make their implementation an inevitability.

Still, prevalent disagreement exists among state policymakers over the role, or lack thereof, charter schools should play in Alabama’s education system.

The Alabama Policy Institute, citing the results of a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools study that shows significant academic benefits within districts with large representations of minority and low-income homes, feels “it is past time for charter schools to be legalized in Alabama.”

A recent pamphlet published by the Alabama Education Administration, on the other hand, deemed charter school proposals “radical theory and ideology” and suggested improving Alabama’s education system by “funding what works.”

Urban highlighted the impact shortages in funding have already had on Alabama public schools and suggested lawmakers should be wary of the strain the implementation of charter schools could place on the cash-strapped system.

“The problem, in Alabama particularly, is we don’t support schools enough monetarily to begin with,” he said. “You’ve lost money and your expenses haven’t gone down. I would prefer that we beef up what we’ve already got.”

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Education Policy Institute brief explores charter