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Bill promoting charter schools engenders controversy

Alana Norris

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The House of Representatives and the Senate of Alabama recently passed the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act. Alabama is one of only eight other states to not currently have a charter schools bill in place.

This bill has been controversial among lawmakers and seems to be a partisan issue in the legislature. The senate discussed objections and introduced amendments before the bill was passed.

Charter schools are public schools that promise innovation and accountability. There are no entrance requirements or tuition to attend. These schools can be start-ups or established public schools that have been converted into charters.

Bobby Singleton, Alabama state senator from Greensboro, said he finds it sad that the state superintendent and other teachers’ organizations didn’t have a lot of input in the bill.

“At the end we’re going to see people looking at this bill and we’re going to have to tweak it,” Singleton said.

There are still some details that remain to be ironed out in this initiative. Wayne Urban, professor in the University’s College of Education, said these details, including funding, will be answered in the final bill that is passed.

“It’s all hypothetical in Alabama right now,” Urban said. “It will depend on the bill and it will depend on how
 it’s institutionalized.”

Todd Ziebarth from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said certain issues will be dealt with based on the individual school. How they will measure the level of teacher performance will be determined on a school-by-school basis.

Ziebarth said this will also allow schools to have more flexibility on 
their curriculum.

“A public charter school would have the freedom to hire staff that they think is most qualified to work in the school given whatever the mission of that particular school is as opposed to in a traditional public school, you have your staff assigned to you by the central office,” Ziebarth said.

The schools also support accountability. They promise to hold teachers responsible for their students’ achievement levels. The schools will also be expressly allowed to hire any teachers they deem fit and the selection would not have to go through the school board.

Charter schools are setup to deliver innovation to their students. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools wants to give its teachers the freedom to come up with a curriculum based on their student’s needs. There is no specific innovation plan and it is hard to say how this innovation will be attained. Some charter schools may implement career readiness, performing arts or the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum that other public schools are using.

“What might work for one group of kids is going to be different than works for a different group of kids,” Ziebarth said.

He said charter schools will probably not open in Alabama until Fall 2016 or even until Fall 2017. He said they don’t want to rush their efforts, and insist on creating a quality learning environment. He said they have learned from mistakes they made in the past, and they strive to educate the public first.

As for the success of charter schools in other states, the results have been all over the board. Some charter schools have shown improvement in student achievement while others are performing at the same level or lower than other public schools in their area.

“There’s some evidence that charter schools are more effective with lower socioeconomic students,” Urban said. “It’s not overwhelming evidence, but there 
is some.”

Ziebarth attributes the schools that are not as successful to poorly-written or 
poorly-implemented laws.

“Just calling a school a charter school doesn’t mean it’s going to be necessarily a strong school,” he said. “It’s really having scrutiny at the front end with people applying to start charters, making sure that only those that have a high probability of succeeding are actually approved.”

Then they will monitor and oversee the schools to detect issues, and close any 
failing schools.

“I think Alabama’s law creates a pretty solid foundation for Alabama to look more like the states where things have really succeeded,” Ziebarth said.

Even though there is no size criteria, Urban believes most of the charter schools will be instituted in larger population areas like Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery. He said there may be some in Tuscaloosa.

Urban said he does not think this will affect College of Education graduates looking for teaching jobs. He said he also doesn’t see the implementation of the charter schools bill having much ramification on the city or county school systems.

Singleton said he is concerned with how the bill will affect rural areas like his district in the Greensboro area.

“The start-up charters are not going to be, I don’t see from this angle, any better than what we already have,”
Singleton said.

Singleton had a lot of positive things to say about Tuscaloosa’s city and county schools. He said he wonders how the transfer of some tax dollars to charter schools may impact traditional public schools.

The current plans say that the school boards get a certain amount of money per child, and that money will follow the child to whatever school they attend. Charter schools do not ask the state for additional funding. Instead, they transfer funds that have been appropriated to current public schools to their new institution. These schools are funded by tax dollars that are based on enrollment.

The fact that charter schools do not cost more money is a positive attribute for politicians who are looking to get legislation passed and to reform schools. The notion of choice has also propelled the bill. Being able to have a new and different choice in education is tempting to some people. However, some are afraid that charter schools will become a business. Even though the schools themselves are non-profit, they have the flexibility to hire for-profit educational agencies of teachers or 
through technology.

“I don’t mean that profit is a horrible thing, I just mean that it’s not necessarily the same thing as educating children,” Urban said.
 Singleton said the number one 
priority is children.

“I don’t necessarily support this concept, but I’m willing to work with it now that it’s become law,” Singleton said.

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Bill promoting charter schools engenders controversy