View the 3 part series inspired by this blog post on CullmanToday.com
On March 19, 2015, Gov. Robert Bentley signed SB45, creating the "Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act". This sets out the rules defining a charter school, how they should be created and by whom, who they report to, and how they should behave. This Act also allows for the creation of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission (APCSC), a body made up of individuals recommended by the Governor, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the State Superintendent of Education, and, occasionally, a member of a local school board. The Commission will oversee local school boards that decide to become "authorizers" of the new charter schools wishing to operate in their district and traditional schools that wish to convert to charter, as well as serving as authorizer for the would-be charters without a local one.
This all sounds pretty simple. You have a big governing body that will oversee multiple smaller bodies that will oversee a few little ones. Each one is accountable to the ones above it and has a certain set of rules to follow. So what is all the fuss about? To answer that, you have to start at the very beginning: what, exactly, is a charter school?
A charter school is a public school, almost exactly like the one you most likely send your own children to every day. The main difference is that a charter school isn't bound by local or state educational statutes, thus providing it freedom to focus on what it feels is important. This means no Common-Core aligned curriculum, no emphasizing AR points over reading for pleasure, no math tests that measure only the ability to regurgitate the latest formula without utilizing the creative thinking that is vital to understanding how those formulas work in the first place. What it is bound by is a contract - a charter - issued by a local school board or the APCSC that states exactly what concepts the school does emphasize and how it plans to teach them.
By definition, a charter school can absolutely decide what approach it wants to take to education. As long as the school provides "statewide end-of-year annual standardized assessment as applicable to other public schools in the state", the school can focus primarily on science, technology, art, special education, or any other subject, in any manner that it wishes to. Of course, it is in the school's best interests to provide curriculum that enables students to fulfill the Alabama High School Graduation Requirements, or it won't be in business for long. If it continuously performs at an "F" level according to the Alabama Accountability Act (in the lowest 6% on standardized tests), its charter will not be renewed for the next school year. Additionally, the charter can also be revoked at any time if the school violates any of the terms of its contract.
For the most part, this is pretty straightforward stuff that don't seem to have much of a downside. The drawbacks appear when discussing money (of course) and teacher qualifications. In education, money follows the student. As explained by the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools, “Schools are funded based on the number of students they have. If a student chooses to leave a [public] traditional ...school to attend a public charter school, the money would follow the student to the public charter school." If a student decides that the local public school system is no longer serving her needs best, this Act enables her to go somewhere that does, without unduly impacting her family finances. This means that schools will now have to compete for money that they no longer have a monopoly on.
Reduced funding can be especially harmful in areas where populations are predominately low-income, "urban", or otherwise "at-risk". Those schools may be failing to meet standards not because the teachers or administration themselves are bad, but because there is a high number of students who have discipline problems, uninvolved parents, exceptional home responsibilities, learning disorders, or a myriad of other problems that keep them from performing optimally. If a charter decides to open in one of these usually rural districts with high minority populations, many frustrated parents of students not at-risk may choose to evacuate the traditional school. Parents of at-risk students may not care, be involved, or be informed enough to bother, thus creating a "good" school and a "bad" school, affecting both budgets and test results.
In the event that school un-enrollment is so great that the loss of revenue exceeds the ensuing reduction in educating costs, state and federal funding could be cut to a level that makes normal operation of the school unsustainable. Teaching positions would be eliminated or filled by candidates who are not necessarily equipped or experienced enough to handle disadvantaged youth. Fewer teachers means fewer people to share the responsibilities of a troubled population and can lead to burnout – already a high occurrence in the newly graduated educators most likely to accept low-paying jobs at turbulent schools.
Alternatively, one must consider that with the loss of a student comes the loss of his cost. Georgia Institute of Technology’s Christine P. Ries published a paper showing that only the smallest schools would actually lose more funding than their costs would decrease and it is precisely those districts in which charter schools are most unlikely to form. Remember: “if the reduction in school costs that comes with fractionally lower enrollment is GREATER than the … loss of per-child state and federal funding, the school and district is left with increased funds to spend on the children who remain.” THIS IS A GOOD THING for the children who remain.
However, there is hope. U.S. spending on education is at an all-time high, but according to a study done by Dan Lips, Shanea Watkins, Ph.D. and John Fleming of the Heritage Foundation,
“increasing federal funding on education has not been followed by similar gains in student achievement.”
Well, if charter schools aren't taking money they shouldn't be, they must be stocking classrooms with underqualified dropouts, right? Not necessarily. The ASCSO states that, "teachers in public charter schools shall be exempt from state teacher certification requirements", but "public charter schools shall comply with applicable federal laws, rules, and regulations regarding the qualification of teachers and other instructional staff." Let's look at those qualifications and see just how badly the U.S. government is shortchanging us.
Federal Government Requirement - "Highly Qualified"
1) a Bachelor's degree
2) prove that teachers know each subject they teach through one of the following:
Alabama State Teacher Requirements - "Highly Qualified"
1) a Bachelor's degree in content field or Education
2)Passing score on Alabama Educator Certification Testing Program (AECTP): Basic Skills Assessments
3) Passing score on Praxis II in desired subject areas
Now, Alabama is admittedly late to the game. Since the first charter school law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991, a total of 42 states (plus the District of Columbia) have followed suit, with wildly varying legislation and successes. Everyone has heard the horror stories: the big bad charter moves in, steals students, then shuts down the local education scene and proceeds to fail themselves. But people need to remember: Charter schools are open-enrollment, publicly funded, attend-by-choice schools. Everything you hate about your local school has a chance to be fixed at a charter. The Common Core curriculum, the AR competitions - if that isn't a value pursued by the school's charter, it will not be a value that is forced upon the student. If your values do not align with the charter school's, your child does not have to attend.
How successful charters will be at passing on those values depends a lot on the framework each individual state sets in place to support the charter and hold it accountable. Apparently, Alabama is in luck. According to AlabamaSchoolConnection.org,
Alabama's SB45 is the
"highest-scoring public charter school law in the nation..."
What do you think? Will charter schools save Alabama's notoriously poor education system, or will we, too, discover that Superman does not exist?