A new bill pre-filed last week in the Alabama State Senate could expand the number of high-quality public school options available to parents and students across the state.
Sponsored by State Sen. Del Marsh and State Rep. Terri Collins, the bill would create the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act (SB-45) and ultimately pave the way for establishing public charter schools in Alabama, one of only eight states that do not currently have charter school laws.
“I believe in Alabama, that we need to use the creativity and innovation that we already have in so many of our local districts to allow our students to be as successful as any other state, and this is a tool that would let them accomplish that,” Collins said.
The bill defines a public charter school as an institution that satisfies the following:
• Has autonomy over key decisions concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum, instruction and procurement.
• Is run by an independent 501(c)(3) governing board.
• Is established and operated under the terms of a charter contract between the governing board and its authorizer, in accordance with the act.
• Is a school parents choose to send their children.
• Is a school that admits students on the basis of a random selection process if more students attempt to enroll for admission than can be accommodated.
Further, the bill outlines an educational program charter schools must follow to include any grade or grades from prekindergarten to 12th grade; a specific academic approach or theme such as vocational and technical training, virtual education, visual and performing arts, liberal arts and classical education or science, mathematics and technology; and operates in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives.
The establishment of a public charter school would allow an open-enrollment policy for any child who is eligible to attend public school in Alabama, and the school would be required to enroll all students who wish to attend the school, unless that number of students exceeds the building’s capacity. In this case, students would be selected through a random selection process.
According to Collins, the public charter schools will operate like another public school because tax dollars support it and “it allows any system that’s using a public school charter some additional flexibility.”
In addition to state lawmakers, StudentsFirst, a grassroots organization comprised of parents, educators, students and community leaders, has also been pushing the bill.
“The School Choice and Student Opportunity Act being proposed by Sen. Del Marsh and Rep. Terri Collins, is a highly innovative and highly accountable public charter school bill,” StudentsFirst State Director Blake Harris said in a news release. “Public charter schools will be a wonderful new tool for educators, parents and students to utilize in their communities.”
According to the proposed bill, public charter school applicants may not submit a proposal for a particular charter school to more than one local school board at a time. Further, Section 7 outlines a detailed process for public school charters, stating a request for proposals must thoroughly describe “essential elements” of the proposed plan to include “an executive summary, the mission and vision of the proposed charter school, the location or geographic area proposed for the school and the grades served each year for the full term of the charter contract among many other requirements.”
“It truly tries to include all expectations,” Collins said of the detailed bill, noting the transparency would be what makes public charter schools successful.
While Collins said public charter schools in other states can be a “mixed bag,” with some performing really well and others not so well, SB-45 would make public charter schools in Alabama different in that the 53-page bill lays out all expectations and requirements. Furthermore, proposals for charter schools must include what the particular school wants to accomplish, and it must also require the closing of the school to be laid out at application time, Collins said.
“If it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, you can close it,” she said, noting it’s not always defined how the closing process works in other states. She said this requirement by the proposed bill will make public charter schools more transparent and effective in Alabama.
According to Collins, only 10 startup public charter schools would be allowed statewide in the first year, providing time to see how the schools are growing and operating. For additional transparency, Collins said there would also be a limit of 10 schools per year for a total of five years, while the bill also requires an annual report on how each school is performing and requires the Alabama State Department of Education to make recommendations after five years.
“It takes a while to organize,” Collins said of the extensive proposal process, noting the first charter schools could not start until the 2016-2017 school year.
If the bill passes, the 2015-2016 school year would give potential public charter schools time to apply and give each local school system time to work on what type of public charter school they would like to establish.
“Our goal is to allow flexibility and this to be a tool that any local system could use for whatever needs that system wants to address,” she said. “Every system could do something if they choose to do. Giving them that innovation and creativity was the purpose behind the goal.”
Ultimately, Collins said she hopes the accountability and transparency laid out in the bill will set Alabama public charter schools apart from other states. When public charter schools are not working as they should, Collins said it is usually because they were not as transparent and accountable as they should be.
“We’ve tried to make the entire process very transparent,” Collins said. “Our goal has been to make charter schools in Alabama an excellent choice for parents and students because they (will be) accountable and transparent in how they operate.”