When the State Legislature passed a bill last month approving the first-ever public charter schools in the state, Alabama became the 43rd state to approve the option.
The Alabama School Choice and Opportunity Act (SB-45), passed both the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives after four hours of debate and was subsequently signed by Gov. Robert Bentley. It will allow up to 10 public charter schools each fiscal year, for the first five years, placing no limit on conversion charters, which allow current public schools to be turned into charter schools.
Further, the bill states charter schools may be managed separately from public school systems through a tax-exempt organization or the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, which will be created by the law. However, decisions to approve or reject conversion charters will be made by local school boards.
According to the office of State Sen. Del Marsh (R), who sponsored the bill along with State Rep. Terri Collins (R), public charter schools will have autonomy over important decisions such as finance, personnel and schedule curriculum, yet the schools must also meet strict performance and accountability standards. If a public charter school does not meet the performance standards outlined in its charter, the state can choose to close it.
“It is a great day for parents and students in Alabama,” Marsh said in a statement after the bill was passed. “For far too long parents have been stuck with the status quo when it comes to the quality of education for their children. I understand that there is no silver bullet to solve all problems in education, but public charter schools give parents an option.”
The establishment of a public charter school must provide 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 the number of students exceeds the building’s capacity, whereas students would then be selected through a random process.
Locally, Mobile County Public School System Superintendent Martha Peek did not completely dismiss the idea of public charter schools but suggested they are similar to the system’s existing magnet schools, which are open to all MCPSS resident students and offer unique academic programs.
“What we’re doing right now is waiting for direction from the state Department of Education [for] more details on what it will look like,” Peek said. “I think the board will consider any options that would be viable for our system.”
Much like public charter schools, students may apply for admission to any Mobile County Public Magnet School program of their choice. Currently, student applications are included in a magnet lottery, where each application is assigned a random number during the magnet selection process and ultimately selected from a computer generated random selection process.
In Mobile County, resident students can choose from several magnet schools — Council Traditional School, emphasizing traditional academics and communications for grades K-5; Phillips Preparatory School, a college preparatory curriculum for grades 6-8; Old Shell Road and Dunbar Schools of Creative and Performing Arts, grades K-5 and 6-8, respectively; Eichold-Mertz School of Math and Science and Science and Clark-Shaw Magnet School, grades K-5 and 6-8, respectively; and LeFlore Magnet School, where high school students in grades 9-10 may explore pre-law and pre-medicine programs.
Despite the dynamic the magnet schools add to the county’s curriculum, Peek said the school board will examine all possibilities charter schools have to offer. Familiarizing herself with the bill, Peek said there are still too many unknowns for any concrete decisions to be made at this time.
“I think we’ll look at all options, see what the advantage would be for our system and then certainly I am sure there will probably be entities in the community who may want to propose a charter school,” she said. “I’ve heard from a couple of groups that are interested in it, but we just don’t have all of those details.
“Any time that you get something that’s new and that may affect your stream of funding, you look at it, but I’m really waiting for more direction from the state department.”
According to Collins, public charter schools will operate like any other public school because they are supported by tax dollars and allow any school system utilizing a public school charter additional flexibility.
Baldwin County Public Schools spokesman Terry Wilhite said BCPS officials have not yet had the opportunity to review the new bill in its entirety nor examine the environment for charter schools in Baldwin County.
Ultimately, 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.
Furthermore, the bill outlines an educational program charter schools must follow to include any grades from pre-K to 12th grade; a specific academic approach 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.
According to Collins, the 2015-2016 school year will give potential public charter schools time to apply and give each local school system time to work on the specifics for the public charter school they wish to create. The first charter schools could potentially start as soon as the 2016-2017 school year, she said.
“Our goal is to allow flexibility and this to be a tool any local system could use for whatever needs that system wants to address,” Collins told Lagniappe last month. “Every system could do something they choose to do. Giving them that innovation and creativity was the purpose behind the goal.”