As Alabama prepares to dip a toe into the world of charter schools, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) and other districts across the state are deciding what role they want to play in the new model.

Charter schools are operated by an independent nonprofit organization and adhere to a contract based on agreed academic goals. However, any new school needs the approval of an “authorizer” — a third party that ensures the school can live up to its self-declared standards.

An authorizer would additionally be tasked to provide oversight of a charter school and approve or deny the renewal of its charter, which in Alabama is a review process that would take place every five years. If an authorizer declares that a charter applicant has not met its standards, those applicants can still appeal to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.

Right now, the Mobile County school board is deciding whether they want to act as a local authorizer. It would ultimately give the system more control of charter schools, but some board members are already saying they’re “turned off” to the idea because it could leave the school system liable for the “debts and obligations” of any school they authorize within the district.

In Alabama, the charter school law gives each school system the option to become an authorizer, but it only gives them until Sept. 1 to make the decision. On June 17, board members briefly mulled the pros and cons of becoming an authorizer.

In spite of the looming deadline, the new approach to public education has many entities in the state looking for more information on how to proceed — including the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE).

“The rules and regulations for authorizers — and everyone else — are literally still being developed,” ALSDE spokesperson Michael Sibley said. “Although time is of the essence, until the rules and regulations are established, it is going to be impossible to tell what the pros and cons are.”

Though she didn’t express an opinion on charter schools, last week MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek reminded members of the board that Mobile County already offers a number of school choices for parents.

“Mobile County Public Schools — with the signature academies that have their own advisory boards and its schools of innovations — we’ve done a lot already to create choices for families, which is the intent of charter schools,” she said. “I’m going to continue to emphasize that in our community. There are a lot of options already in place in MCPSS.”

Recently, Peek said if the board agreed to become an authorizer, she “fully anticipates” having to devote at least some staff members to overseeing charter schools.

“We’re going to have to have personnel to manage it because there are so many requirements with a charter school,” Peek told Lagniappe. “Although there is a board, you still have management responsibility. You still have to oversee the general operation and provide all of the accountability data.”

Before the bill became law, opponents across the state said charter schools would take money from an already-depleted Education Trust Fund. Now, with the possibility of having to divert more public school resources, MCPSS isn’t the only board on the fence about becoming an authorizer.

However, Amanda Fenton, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), said a percentage of the per-pupil expenditures allocated in the original legislation should cover any of the costs an authorizer would assume.

According to Alabama’s law, boards overseeing one to three charter schools would receive 3 percent of those per-pupil funds to mitigate the cost of oversight. As the number of  schools increases, the percentage of revenue decreases — with systems authorizing four to five schools receiving 2 percent and those overseeing six to 10 schools receiving 1 percent.

“Authorizing should ideally be cost neutral, but a system shouldn’t end up with a surplus from it either. It’s not meant to be a money-making thing,” Fenton said. “However, you don’t receive any money until you authorize a school, so there’s a little bit of a gap when they’re first reviewing the initial applications — a start-up cost in some way.”

Fenton also said it would take a willful knowledge of gross mismanagement or negligence for an authorizer to be dragged into a charter school’s legal liability.

“I’m not an expert on state law here, but theoretically, the legal liability for that school rests with the governing body, which is an independent 501(c)(3),” Fenton said. “The authorizer only has responsibility for the public-oversight function.”

There still isn’t much of an indication as to what organizations or school systems might attempt to start a charter school in the near future, but there will be a statewide cap of 10 start-up charter schools each year for the next five years.

Despite the widespread implementation of charter schools, Fenton said they aren’t all created equal. In fact, a report published by Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the NACSA itself show that between 2013 and 2014, 8 percent of charter schools had their renewals denied and more than 3 percent had their charters revoked or suspended outside the renewal periods.
However, Fenton said preventing subpar charter programs is exactly what authorizers do.

“There’s certainly been research on charter school outcomes, and quite honestly, it varies a lot from place to place,” she said. “So, if someone starts to notice a charter school is performing poorly, hopefully an authorizer can catch that before they take any public resources or the most valuable resource — years of someone’s education.”

For now, whether MCPSS is prepared to play such a pivotal role remains to be seen. The system scheduled an Academic Committee Meeting on the matter for July 8, where Peek is expected to make a recommendation for the board.

“We’ve got a lot more to learn about to determine whether it will be to our advantage,” Peek said. “Right now today, I couldn’t tell you the advantage. As I read the bill, I don’t see any advantages other than just being able to have more knowledge and depth as to the program.”