Confusion. That’s precisely what I’ve felt right out of the gate, as the Alabama legislature crafted a bill that would open wide the door for charter schools. No, nothing has been decided about the state’s massive budget problems, but it’s full steam ahead on charter schools.
To many observers it was hardly a surprise. As the proverbial saying goes, the “handwriting on the wall” could be seen in the run up to the opening of last week’s legislative session.
In print and other media, various voices were consistently declaring the imperative need for charter schools in the state. After years of massively overfunding public education in Alabama (a bit of hyperbole here on my part) it’s time to try something new, we were told.
This new effort comes on the heels of the Alabama Accountability Act passed in 2013. The AAA allowed students in public schools to go to the private school of their choice if they were in a failing school at the expense of the state — taxpayer money. The original language even stated that if a child from a failing school chose to go to a particular private school, said private school was required to take the student. That language lasted for all of three months.
Most likely aghast at the thought of the type of child they would be forced to take in, a consortium of private school interests ensured legislators hastily reworded the act to give them the “option” to accept or deny a child. Besides, who would want to be forced to take in a child with a history of discipline issues or complex learning problems: that’s for the public schools to do!
Unable to garner support in 2012, 2015 seems to be the year. In defense of the charter school legislation, Senate Bill 45, proponents have touted the results of several studies, in particular, the 2013 National Charter School Study conducted by researchers at Stanford University.
The report does have some positive things to say about charter schools, but also notes “mixed results” from their research. In summary conclusions researchers observed, “While the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than (traditional public schools) … Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time.”
More tellingly they expound by saying, “In other words, the charter school sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad [charter schools]. Our analysis suggests that in many places, the standards of performance are set too low, as evidenced by the large number of underperforming charter schools that persist.”
Let’s be honest, Alabama has never been a state on the forefront of progressive reform and change. Which is what makes listening to proponents of charter schools so intriguing. From whence comes this intense zealotry for charter schools, particularly among those who have consistently advocated and promoted underfunding education in Alabama to the point that since 2008, the state has made the second deepest cuts to education in the nation?
While “innovation” and “reform” are being bantered about as motivation, many look to the documented monies coming from charter school entities to state legislators, and the massive email dump of prosecutors in the Mike Hubbard corruption case revealing gross conflicts of interest on the issue, as proof that something more nefarious may be going on.
If legislators had been adequately funding education in Alabama and really addressing the needs of underperforming schools by addressing the chronic issues that underlie their ineffectiveness: poverty, early educational exposure, woeful lack of school resources, etc … I believe many would have no problem in experimenting with charter schools as a trial option. But that has not been the case.
Stanford University’s, Linda-Darling Hammond, who is one of the foremost education researchers and policy analyst’s in the country, observed how when you compare U.S. schools to other schools around the globe (something that always causes vociferous cries and great hand-wringing amongst our politicians) and take away the poverty equation, U.S. schools come out on top internationally.
For example, for U.S schools in which only 10 percent of the students live in poverty, they come out ranked first in the Program for International Student Assessment rankings (PISA). Bump it up to U.S. schools with a 25 percent student poverty rate makeup and the country’s schools only drop to third place. Take it all the way to 50 percent and U.S. schools still rank above the international average.
What does all this mean? Darling-Hammond propounds, “If you spent more in schools on the education of children who have fewer socioeconomic advantages, you would do better as a country. Other countries invested more money and that is what shot them up in the rankings.”
In other words, spend more money on the under-performing schools to bring them up to the level of the many, many public schools that do well. However, this is something many politicians and citizens likely won’t do.
In Alabama 75 schools, around 5 percent, are failing schools. In Mobile, six out of its 90 schools are on the failing list. For all the massive short-changing of Alabama’s education system, it has been doing pretty well in spite of the Spartan diet it’s being fed. Let’s allow the professional educators to do their jobs. If our elected state leaders listened to them more than the charter school lobbyists, I believe Alabama’s education system could take great leaps forward.