The Case for a Strong Public Charter School Bill

Alabama stands on the cusp of educational excellence. For the first time ever, in 2011 the state met the national average in fourth grade reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But, this is only the beginning. Alabama should not settle for average, nor ignore the children who are not yet succeeding in school.

Now is the time to prepare all students to compete in the global economy. Accomplishing this will require that we not only work harder, but also work smarter in order to cultivate the best possible outcome for every child – truly tapping into their individual gifts, talents and learning styles.

In the coming weeks, the Alabama Legislature will face a choice about whether to allow public charter schools for a small portion of the state’s students. On one hand, legislators can continue to limit Alabama’s educators to using a one-size-fits-all style for the 736,339 students across the state. On the other hand, legislators can spark the fires of innovation by offering educators the opportunity to break the mold and meet students’ diverse needs in diverse ways.

By allowing the creation of public charter schools, the Alabama Legislature would take the next step toward educational excellence by allowing a tool to help ensure that every child in Alabama has the opportunity to fulfill his or her unique potential. Public charter schools will not be suited for every child, but they could be the right option for some children.

Public charter schools offer parents and teachers a remarkable opportunity to provide different learning environments and implement unique methods to help close the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle and high-income peers. They are public schools, so they cannot have admissions requirements, charge tuition, or teach religion. But, they are free to make operational decisions to best meet the needs of their students.

However, Alabama should heed what research shows to be best practice in fostering strong public charter schools, and avoid the mistakes some other states have made. Without addressing these issues, public charter schools are unlikely to yield successful results for Alabama’s students.

Many children can succeed in the traditional classroom, but we know there are those who are not, for a variety of reasons. Public charter schools offer a solution for parents who have faced the challenges of an inflexible public school system for a child that may require more individualized methods. They have more freedom to be creative in fostering the highest potential in students who might struggle in a traditional setting.

In exchange for this freedom, public charter schools must be held to a high standard of accountability. In Alabama, public charter schools should adhere to the same academic accountability as traditional public schools, in addition to specific measures outlined in their charter contracts that will clearly measure the achievements of individual students. This coupling of autonomy and strict accountability should be of paramount importance. Research shows that when we give the teachers more freedom to be innovative with certain students that “color outside the lines,” they are far more successful. Let them teach, and hold them accountable for their results.

Additionally, public charter schools in Alabama must be funded at levels equal to other public schools. If a student transfers from her traditional public school into a public charter school, the taxpayers’ money used to fund her education should follow, just as if she transferred from one traditional public school to another. Some make the claim that this “drains the public school.” This statement is false and misleading when the same amount of funding is used to educate the same number of public school students.

Finally, Alabama’s law must allow applicants an alternative path to authorization in the event of a local school board’s unwillingness to allow innovation for children who are not succeeding in a traditional setting. Both local school boards and a statewide authority must have the ability to approve public charter schools. A law that does not create an alternative pathway to authorization is not a law designed to foster strong public charter schools for the students who could benefit the most.

If done well, public charter schools can play an important and beneficial role in helping Alabama’s students reach their full potential. With the progress that has been made over the last decade, why would any Alabamian want to stagnate our advances by limiting our growth into new areas? It’s time to provide more options to help every child reach their absolute best so Alabama can one day be the absolute best place to educate all children.

Click here for a companion piece on School Flexibility.