Gov. Bentley, Legislative Leaders Introduce School Flexibility, Public Charter School Legislation

Gov. Robert Bentley and members of the Alabama Legislature introduced a plan Wednesday morning to allow for more flexibility for Alabama’s traditional public schools and the creation of public charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are free to be more innovative in return for greater accountability for student results.

This legislation, called the Education Options Act (HB541), would allow any public school or school system in Alabama the ability to develop an “innovation plan” and apply to the State Department of Education for a waiver of specific state regulations. Upon approval, it would give them flexibility to tailor their operations to the needs of their students.

The bill’s sponsors used state transportation funding and school operation hours as examples of possible local-level innovations. Current Alabama law prevents school systems from using extra transportation funding for anything else, but the this bill would allow a system to apply to use these funds for the purchase of textbooks, for example, if it sees fit. Or, a high school might decide to change its hours of operation to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. if it thinks that could ultimately help increase the graduation rate.

Education Options Act would give local school boards the ability to authorize public charter schools within their systems if a group applied for a charter to run a school. In districts without underperforming schools, the decision of a local school board to deny an application would be final. Traditional public schools could convert to become a public charter school, but only with approval from the local board, the local superintendent, and a majority of the parents with students at that school.

For school districts with consistently underperforming schools, if a local board denies a group’s application for a charter to run a school, that applicant could appeal the decision to the Charter School Application Review Council, which would be created by the legislation. This council would be meant to help ensure public charter schools are created in districts with significant numbers of students who are not well-served by traditional public school settings.

The Education Options Act would only allow non-profit, non-religious organizations to operate public charter schools. Applicants typically fit into one of two groups. Many charter school applicants are ad hoc non-profit organizations begun by groups of parents and teachers who want students in their community to have different educational options than the traditional public school settings. Other charter schools are run by “charter management organizations” or CMOs, which are organizations that specialize in running charter schools, like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Uncommon Schools, among others.