Republican Charter School Plan Comes Up Short

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Guest Column
by Jason Robert Cornelius

While legislation allowing for the operation of charter schools might sound like a good idea for a state in the perpetual grip of a public school funding crisis, the charter-school proposal in its current form has many entrusted with the care and advocacy of education policy and performance in Alabama up in arms.

HB 541, titled the Education Options Act of 2012, barreled its way through a House Ways and Means Education Committee hearing on April 5th, despite expressed concerns by committee members who had not had time to review provisions that had been added to the bill in the mere hours leading up to the hearing.

HB 541 now awaits approval by the state house.

Charter schools, while both privately and publicly funded, would not be subject to many of the rules and regulations that govern Alabama’s public school system, thereby allowing them to function autonomously in respect to employing alternative methods of raising the state’s standard of academic excellence. Generally, charter schools act as self-governing agencies in joint contract with local school boards, are performance-based, and must produce positive results in order to sustain their eligibility for public money.

It is this model of regulatory freedom and focused attention on academic standards that naturally poses an enticing solution for Alabama politicians scrambling to come up with ideas on how to fix the problems holding public education hostage … especially in light of constant budget cuts and proration, having cost thousands of public school teachers their jobs in just the past few years; as well as Governor Robert Bentley’s recent proposal to siphon money from the state education fund in order to help cushion the blow of an estimated $400 to $600 million shortfall to the state’s general fund for the 2013 fiscal year.

In 2009, then-Governor Bob Riley proposed that the state legislature enact laws allowing charter schools in Alabama to receive federal money allotted by the Obama administration’s “Race To the Top” program, which is focused on “rewarding innovative excellence in primary education”. In order to be eligible for the extra funding, however, Alabama had to have existing legal provisions allowing charter-school operation, for it is currently one of 10 states that do not.

More recently, in the 2010 legislative session, a bill for the allowance of charter schools was introduced and subsequently dismissed, but Governor Bentley’s new education policy director Emily Schultz is spearheading a push to get approval for charter schools during this session.

However, not everyone holding a vested interest in state education reform believe that charter schools will benefit Alabama’s public school children.

Many of them contend that charter schools will only exacerbate the unfortunate preexisting economic conditions noted earlier by redirecting badly-needed public funding and resources away from the public school system.

“We don’t have enough money to educate kids in Alabama now,”and if we’re putting money into schools that are not held to the same standard as public education, they’re going to become a country club where people send kids, and the public schools are going to be left with the kids nobody else can educate or want to educate,” says Vi Parramore, Jefferson County AFT President. “You’ll see the school’s lunches go downhill. You’ll see the curriculum watered down. They’ll start hiring people for half of what a regular teacher’s paid, then they’ll start going with alternative certifications where you have teachers who are not even qualified to be in the classroom teaching.”

“Charter schools should not be first priority for legistators when 54 percent of our children live in poverty,” says Richard Franklin, Birmingham AFT President, “and Alabama spends $4,862 more to house a prisoner than to educate a child.”

There is also the issue of private and corporate ownership. One popular argument for charter schools is that they allow private and corporate investors to help shape the curriculum by placing focus on certain disciplines that would ultimately lead to more employment prospects for those who graduate. Those opposed, however, see this focus as potential abuse for private contractors to cultivate only in accordance to their needs, posing a detriment to the greater welfare of the student body.

At a March 21st public hearing in Montgomery, Republican Representative and HB 541-sponsor Phil Williams went on record as saying that, while the bill allows only non-profit, non religious organizations to operate charter schools, it won’t disallow those organizations from subcontracting with private, for-profit entities.

Williams also testified that the bill will “allow for non-certified teachers to come into the classroom.”

Other expressed concerns regarding HB 541 in its present form include: Lack of flexibility for superintendents, the high potential for disproportionate curriculum alignment between school districts, big-business having a say-so in the construction of said curriculum, lack of specificity in the bill regarding a number of terms and explanations (such as what exactly constitutes an “at-risk student”), in addition to reservations over clarification of charter-school teacher benefits, tenure and allocation of operating costs and state capital involving charter applications.

“We cannot support this bill in its present form,” Vi Parramore testified at the hearing. “I have just returned from the International Education Summit in New York. We heard from the 29 countries that are scoring better than the United States of America – particularly in math and science. Not one of them scored better because of charter schools or private schools. They all scored better because of their commitment to fund adequately, to train adequately, not only teachers, but principles and superintendents.”

She said teachers were frustrated over a lack of flexibility and that she wasn’t “interested in sending three to four percent to a management company that’s going to take money away from the classroom where we don’t even have microscopes for science class or books that are up to date.”

“The literature shows that 25 percent of charter schools do worse, 50 percent do the same, and 25 percent do better,” she said. “So we’ve got a 75 percent risk we’re taking here.”

On the issue of education equality, Franklin testified: “When we talk about ‘equality’ the state of Alabama has never taken a stand on each child getting the same equal education. We don’t fund our schools right now at the level we should. We rank 41st in the nation on per-pupil spending. We spend $12,545 annually per prisoner, but only $7,683 on each student.”

Using Rep. Williams’ own analogy of the bill as a “buffet” or “cafeteria plan”, Franklin further communicated Jefferson County and Birmingham AFT’s opposition to HB 541 by observing, “The word ‘equality’ is something that needs to be brought to this table. If the students in Mountain Brook are eating steak and the students in Birmingham are eating chicken, how dare you come to the table and tell me to eat this other piece of chicken?”

The Education Options Act of 2012, which will allow a total of 20 charter schools to operate in Alabama and will supposedly geographically pair them up with underperforming public schools, provides no explicit assurance that the students attending those underperforming schools will get first or any priority for charter enrollment.

Those opposed say that a lack of such guarantee defeats the entire purpose of the bill itself, and that charter schools in Alabama — in addition to serving more as private and corporate “cashcows” than an effective solution to a very serious problem — will also end up posing as mere substitutes for those already attending private schools or public schools that are performing at or above the standard. All while those most in need of a quality education are once again left with only chicken on the menu.

Jason Robert Cornelius is a free-lance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama with a degree in journalism from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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