Now he has to figure out how to tell a failing school from a successful one.
“It’s the last piece of the picture,” said Brewbaker, a Republican state senator from Montgomery.
Brewbaker said he’ll be the sponsor of a charter school bill when it comes before the Senate in the coming weeks. Approving charter schools — independently run schools funded by taxpayers — is a priority for Republicans in this legislative session, and with the GOP in control of both houses and the governor’s office, some form of charter school bill seems likely to pass.
But what form that charter system would take is still up in the air. A draft bill from Brewbaker’s office lays out many of the details of a plan that would create no more than 50 charter schools within five years, starting in the state’s most troubled school districts. Charters would have five-year contracts, and would be closed if they don’t meet predetermined standards of academic performance.
But what is a troubled public school system? And when charter schools are up and running, how does the state determine which ones are successful and which ones are failing and need to be closed?
Those are the parts of the bill Brewbaker has yet to fill out. And his answers to those questions may determine whether Anniston gets charter schools — and whether charter schools work.
Brewbaker said that when completed, his bill would demand “some sort of action” from school systems identified as “persistently low-achieving.” School systems would open themselves up to the creation of charter schools, he said, among other requirements. Failing that, he said, the state would intervene.
“They’ll do something, or they’ll lose some control over the district,” he said.
Brewbaker defined a “persistently low-performing” school as a school that scores in the bottom 5 percent of schools on standardized tests for three years.
A similar term, “persistently low-achieving,” is a term the state uses to describe schools in its application for federal School Improvement Grants. An early draft of Brewbaker’s bill identified districts eligible for School Improvement Grants as districts that would be opened to charter schools.
Anniston schools receive School Improvement Grants, but Superintendent Joan Frazier said receiving the grants doesn’t necessarily mean a school is among the lowest-achieving in the state.
“There are some schools that are improving, and still qualify for the grants, while other schools with lower scores may not,” Frazier said.
Anniston High hasn’t met state standards for progress on standardized tests for the past six years. Frazier said the school has made progress, though she also said that progress has been obscured by constant increases in state standards over the years of No Child Left Behind.
Frazier indicated Anniston schools were always in the sights of charter-school advocates.
“It is my belief that Anniston is being targeted for charter schools,” Frazier said.
She said that under the proposals she’s heard, the school systems selected for charter schools would “share certain commonalities” — namely, high numbers of black and low-income students.
The Alabama Education Association pushed the race-and-income assertion further last week. In a column in the AEA’s newsletter, AEA assistant executive secretary Gregory Graves claimed that 62 of 63 school districts eligible for charter schools under Brewbaker’s bill would be majority black districts. He wrote that the charter bill would lead to “hundreds if not thousands of black educators losing their jobs.”
Attempts to reach Graves for further comment were unsuccessful.
Brewbaker bristled at the AEA allegations.
“If the AEA wants to say that kids in the bottom 5 percent of schools shouldn’t have a choice of schools, it’s a sign that they truly do not care about educating students,” he said.
Closing the bad ones
There’s much less controversy over the other unwritten portion of the bill — the part that covers how charter schools will be evaluated and, if necessary, closed. But charter school advocates say that a good evaluation system is key to creating a charter school system that works.
“No one’s saying that all charter schools are better than all public schools,” said Alex Medler, of vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Some charter schools are brilliant, some charter schools are about the same as district schools, and some charter schools are bad. The point is that you can close the bad ones.”
Medler’s organization represents charter school authorizers — the state and local agencies that approve charter schools and monitor their progress.
Authorizers are important, Medler said, because they’re the agencies that hold charter schools accountable. In states with too many authorizers, he said, schools will go with the most lenient one.
“Let’s say you and I wanted to open Alex’s Network of Horrible Charter Schools,” he said. “Which approving authority would we apply to? Obviously the one that’s friendlier to our application.”
As currently drafted, Brewbaker’s law would allow two approving authorities in any district: the local school district and a state board for charter schools.
Medler says that’s usually a good setup. Local school boards know the community and may have the best ideas for schools, he said, but they tend to be extreme in their views. Some won’t authorize any charters, seeing them as a threat. Others are too friendly, authorizing charters that haven’t really done their homework. Statewide authorizers, he said, are often more consistent and rigorous.
“The states have more experience with this,” he said. “A local district may see one application in 10 years.”
Same test, different standards
Under Brewbaker’s bill, charter schools would sign five-year contracts and could be closed by the authorizer after five years if they don’t perform well.
How to measure that performance is very much a matter of debate.
Brewbaker said Thursday that he was considering a charter school assessment proposal from the School Superintendents of Alabama, but he wouldn’t reveal details of the proposal. Attempts to reach representatives of the school superintendents’ association for comment were unsuccessful.
Medler said many states have opted to judge their charter schools by the same academic tests applied to traditional public schools. In Alabama, that would mean charter students would still take the Alabama Reading and Math Test — and the stakes in that test would still be high, for school administrators.
He said states also typically judge charters based on graduation rate, on college readiness of the graduates, and the performance of subgroups such as students from low-income homes. Some of these elements are also parts of the state’s existing school-accountability system.
But it’s possible that for charters, test scores would mean different things for different schools. Charter schools have specialized academic goals, he said, and the terms of success will be determined in part by the school’s contract with its authorizer.
“If I start a charter school designed to prepare students for entry into the Ivy League, obviously it’s not going to be acceptable for my test scores to be merely on par with the local district schools,” he said. “On the other hand, if I create a school for pregnant and parenting teens, and the students graduate in an environment in which their babies are safe, average tests scores might not seem like a failure.”
Suzanne Lane, a professor of education research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh, said states don’t want to devote the resources it would take to invent an assessment system from scratch, which makes the existing system appealing to legislators.
That also means that charter schools would probably be tested by the reading, writing and arithmetic standards typically used to judge current public schools.
“If your state has a science assessment, that would also be part of it,” Lane said. “But in most assessment systems, there’s no test in the social sciences or other areas.”
Medler said states should set a high minimum academic standard for charter schools. If authorizers want to add additional requirements, they can.
Brewbaker said that was his plan, as well.
“We want to set high standards, and if local districts want to add to those standards, they can,” he said. “But they can’t take away.”
But it’s not clear that local districts want charter schools at all.
“I have serious concerns about this whole proposal,” said Frazier. “I don’t see how it will be helpful to take money away from public schools.”
Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.