As charter schools debate begins in Alabama, the shape they’ll take is an open question
by Tim Lockette
Feb 05, 2012 | 24992 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This could be the year for charter schools in Alabama.

For the last 20 years, the nation has debated the pros and cons of the charter school, an alternative approach to education that allows nonprofits and private organizations to run schools that are paid for with public funds.

Proponents say the charters offer an option for students stuck in underperforming school systems, while allowing educators to experiment with bold new ways of teaching.

Opponents say charters siphon money from already-struggling school systems.

So far, charter opponents appear to be winning the debate. Forty states have approved charter systems, and millions of kids go to them. Alabama — where, until recently, a strong teacher’s union held sway in the Legislature — has been one of the holdouts. That could change in 2012. Republicans, many of them openly opposed to the Alabama Education Association’s political positions, are in their second year of control over the Legislature. GOP leaders, including Gov. Robert Bentley, have said that approving a charter school program is a high priority in the legislative session that begins Tuesday.

But those same GOP leaders have mostly kept mum on the details of the charter plan.

“We know it’s coming, but I don’t even know who’s going to introduce the bill into the Legislature,” said state Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston. “We’re going to discuss it when we go back” to Montgomery.

Emily Schultz, Bentley’s education policy director and a leader in the charter school plan, deferred questions about the specifics of a charter school plan to Jennifer Ardis, the governor’s spokeswoman. Ardis said the governor hopes to introduce a limited number of charters, but shared no other details.

“A lot of the specifics are up to the Legislature,” she said.

Wood said his own support for a charter school bill would depend on what the bill actually says — how charter schools would be defined and how they’d be regulated.

Which raises the question: What are charter schools, exactly? What would they look like in Alabama, and in Anniston specifically? The Anniston Star posed some basic questions about charter schools to local officials and education experts.

What are charter schools? Who gets to attend them?

Charter schools are schools that receive public funds but operate under the direct control of an entity other than a public school system — a nonprofit group or, in some cases, a for-profit business.

The school operates under the authorization of a local school system or state education department, and in most states, charter schools are accountable to the entity that approves the charter. Charter schools can be closed by the approving agency if they don’t perform academically. Some have also closed for financial reasons.

Charter schools are not the same as magnet schools, by the way. A magnet school is a traditional public school featuring a specialized curriculum to attract students from anywhere within a school district, not just a single zone.

In some areas, where the demand for charter school slots exceeds the number of slots available, schools will hold a lottery to see who gets the slot. Charter admission is usually opened to kids in low-performing schools before it’s opened to the general student population.

It’s not yet clear who would qualify for charter school admission in an Alabama charter system. A bill introduced in the 2010 session would have allowed any student in a district with a charter school to apply for admission.

Where does the money come from?

For every student it enrolls, a charter school typically gets the same amount of per-pupil funding that would otherwise go to the public school system. Some schools also have financial support from donors.

Charter proponents argue that families in the public school system should have the right to choose where their public education funding goes. Critics say the system diverts needed funds from existing public schools.

“Over the last four years, we’ve lost 3,000 teachers statewide,” said Teresa Noell, local director for the Alabama Education Association. “Why would we want to take even more resources away from public schools?”

Do charter school students really do better than students in traditional schools?

Some do. Some don’t. Studies show that, on the whole, there’s not a huge difference between the performance of charters and traditional schools.

In 2009, a group of researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes released a 16-state study of charter school performance. The study found that 17 percent of charter schools performed better than traditional schools. Forty-six percent performed at effectively the same level. And 37 percent actually had worse results.

Taken as a whole, charter schools in the 16 states showed learning gains that were just slightly lower than the national average.

Those numbers have been widely quoted by charter school critics. But Macke Raymond, a principal author of the Stanford University study, said it’s important to note that individual schools vary widely, and that some states have good charter school results.

“In New York, for instance, the numbers are almost the reverse of what you see in the multiple-state study,” she said. Raymond said New York’s success is due to its willingness to close under-performing schools. The closing of failing schools is supposed to be part of the market-forces model behind charter schools, but Raymond said some states are squeamish about shuttering unimpressive charters.

Another study followed 3,000 students in 15 states who had applied for admission to schools that use a lottery to determine admission.

On the whole, students who won the lottery and entered charter schools performed at about the same level as students who lost and stayed at public schools. Again, the overall results mask the fact that outcomes varied widely from school to school.

However, students in charter schools reported being more satisfied with their school than students who stayed in traditional schools.

“It may be that there’s a quality beyond academic scores that we’re not measuring,” said Philip Gleason, one of the authors of the study, which was done by Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Department of Education. Gleason said all the students in the lottery wanted out of their original school for some reason, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the public school students were less satisfied.

Another study, by the RAND Corporation, also found no significant difference in overall scores — but the same study found that charter students were 7 percent to 15 percent more likely to graduate and 8 percent to 10 percent more likely to enroll in college.

What kinds of charter schools work best?

Gleason’s study found that charter schools work best in large urban areas. Students who live in poverty and were attending low-performing schools showed improvement in charter schools, Gleason said.

But what about a city like Anniston — a city of only 23,000, with a high concentration of students in poverty? Gleason said there wasn’t a corresponding location in his study.

“Generally, the urban schools were the ones with high rates of free or reduced lunch, and suburban charters had fewer students in poverty,” he said.

Raymond, the Stanford researcher, said schools performed best when they were supported by a strong outside organization with a stake in seeing charters do well.

“States with a strong charter-supporting organization, an organization that holds schools to a high standard, do well,” she said.

It’s not yet clear what organization would fill that role for Alabama’s schools.

“There likely will be something along the lines of an Alabama Association of Charter Schools,” wrote Armon Drysdale, a spokesman for the pro-charter organization Reform Alabama, in an email to The Star. “We’ve seen it in a lot of other states, and we agree that such an organization can play an important role in successful charter school implementation and helping with best practices.”

Drysdale said Reform Alabama might help set up such an organization, but would be unlikely to run the charter-supporting effort itself.

Raymond said charters do better in states where only one government can authorize the charter. When there are multiple routes — a state charter agency and a local agency, for instance, schools will go shopping for the one with the most lenient rules.

Wood, the state representative, said his vote on charters will hinge largely on how the approval process works.

“There need to be safeguards,” he said.

Who would start a charter school in Anniston?

“There’s no single authority that has the responsibility to start a charter school,” Drysdale wrote to The Star. “In other words, they don’t just pop up overnight after the law goes into effect.”

By all accounts, it takes a driven person — or a number of them — to create a charter school. An organization must find a building, hire teachers and go through the sometimes arduous process of applying for the charter. Raymond said it often takes a significant grant from a large nonprofit — the Gates Foundation, for instance — to cover the startup cost.

It’s not clear who, if anyone, would go to that trouble in Anniston or Calhoun County.

Jeff Parker, director the nonprofit of Sarrell Dental Center, pondered the idea of a charter school a few years ago. He said his organization has since moved on.

“We did consider that,” he said. “But our business is growing, and we’ve decided to stick with what we’re good at.”

Local education foundations often lead the charge for charters. The Public Education Foundation of Anniston, a local organization dedicated to supporting Anniston schools, has not yet discussed the idea.

“We’re too busy working in the public schools,” PEFA director Wonder Osborne said. “It hasn’t even come up.”

Drysdale, of Reform Alabama, said his organization probably won’t be in the business of starting or running charter schools. The Star’s attempts to reach KIPP Schools, one of the nation’s largest networks of charters, were unsuccessful.

‘Will they have football?’

Raymond laughed out loud when a Star reporter asked her this question.

“That’s the first time in 15 years that anyone has asked me that,” she said.

But Alabamians are obsessed with the pigskin. For many in the state, the blackboard and the gridiron are inseparable. Raymond said she knew of very few charter schools with football teams.

“Charters are free to develop a specific academic focus, and there are some schools with a focus on athletics,” she said. But most schools, if they have sports at all, try soccer first, she said.

American football requires a larger outlay of money.

“If you look at where charters are formed, it’s typically an old warehouse, a church basement, or an office building,” Raymond said. “To have the right facilities, you’d need to start a school on the site of an old school, and that’s rare.”

Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.

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