This page has already expressed support for Gov. Bob Riley's proposal to allow charter schools in the state. Not only will it open the door for educational innovation, it will make Alabama eligible for some of the $50 million fund that Congress authorized to finance charter schools that replicate or expand successful programs.
That is the key — replicate or expand programs that work.
Not all charter schools are successful.
Much of the ballyhoo about charter schools has been politically inspired. Conservatives, usually Republicans who are upset with teacher unions in public schools, have promoted charter schools as a way to break the hold that these Democratic-leaning organizations have on education.
In Alabama, the State Board of Education passed a resolution Thursday in support of the charter-school plan. Additionally, Riley and the Republicans are in a constant struggle with Paul Hubbert and the Alabama Education Association, so naturally the AEA considers the GOP's support for charter schools as an effort to reduce the power of organized teachers.
And no doubt it is.
However, charter schools can be good for students if, and this is a very big IF, they are realistically considered and tightly regulated.
Charter schools have failed. In fact, studies have shown that in many cases just the opposite of the conservative mantra is true. In 2004, when the Bush administration was touting charter schools as a way to achieve the goals of No Child Left Behind, the Education Department released a comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and public schools. The result showed that, overall, public school students were doing better than those in charter schools.
Grant that raw figures do not tell the whole story. Many charter schools examined were in poor, inner-city neighborhoods where test scores were traditionally low. However, it was generally acknowledged that at the time the findings "dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement," as The New York Times put it in 2004.
A new study conducted by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes reveals that while public school students continue to outperform charter school students in many cases, "state laws governing charter school operation have an important impact on academic growth."
That is where the governor and the Legislature come in. Charter school advocates need to get a copy of this study — it is online. They also need to look at the programs that work. Not all of them are state-based. New York City has a very successful charter school system based on "a rigorous mechanism for licensing charters as well as strong oversight of performance." Riley needs to make a copy of the New York plan available to every legislator.
Charter schools can be a good way to improve the education of children, but only if those putting together the system make good use of the information available to them. This is not something that should be cobbled together just to get grant money.