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Charter school funding bill advances

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Legislation advanced Wednesday to change how local tax dollars fund charter schools, a move proponents say is needed to make their funding more equal to that of traditional public schools.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, sponsored the 2015 legislation that allows charter schools in the state.

“Over the last five years, we’ve learned some things we need to tweak,” Collins told Alabama Daily News. Her bill also makes some modifications to the state commission that can approve or deny charter schools’ applications.

In a nearly 90-minute public hearing on House Bill 487, charter school leaders lined up to speak on the education they’re giving students, particularly those who came from low-performing school systems. They said that in some cases, they’re receiving 30 percent less in funding than traditional public schools. They argue that charter schools have largely been funded by state and federal dollars.

Collins’ bill says that for each student who resides within the county where a public charter school is located, the charter school shall receive from the local school district “a per student share of the net local tax revenue…”

According to information presented to the committee, the local traditional school system could keep the per-student allocation of the 10 mill ad valorem local match required under the state’s Foundation Program, but some money above that, if the system collects additional tax revenue, would follow students to charter schools.

If a local system collects 15 mills, for example, they would keep a per-student allocation of that 10 mills and any money obligated to debt services. The rest could follow the student.

“We’re just saying some of that local money that those parents are paying needs to follow those children,” Collins said.

If a student comes from outside a charter school’s county of establishment, no local money will follow him or her, Collins said.

Charter schools are public schools run by private or non profit entities that are given special exemptions from education laws in order to enhance quality or specialize in a course of study.

Committee member Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said nationwide there is a trend in education funding models that “fund students and not systems.”

“I’m not saying we do that here,” Garrett said, “But that seems to be a trend and a wave in education.”

Opponents to the bill, including School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth, said he feared the bill would lead to new charter schools “targeting” areas of the state where voters had decided to support their local school systems with more money.

According to public hearing testimony, there are now about 2,000 students in charter schools statewide. That number is expected to grow to 5,000 next year.

Jeremiah Newell, founder of the Accel Day and Evening Academy in Mobile, said Collins’ bill would allow charter schools to do more for their students and asked for “parity” with traditional public schools.

But Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said it’s hard to talk about parity when she’s seen school classrooms in her district with 35 students in them.

“We can’t afford to take more money from public education,” Drummond said.

She said if more education funding is needed, lawmakers should focus on finding it.

“I don’t think we need to take money from one pot for another,” she said. “… We’ve got to make Peter and Paul stop competing with each other”

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, was among the committee members voting in favor of the bill.

Other proponents included former state superintendent Tommy Bice, now board chairman of I3 Academy in the Woodlawn area of Birmingham. Bice said most of the school’s more than 400 students come from low-income families and low-scoring schools.

“Because we have no central office or bureaucracy,” 99 percent of the school’s funding goes directly to student services, Bice said

The Alabama Education Association also opposes the bill.

“We have a good charter law, we’re concerned this would weaken the good law we have,” AEA general counsel Clint Daughtrey said.

The bill also:

— Specifies that during startup and structured growth years, public charter schools shall be funded in the same manner as a newly formed non-charter public school;

— Requires the Alabama State Department of Education to forward state and local funds to public charter schools on a monthly basis, rather than quarterly;

— Allows the commission to hire staff and set their pay and benefits;

— Changes commission members’ terms to four years instead of two; and

— Takes the Alabama State Board of Education out of the confirmation process for members of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission. As current members’ terms expire, the governor, lieutenant governor, Senate president pro tem and the speaker of the House would reappoint or appoint new members. Currently, those elected officials nominate commission members and the state board confirms them. State BOE members initially complained they were only a rubber stamp on a process with which they had no other involvement.