Charter Schools: Facts & Issues
Published by the
LWVAL Education Fund
April 2011

II.   Why charter schools are a topic of current interest to Alabama

Alabama is one of 10 states that does not permit charter schools. The other nine states are: Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Washington.

In the 2010 legislative session, Alabama Governor Bob Riley championed the Alabama Innovative Charter Schools Act (Senate Bill 508 and House Bill 677), which authorized the creation of charter schools in the state. In January 2010, the Alabama Board of Education came out in unanimous support of authorizing charter schools. In a press release announcing its support, the Board touted benefits charter schools offer, noting that they can be a tool for both local school boards and the State Board of Education to turn around low-performing schools and allow local boards to be more innovative in addressing the needs of their students. The release also asserted that "Charter schools do not have the same administrative costs as other public schools and the same funding resources can be used differently (reallocated and unearmarked). Rather than draining dollars, charter schools actually bring new resources into public education in the form of federal dollars and private grants."6 The bills authorizing charter schools in the Alabama did not make it out of committees, and the Alabama Education Association‘s opposition to authorizing charter schools is believed to have contributed to this lack of legislative support.

The proposed 2010 Alabama Innovative Charter Schools Act defined a charter school as a public K-12 school with all of the following qualities: autonomy over decisions including, but not limited to, matters concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum, and instruction; governed by an independent governing board; established and operating under the terms of a charter contract between the governing board and an authorizer; enrollment pursuant to parental choice; students are admitted on the basis of a random selection process; operates in pursuit of educational objectives defined by a charter contract, and operates under the oversight of an authorizer in accordance with a charter contract. The bill prohibited private schools, including church and home-based schools, from applying to become a charter school or converting to charter school status. The Alabama Charter School Pilot Program Act of 2011 (HB459) has been introduced in the 2011 Legislative Session. Many of the bill‘s elements are similar to the 2010 bill; however, it would not prohibit private schools from converting to charter school status.

The primary impetus for the 2010 Alabama charter schools bill was funding associated with President Barak Obama‘s "Race to the Top" initiative, a competitive grant program from the Department of Education designed to encourage and reward states that create conditions for education innovation and reform. In a Birmingham News article, Alabama School Superintendent Joe Morton was quoted as saying, "[T]he lack of charter schools puts Alabama at a disadvantage in applying for millions of federal dollars that could be used to improve existing academic program in all schools."7 During the past 20 years, federal funding available specifically for charter schools has increased.

As for Alabama‘s "Race to the Top" application, it did not get funded. In the second round of the competition, the state‘s application received the lowest score among the applicants. Riley and others who advocated for the application attributed the poor ranking to the state‘s lack of charter schools and the lack of support for the application from the Alabama Education Association. (That organization was especially opposed to one component of the application, a proposal to evaluate teachers based on students‘ test scores.) A Mobile Press Register analysis of the state‘s ranking found that "…even if Alabama had received all 40 points available for having 'charter or other innovative schools,‘ it would have advanced only from last place to second-to-last among 36 states that applied…."8 It also noted that Alabama lost points because the state did not have a core curriculum in line with nationally adopted standards and did not have a program to attract quality teachers and principals to hard-to-staff schools. According to the Birmingham News, "Reviewers all scored Alabama low for a lack of charter or other innovative schools, a lack of alternative pathways to becoming a teacher or school principal, a lack of common core curriculum standards and a lack of support from the teachers‘ union for a proposed plan."9

© 2011 League of Women Voters of Alabama Education Fund. All rights reserved.