Sunday, December 20, 2009

Senator Steve French and Michael Ciamarra: The Promise of charter schools

  Alabama has a tremendous opportunity to quickly improve the quality of education outcomes in the state. If we want to answer the questions, “What does Alabama have to do to succeed in the next five to ten years?’ and “What do we want our education outcomes to look like in five to ten years?” with bold vision, it is obvious we need to take dramatic actions. Preparing our students for meaningful lives and 21st century challenges cannot be accomplished within the constraints of our current one-size-fits all public school model.

  We must trust the experience in other states, where leading educators have come together to start more challenging schools with a new set of rules focused on success for students versus security for adults. They have done this by creating laws that enable the creation of public charter schools.

  In 2010, legislators in the Alabama Senate and in the Alabama House such as Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, Rep. Mac Gipson and Rep. Phil Williams, along with Gov. Bob Riley and genuine education reformers will lead legislative efforts to create innovative public charter schools focused on boosting student learning and empowering public school leaders. For our state, which consistently places toward the bottom nationally in academic achievement, this will be a right step in the right direction at the right time.

  And taking action now can also add greatly to school funding. Because public charter schools have been such an important piece of the nation’s educational improvement, President Obama has charged Secretary Duncan with telling states that unless they allow this proven innovation, they cannot qualify for the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Race to the Top Funds, which in Alabama could mean a loss of possibly $200 million. We need the charter school innovation, and our educators need these additional resources.

  The power of public charter schools comes in their responsibility to succeed for their students, according to a contract, or "charter,” they enter into with the state sponsor. In exchange for commitment to meet challenging standards of achievement, the state allows the schools the right to operate as independent professional organizations, determining how to hire and reward their staff, which curriculum will best meet the state standards for their students, and how to best allocate the resources available to them. They are free to operate, but on the line in terms of achievement.

  Charter schools are public schools: they must provide an open enrollment system, accepting all students who wish to attend, and choosing by lottery if they are oversubscribed. They must provide special education if their students require those services, follow all non-discrimination laws, and they must make their financial records public. Most critically, their students must take all state-mandated tests that every public school student takes, and report those results. If they fail to meet their commitments, they are closed by the state. That is true accountability for the success of our students, and a far cry from the traditional public system.

  Public charter schools now exist in 39 states and the District of Columbia. There are more than 4,900 charter schools educating 1.5 million students, 62 percent of whom are non-white students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. How those charters tailor their services to children’s, parents,’ and community needs varies. For example, some schools focus on teaching the arts. Others choose to highlight music. Some hold longer school days. In the case of BASIS Charter School in Tucson, Arizona, teachers prepare their students for college through rigorous liberal arts courses.

  With future uncertainty in the Education Trust Fund budgeting, we must adopt more cost-effective, results-oriented ways to ensure the success of Alabama’s students. It could be that this financial need is bringing a much needed opportunity. We live in an age of scientific and technological changes and new ways require new thinking. It’s no longer viable to do the same thing over and over – we need to do what is proven to work.

  How do we know what works? Effective teachers who know their subject matter, hiring and firing practices that advance and reward only those teachers who have net achievement goals for their students, allowing parents to choose new schools if their current school does not meet the needs of their child. These are not tremendously bold steps...they are obvious and they work.

  But we are so overgrown with laws that protect jobs first and achievement not at all, that the current system won’t allow any of it. A public charter option will bring these possibilities. It will welcome the efforts of educators who are as frustrated with our lack of progress as anybody else.

  Strong public charter laws guarantee charter schools’ autonomy from state and district regulation, place no limits (or “caps”) on the number of charters, permit multiple “authorizers” to approve the creation of charter schools—such as mayors, universities, school boards, state commissions, and nonprofit organizations—and ensure charters receive equitable funding.

  The legislation we intend to file addresses those points and is based largely on Minnesota’s charter school law—the first and best charter law in the country. We will start there and work with our fellow legislators and education reformers — looking at other states’ charter laws—to ensure the bill we pass is a strong and right one for Alabamans. We hope the Aabama Legislature and its leadership will stand behind this effort to lift Alabama’s ban on public charter schools.

  Charter schools have received bipartisan support from diverse political figures including Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton, Jeb Bush, and President Barack Obama. Public charter schools also are supported by the group Democrats for Education Reform, which calls them “an important alternative to traditional public schools” and the “tri-partisan” advocacy group American Solutions. They are acknowledged to increase achievement for students at a faster pace than the traditional system. Unfortunately, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) remains steadfast in their opposition.

  But the AEA is presenting its opposition as an organization, and not our state’s boldest and brightest teachers. Educators have led this public charter school movement nationwide, and we have these same leaders just waiting for the opportunity to excel here in Alabama. For the sake of our children, our state and our nation, we should let them go to work.

  We hope the Legislature and its leadership will stand behind this effort to lift Alabama’s ban on public charter schools. The status quo is too costly for our state budget, our taxpayers, and our children’s futures.

  About the authors: Sen. Steve French, (R-Birmingham) represents the 15th Senate District and serves on the Finance and Taxation General Fund; Industrial Development and Rules Senate Committees and will introduce charter school legislation in the 2010 session; Michael Ciamarra is vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute and can be reached at

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