Local legislators work on charter school bills

Two Shelby County legislators are at the forefront of the movement to bring charter schools to the state.

State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Jefferson and Shelby, and State Sen. Steve French, R-Jefferson and Shelby, are working on legislation to make Alabama the 41st state to allow charter schools.

Such schools are public schools that operate free from regulations that rule traditional public schools. Instead, these schools operate from a performance contract, known as a charter, that sets out the school’s mission, programs, goals, students served and ways to assess results. For example, a charter school could be set up to serve autistic children; another could be set up to operate on a specific calendar, such as year-round school.

French said he sees charter schools as another opportunity to improve education in Alabama.

“Charter schools have a positive impact on quality of education. There are approximately 40 states that have charter schools. It has become apparent that they work,” he said.

French referred to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” initiative as a big reason to quickly get charter schools started in Alabama.

Race to the Top is the largest competitive education grant program ever, and it could mean as much as $180 million in educational funds for Alabama. However, charter schools could be the competitive edge, French said.

“If we have charter schools, we’re more competitive for it,” he said. “If we don’t have them, we’re less competitive.”

French said if the legislation passes in the spring, whether in the regular session or the special session, the state could see charter schools as soon as the 2011-2012 school year.

He said he believes charter schools help foster competition among schools, which in turn leads to more innovative teaching methods.

“After fine-tuning, every state has found that charter schools improve education. Not only do the kids going to charter schools improve, the kids left behind do too,” he said. “That makes sense to me because I believe competition improves everybody. It’s a way to bring a competitive edge to our educational system.”

McClurkin agreed, saying such competition could only benefit Shelby County.

“We are blessed to have excellent schools all over Shelby County. By allowing for charter schools, we hope to only make our existing schools even better through competition,” she said. “Locally, charter schools will provide our students and parents with options to receive the best education that fits their needs.”

French said since charter schools are public schools, they cannot discriminate. If a charter school does not have space for all applicants, then students must be chosen by a lottery.

Also, charter schools would allow communities to tailor educational opportunities to their children’s needs. The Vincent community is a good example of a community that could benefit from charter schools, French said.

“The (Shelby County Board of Education) forced the locals in Vincent to quit something they felt was really beneficial, the year-round calendar. They loved it, and they were very upset when they had to end it,” he said. “In a specific example of why charter schools could be beneficial in Shelby County, the people in Vincent could come back and petition the local board to go back to a year-round calendar.”

The charter schools legislation also has another advantage. While state and federal per-student educational funds would follow students into charter schools, local school boards would not be required to send local money to charter schools.

“It doesn’t handcuff the local boards. It allows schools to have the same amount of (local) money and spread it across fewer students,” French said. “The county can say, ‘We’ll let you (have a charter), but you have to operate without the local supplement.’”

The charter schools bills are Senate Bill 202 and House Bill 189.