Charter Schools. All the gubernatorial candidates but one support them. Republican legislators are busily writing legislation that would allow Alabama to get federal dollars (from a Democratic administration) for them. State Superintendent Joe Morton says Alabama can't afford to ignore this opportunity.
Morton said the dollars available through the federal fund are critical to the state's ability to fund education because of the state's financial situation. Alabama is in its second year of cutting its education budget because the state has not generated enough tax revenue to cover its costs.
“Some have said 'Forget the money,' but when in Alabama are we going to have the opportunity to apply for several hundred million dollars for education if we put this on hold?” he said.
What's at stake is $175 million in Race to the Top federal money — that does not require matching funds from Alabama. But we have to enact legislation allowing charter schools or we can't get that money.
A few weeks ago I did some research on charter schools for this post outlining the differences between Davis and Sparks on the issue and found that:
- The way a state's charter school law is written matters a lot in how effective the schools will be. If Alabama passes a charter school law, advocates need to get involved and make sure it is a good one.
- There is more variation in charter school performance than in traditional schools — possibly because administrators and teachers have more freedom to be a little creative. That's a two edged sword.
- The potential for segregation from to charter schools seems to be a red herring. Minority students are over-represented in charter schools, not the other way around.
- The potential for discrimination against children with disabilities is something that arises from the particular state's charter law. The issue is not physical access (due to ADA protections) but admissions criteria that may specify achievement potential.
- The federal money is available should Alabama pass a charter school law. Contrary to Commissioner Sparks' wish, Congress isn't going to give it to Alabama for anything else. On top of that, cost per pupil is less at charter schools.
As far as I can tell, there is no controversy over this on the Republican side, but the Democratic gubernatorial candidates differ sharply on the subject. Just last Thursday Ron Sparks told the Madison County Democratic Women, “I am against charter schools in Alabama. … I will not start dividing our children and segregating our children in Alabama.” Today a release from the Artur Davis campaign accused Sparks of flip-flopping on the issue, appearing with Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton to highlight the Obama administration's education reform efforts and seeking to “help rally support for lifting restrictions on the growth of high-quality charter schools.” That's a quote from the Department of Education website, not Sparks, but he certainly appeared with Sharpton and Gingrich (he even posted a photo of himself and Newt on his Facebook album) on the education reform tour in Montgomery.
“Ron Sparks proudly touted his participation in President Obama’s education reform tour when he thought it would win him votes, but less than two weeks later he is taking the opposite position and claiming to strongly oppose the President’s signature reforms,” said Davis campaign spokesman Alex Goepfert. “Once again, Ron Sparks is not being honest with Alabama voters about where he stands.”
Goepfert continued, “Artur Davis agrees with President Obama on this issue and Ron Sparks either does not understand President Obama’s charter school proposals or he is once again deliberately misleading voters.”
I worry that we may be slightly afflicted with “not invented here” syndrome on charter schools. Republicans have been for them, so we have to be against them. Maybe they deserve another look to see if there's some good there after all that we're missing out on by being stubborn.
Charter schools don't result in segregation — that's just not born out by the evidence. It's true that not all charter schools increase pupil performance, so Alabama absolutely should pattern any legislation on a successful state, not one where the schools are underperforming. Given that caveat, why not allow charter schools and get in line for some extra education $$ from the federal government?