The state Board of Education and the state Department of Education are charged with many responsibilities, all of which culminate in one primary purpose -- providing the students of Alabama with the best public education possible. That responsibility challenges us all to use the resources we have available efficiently and effectively. It also challenges us to explore new and innovative means of providing quality education throughout our state, just as other states have done.
Recently, the subject of charter schools has emerged as a possible way to restructure some public schools in Alabama's most challenging academic settings.
Before anyone can truly weigh in on the value of charter schools, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what charter schools actually are. Essentially, charter schools are public schools governed by a group or organization under a charter with the state and most often granted by the local school board. They do, however, operate without having to adhere to some of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The educational requirements are the same -- the same level of rigor, academic yearly progress and state-approved curriculum. But charter schools' primary goal is to provide improved academic and fiscal accountability.
Charter schools are not private or religious-based schools. They do not charge tuition, nor can they discriminate or deny entry of any group of people.
The fact that 40 other states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have all passed legislation enabling the establishment of charter schools is a testament that the idea has some merit. With that being said, understand there is no one-size-fits-all template to charter-school formation. The specific definition of a charter school varies as each state's charter school law is written. Because there are differences in the administration of charter schools, there have also been differences in the implementation, effectiveness and success of charter schools. Alabama can fashion a charter-school law by learning of the mistakes and successes of others.
Some charter-school initiatives have been successful, while others have not. The fact that so many others have gone before Alabama gives our state the unique opportunity to examine other models of charter reform, look at what has been successful and what has not, and craft charter-school legislation that is custom fit to Alabama's specific needs. We will be able to pull from a large body of knowledge. I have seen examples of poor charter-school legislation, but in more recent years, I have seen examples of excellent legislation.
We do ourselves and, more important, our children a disservice when we do not use the abundance of our political and educational will to reach the lowest-performing schools in the state and possibly offer better alternatives. This is in no way meant to imply that low-performing, traditional public schools would be "left behind." All of the effort that currently goes into those schools would continue. In fact, charter schools have been shown to strengthen, not weaken, public education overall. An independent charter school can provide better opportunities, increase accountability and foster educational excellence under the guiding principles and governance of a legislative charter, while traditional schools simultaneously benefit from their existence.
By law, charter schools must have a fair and open admission policy and actively recruit students from all segments of the communities they serve. Nationally, 62 percent of public charter schools are nonwhite, and 48 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. I am not advocating that hundreds of charter schools begin blossoming across the state. But for those schools that have historically underperformed, charter schools can be the viable option everyone has been looking for. Every child in Alabama deserves the opportunity to attend a school focused on academic success.
Alabama also has the opportunity to contend for a portion of $4.3 billion in Race to the Top competitive grants. Alabama is well-positioned to compete because of the Alabama Reading Initiative; the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative; the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide distance education initiative; the Commission on Quality Teaching; and the Governor's Congress on School Leadership. Opponents might argue there is no assurance that the formation of charter school legislation will result in any funding benefit from this grant. This is true. However, although the timing for charter school legislation would certainly increase our chances in receiving a portion of the Race to the Top awards, it is time to seriously look at how charter schools can help improve education in the areas needed -- with or without Race to the Top funding. The vast majority of the nation (every state in the Southern region except Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia) has already initiated charter schools. Considering Alabama's current financial crisis, every opportunity possible for additional funding should be considered. Likewise, considering Alabama's academic standing in some low-performing schools, every opportunity possible for innovative and competitive education should be considered as well.
As legislative leaders and education groups review legislation for charter schools, political squabbling must be set aside. We are facing unprecedented challenges and extraordinary opportunities. We owe it to the children of Alabama to do everything possible to give each a chance for success. Now is the time.