For House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston, decreasing Alabama’s high unemployment rate is job No. 1. “Jobs is what it is all about,” Marsh said Monday in Birmingham.
The impulse is spot on. Alabama’s 9 percent jobless rate is too high, and Montgomery must think creatively about helping where it can. However, factors far outside the realm of state government will have an equally large impact on unemployment in Alabama.
Where Alabama has a louder voice is in how its public schools educate the workforce of future generations. Progress has been made, as last week’s report on fourth-grade reading scores on national standardized tests reveals. (Hooray, for the first time we are up to average.)
Adding the option of charter schools would also make Alabama average; all but nine states offer some form of charter schools. However, if charter schools merely make Alabama one of 41, we say bring it on.
The opportunities for smartly creating the charter-school option are too great to set aside. Alabama has been down this road before. With $4.35 billion in federal education dollars up for grabs in 2009, Alabama had an incentive to create the charter-school option. Unfortunately, the status quo won out and the Riley administration initiative died in the Democratic-led Legislature.
That was then.
Now Alabama’s Republican majorities in the House and Senate are less beholden to the Alabama Education Association, a fierce opponent of charter schools. The possibility of making real change in public education appears more likely, though support is hardly unanimous.
If Alabama in 2012 will be more friendly to the notion of charter schools, then it is time to start considering the how of the matter.
Charter schools are not magic fairy dust to be sprinkled over a state’s weaker public schools. They come in almost as many forms as the states that offer them. The bill that enables them is an important first step. Make a mistake here, and Alabama is wedded to a flawed system.
In their most basic form, charter schools are publicly funded schools that are operated in non-traditional methods. Their independence from the typical school-district formula allows them the opportunity to build a better mousetrap, to reach the goal of highly educated Alabamians through alternative means.
The trick is creating a system of charter schools that are accountable to basic standards while unrestrained enough to think outside the box. Would-be schools can apply for their charters through the local district or the state; at least one state allows its university system to charter schools.
Here’s an example of how it might work. A charter school may wish to educate children through the arts. Under this scenario, mathematics would be taught through music. History and geography would be taught through the classic artworks of the previous centuries. English and grammar through great works of literature. An emphasis would be placed on field trips where students can experience the great works for themselves.
There are countless examples of themes and methods used by charter schools, including a focus on the classics of Western civilization, entrepreneurship, foreign languages, project-based learning or no theme at all save for teaching the basics.
Each child who leaves his or her traditional school to attend the charter school brings his or her per-pupil funding with them. Charter schools and regular public schools compete for those funds, and parents are able to vote with their feet.
If Alabama needs a site to serve as a test model, we nominate Anniston, a place where the school district has struggled with achievement over the past decades. Parents deserve more options than they currently have, and charter schools offer that chance.