Bob Davis: Off the charts on Goat Hill
May 13, 2012 | 2354 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A public opinion poll conducted in January asked Alabamians if they favor the creation of charter schools.

According to the survey led by Samford University’s Dr. Randolph Horn, more than half polled — 56 percent — said charter schools should be allowed in Alabama; only 26 percent were opposed.

Horn’s presentation at the annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama in Birmingham didn’t surprise the audience.

During Bob Riley’s last year of his second term as governor, the state Legislature tried and failed to create charter schools. That setback in 2010 was attributed to the power of the Alabama Education Association and its friendly Democrats in the Statehouse.

The 2012 session of the Legislature was supposed to be a different era. After all, Republicans are in the majority in the House and the Senate. A Republican governor is alongside. And, perhaps most importantly, the AEA is no longer led by Paul Hubbert, a man skilled at getting his way in Montgomery but who has since retired.

The message in January — just days before the start of the 2012 session — was that charter schools were on their way.

Not so fast.

With the 2012 session nearing a close last week, a House committee was forced to derail the charter schools effort. The version of the bill it was handed by the Senate barely resembled charter schools as they’ve been successfully established across the country.

For starters, the Senate bill limited the creation of charters to Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery. If the creation of alternative schools is a good idea, why is it only a good idea for four cities? Also, creation of a charter would have been dependant on the approval of a local superintendent and the unanimous agreement of the local legislative delegation.

In theory, charter schools allow for non-traditional education. The premise is that by loosening bureaucratic rules and encouraging creative thinking, charter schools could lift up students who might otherwise get lost in the system. The charters receive government dollars on a formula based on the number of students enrolled. In exchange, the charters are held to accountability standards.

Minnesota, the first state to adopt charter schools, set the template. Its law notes, “to provide more quality learning opportunities for more students, a mechanism is needed to allow groups of teachers to develop better ways of teaching and interacting with students using different methods, technologies and ways of organizing time. Innovative programs can and should be implemented by grade level, department and program.”

Square that with giving local lawmakers thumbs-up/thumbs-down approval of charters, if you can.

Alabama supporters say they plan to charge up the hill of charter schools next session. Good for them. However, a procedural flaw remains unaddressed.

Detractors of charter schools have several valid arguments. Some research shows that the average charter school is no better than the average traditional public school. Also, taking money out of already cash-strapped public schools could make things worse.

Those arguments didn’t kill charter schools last week. It was doomed by legislative tinkering and bureaucratic resistance — the very thing charter schools seek to escape from.

Which brings us to another part of January’s public opinion poll. Sixty-three percent either agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement, “Officials in Montgomery do not care what people like me think.”

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or Twitter:
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