One prominent charter school advocate says it may take years before the state is ready to give the nod to charters.
“It’s the people of Alabama who are going to have to stand up for it, and say they want it,” said Rep. Phil Williams, R-Madison.
Williams was the House sponsor of a bill, introduced in the last legislative session, that would have created a system of charter schools in Alabama — one of only 10 states that don’t currently have charters.
At the time, both supporters and critics of charter schools believed the bill was likely to pass. Republicans, who had won a supermajority in both houses in 2010, had identified charters as a priority. And the Alabama Education Association — the state teachers’ association and vocal opponent of charter schools — had lost a number of Democratic allies in the 2010 election.
Charter schools are publicly- funded schools, run by nonprofits or other private organizations, which are largely independent of school board control. Supporters say charters offer a choice to students stuck in low-performing school systems. Critics say they siphon money away from schools that are already under-funded.
Charter school systems have been slowly spreading across the country for the past 20 years, often to the chagrin of teacher groups like AEA. Williams and other charter school allies found, however, that it wasn’t just teachers who opposed charters.
All politics is local
“It was the superintendents who really killed it,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, a former private school history teacher and sponsor of the bill’s Senate version.
Early in the process, School Superintendents of Alabama, the professional association for top-level school administrators, came out in support of charters — but with caveats. First, the group wanted a charter system that wasn’t funded with money currently intended for traditional public schools. Second, the group wanted a charter system built on current research into what makes a good charter school.
“The most comprehensive research shows that about 45 percent of charter schools perform exactly the same as other schools,” said Eric Mackey, the former Jacksonville City Schools superintendent who heads the organization. He said about 30 percent of charter schools did worse than their traditional school counterparts.
In the bill Williams proposed, students who left traditional schools for charters would take their per-pupil funding with them. Word got out. Lawmakers started getting calls from their local superintendents. Back in their districts, they were invited to meetings with parents and school officials.
“It goes back to that old saying,” Brewbaker said. “All politics is local.”
Lawmakers dropped out of the charter coalition, or started dragging their feet, the bills’ sponsors said. Brewbaker said that near the end of the session Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, approached him and asked him to get out a Senate version.
“He said take any amendment you have to take, just get it out,” Brewbaker said. “We passed it, but what a dog’s breakfast that turned out to be.”
Asked about Brewbaker’s account, Marsh said that there was a sense of urgency in getting the bill out, and that few people were satisfied with the result.
The final version capped the number of charters at 20 statewide, and limited them to the state’s four largest cities.
Williams said that under that bill, it was highly unlikely that anyone would form a charter school.
‘He doesn’t know us’
Asked if they’d come back with a charter school bill in the next legislative session, both Brewbaker and Marsh said they were working instead on a proposal that would give the state superintendent of education expanded power to take over and run persistently low-achieving schools.
“Persistently low-achieving” is a term that the state uses to describe schools in applications for federal School Improvement Grants. Anniston High is one of those schools. Brewbaker, in an interview with The Star, described the Anniston system as the “poster child for crappy schools.”
Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier responded that Brewbaker had never, to her knowledge, visited Anniston High.
“He doesn’t know us,” she said. “He doesn’t know our schools and he doesn’t know our students.”
Frazier said she’d need more detail on the school takeover legislation before she could comment.
But the bill has yet to be written, and it’s still not clear what powers it would expand.
Williams claims the superintendent already has the power to intervene in academically low-performing schools. Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education, said there was at least one prior instance of an academic takeover, in 2002.
Valdes- Hubert said Superintendent Tommy Bice was aware of the proposal, but wouldn’t have full details until a work session later in the month. She said additional school takeover power “is not a power he’s requested.”
Williams said he’d like to reintroduce charter legislation in 2013, but he’s reluctant to do it — taking valuable time on the House schedule — unless there are strong signs of support.
“It’s not necessarily something for the Legislature to pass unless the public is ready for it,” he said. He said passing the legislation would likely require a groundswell of grassroots support, something he says he hasn’t seen in Alabama yet.
But Williams said he has hope. He said a recently passed bill requires the state to begin assigning letter grades to entire schools, based on those schools’ overall test scores. Once people see nearby schools getting failing grades, he said, they may decide to take action on school reform, including pressing for charter schools.
“When I’m older and grayer, maybe this will all happen,” he said. “In due time.”
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256- 294- 4193. On Twitter @ Tlockette_star.