The roots of this week’s school voucher mess stretch back to the 2012 session. Last year, the Republican Party’s Masters of the Universe in Montgomery put up a charter school bill. There’s nothing necessarily wrong there. The idea of alternative public schools first cropped up about 20 years ago in progressive Minnesota, which is hardly a hotbed of cranks. (Rep. Michele Bachmann not withstanding.)
OK, so far so good. The deal with charters is all in how the state creates the chartering mechanism. Do it right and it's a viable alternative. Do it wrong and it's nothing but a portal to funnel taxpayer money to shady, fly-by-night operations.
We're looking at you, Mississippi, which was recently rated to have the worst charter-school law in the nation.
To work to their fullest potential, charters need:
• Strict oversight. It should be difficult to get a charter and more difficult to keep it open. The schools will receive taxpayer dollars, so the application and ongoing review processes must be geared to protecting public money.
• Wide access for students. In a positive charter environment, there will be lots of options for students looking for something other than traditional public school. Some might instruct based on teaching through the arts. Others might prefer the Socratic method. Still another could prefer placing enrollees on a professional course — engineering or medicine, for example.
• What we might call "restricted freedom," meaning flexibility, on bureaucratic rules but tough scrutiny/testing to ensure the alternatives are actually, you know, working on the students.
The best part is that more than 40 states have adopted charters over the past two decades, so a handy list of do’s and don’ts are assembled before us.
So, what did we get last year? A Rube Goldberg mechanism that would have capped the number of charters across the state at 20 or less. (Heck, a vigorous charter system in Jefferson County alone might establish 10 or more.) And too much deference toward administrators from traditional public schooling, which at best held the notion of charter schools at arm’s length.
What's worse, even this timid proposal blew up in the faces of the governor and the Legislature. They failed to anticipate the friendly fire the bill would take, and it died a lonely death.
So, now Montgomery has taken last year's disaster and made it even more complicated through the Accountability Act of 2013. The measure was kept from public scrutiny until the last possible minute. It was denied a hearing where experts could speak on its pro’s and con’s. It was even kept from lawmakers likely to oppose it. It was kept from state Department of Education officials who must administer it.
Republican leaders of the House and Senate plus the governor have admitted their plot to keep critical voices in the dark until it was passed.
Even now, the plan’s supporters can’t say how much the act will cost the taxpayers.
Mature lawmakers don’t pass laws in secret, breaking faith of the people in the process. Please, Montgomery, no more drama.