A few states have laws that managed to create beneficial charter schools without devastating public schools in the process. A bill pending in the Alabama Legislature, however, fails to find this balance.
House Bill 541, sponsored by Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, also creates enormous potential liability for the state.
Charter schools survive on taxpayer money. They receive all federal, state and local taxpayer funds that otherwise would go to the public school district that serves each student they recruit.
HB 541 authorizes charter schools to borrow money and issue bonds. If they go out of business while in debt — as many in the nation have — the state is stuck paying the creditors. “The Legislature finds that the state has a moral obligation to repay any bonds issued by a public charter school,” according to HB 541.
The bill fails in the goal of limiting charter schools to low-performing districts.
In districts with no “persistently low-performing schools,” the elected school board has the final say in whether to approve a charter school.
In districts with a single low-performing school, though, the decision is made by a state agency called the Charter School Application Review Council. Its nine members are appointed, not elected, with the governor’s five appointees having control. Remarkably, each of the members of the council “shall have demonstrated … commitment to charter schooling.”
The low-performing school could be an elementary school on the north side of the district, but its existence permits a charter high school to open on the south side of the district. The charter can recruit its students from anywhere in the district. Even if the district improves its low-performing school, the charter school is there to stay.
The list of districts with a low-performing school changes every year. As recently as 2010, Huntsville, Morgan County and Decatur school districts had at least one such school.
Because every student a charter school recruits reduces the funding of the school district, public educators have expressed concerns about legislation that would reduce state regulations for charters without reducing them for public schools.
HB 541 purports to address this issue by creating “innovative school systems,” public school systems which, if the state approves, can operate with more flexibility. The problem is it proceeds to set forth a nearly all- inclusive list of state requirements that cannot be waived.
A charter school, on the other hand, “is exempt from all statutes and rules applicable to a public school, a local school board, or a local school system.”
Educators also worry about a charter school system dominated by private corporations. Most of these concerns focus on the front end of the competition between charter and public schools.
A corporation has every incentive to invest heavily in marketing and facilities in the early years, knowing that — unlike the public school with which it is competing — it can operate at a loss for a few years. Services eventually will decline, but only after the school district has had to close schools that have lost both students and funding.
While HB 541 only allows nonprofit organizations to create charter schools, it provides plenty of room for abuse.
A nonprofit organization can, under HB 541, pay a private company to take over management and operations of the charter school. Private companies can give unlimited gifts to the charter school. The likelihood is high that the nonprofit organization that creates the school will be a mere shell of the for-profit company that runs it.
While charters cannot offer religious programming under the bill, they can hold classes in a church and receive gifts from a church.
Charter schools in other states rely heavily on video technology so they can avoid spending tax dollars on teachers. To the extent they hire teachers, HB 541 places essentially no limit on the qualifications of those they hire.
Anyone with “unique expertise” or “unique experience” — regardless of education — could serve as a charter-school teacher. Even without unique expertise or experience, a person could teach for two years without teacher certification.
As if the competition created by HB 541 was not lopsided enough, charter schools can demand services from their public-school competitors. They can, for example, require that a public school provide their students — at actual cost — with meals, special-needs instruction, English-learner instruction and even bus transportation.
Any disputes over these demands are resolved not by the school board, but by the pro-charter review council.
The charter review council can approve up to 50 charter schools in the state through 2016. After that, there is no limit.
In an irony that may give a hint at the intent of the drafters, the bill permits charter schools to buy closed public schools under preferential terms.
At least until the state-backed loans come due, there are likely to be plenty on the market.