Alabama Legislature

Bill Would Put Charter Funding on Par With Traditional Schools

MONTGOMERY — Legislation in the Alabama Senate would prevent local school systems from limiting the flow of per-student tax dollars to public charter schools.

Senate Bill 311 is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who said it clarifies that money for a child’s education stays with that child, no matter what school he or she attends. Marsh was the sponsor of the 2015 legislation that allowed for the creation of charter schools.

“It was always intended that on a local level the local funds that were allocated per child would also follow the student to the public charter school,” Marsh said this week.

Marsh said some existing public school systems have failed to cooperate with the charter school law.

“The Birmingham school system has been fighting this and it’s unfortunate because we are finding these problem systems, and we are trying to get in there to provide some options for parents, but we continue to get push back from this union mentality,” Marsh said.

A comment from Birmingham City Schools was not available Tuesday.

The Montgomery Board of Education has also resisted charter schools in the capital city and, along with the Alabama Education Association, has unsuccessfully sued to keep them from opening.

Marsh said those lawsuits have been the major roadblock for charter schools to gain approval, but he hopes that this bill will clear up other problems with the application process.

“There have been some hurdles thrown up, but by and large we believe every year, that once these people understand how the process works and we work out the kinks, it should make it easier for these charter schools to start,” Marsh said.

A public hearing will be held on the bill this morning in the Senate Education Policy Committee.

The original charter school law said any local revenues “restricted, earmarked, or committed by statutory provision, constitutional provision, or board covenant” shall be excluded from the funds allocated to a charter school.

Marsh’s new bill strikes that language. It also deletes the 10-mill cap on local funding, per student, that could be forwarded to a charter school.

Ashley McLain from the Alabama Education Association said the organization is concerned about this bill.

“If a local community passes a 1-cent sales tax dedicated to the construction of a new high school, under this law the charter school would be entitled to a portion of those funds, and removing the 10-mill match language forces local systems, such as Mountain Brook, that have raised millions in their community to reflect their value of education, to share those monies with a charter school,” McLain said.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D- Birmingham, is on the Education Policy Committee and said he is always hesitant when there could be funds transferred from public schools, but he didn’t explicitly say that he would vote no on the bill.

“I’m concerned any time that we’re diverting funds away from public education simply because we have not increased funding, especially in the areas of books and transportation, to the 2008 level and it is now 2019,” Smitherman said. “So contrary to what is being said by some, there is not an excess of money in the Education Trust Fund, there is growth there over the last two years, but the needs outweigh the growth just in the public sector alone.”

The bill also says that, for traditional public schools, certain fixed costs such as maintenance of buildings, buses and other similar costs would not be affected when local revenue is transferred.

“There is also a portion of that money that will stay in the existing system, like buses and other certain fixed costs,” Marsh said.

Charter schools are public schools that can operate outside the normal structure and regulations of traditional public schools. Alternative school hours, trading teacher tenure for increased pay, and requiring parental involvement are some of the ideas charter schools implement.

The 2015 law allows local school systems to become authorizers of charter schools within their districts and approve or deny charter applications. It also created the Alabama Charter School Commission. The commission authorizes charter schools from areas where the local school system decided not to participate, and when a local system rejects a charter application, the decision can be appealed to the commission.

The law allows for 10 new charter schools each year that have total autonomy. It allows an unlimited number of conversion charters, where a local school system transforms an existing school.

University Charter School in Sumter. (Source: University Charter School)

Two charter schools are now open and five more have been approved so far by the commission.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, is one of the co-sponsors of the bill and is in support of parents being able to choose their child’s school.

“Education is a parental choice and anything that we can do to give kids the chance at a better education, I support,” Stutts said adding, “if the child moves to a different school, that money should follow the child.”

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, also supports school choice and is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“The bill is designed to target some of those communities and some of those parents that would like to make sure their child is getting the very best education, but of course it all depends on the location they are in,” Allen said.

Senate Rules Chairman Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, is also listed as a co-sponsor.

“Charter schools are public schools and should be treated equally,” Waggoner told ADN.