- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama is one of eight states that do not allow charter schools, and some legislators want to change that.

Several Republican lawmakers said they will make another push to establish charter schools in Alabama, at least on a limited basis, calling the schools another education option that should be made available to parents.

“The more choices we can give parents, the better off we are going to be,” said Republican Sen. Dick Brewbaker of Pike Road.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the rules and regulations of regular public schools. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he anticipates a charter school bill in the 2015 legislative session but that the details are still being decided.

“There would be a limited number to start with. They would be limited on the amount of growth that is allowed. A lot of local control over that process,” Marsh said of the bill he envisions.

Alabama is one of eight states that do not allow public charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“We’ve become the island in the South,” said Emily Schultz, executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and GOP legislators made charter schools a top legislative priority in 2012 only to have the effort flop under internal disagreements and political opposition, including from the Alabama Education Association. Republicans came back in 2013 and pushed through a more controversial school choice program, the Alabama Accountability Act, which gives tax credits to help some families move their children to private schools.

Rep. Phil Williams of Huntsville, who sponsored one of the 2012 charter bills, said lawmakers are having big picture discussions about what to propose when the session begins in March.

“Since my bill crashed and burned, there is more and more data coming in about what is working. We are truly last to the party, but I think that’s a wonderful thing. We can learn from everybody,” Williams said.

Opponents have called charters a threat to limited to education resources.

House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, the ranking Democrat in the House, said establishing new charter schools would drain money away from the state’s already underfunded public schools.

“We’re going to continue to hold true to our principles to support our public schools, not to abandon our public school system,” Ford, D-Gadsden, said.

While Marsh said he only wants to look at charter schools within the public system, Ford said he is concerned with the prospect of outside and for-profit groups being brought in to run the schools.

Republicans increased their existing majorities in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature in the 2014 elections, something that could make it easier to pass legislation.

“We could ram something through, but it still is not going to be successful until we get school boards and superintendents on board,” Brewbaker said.

Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said her organization believes local school boards should be the ones that decide whether to open a charter school. Howell said she also believed the schools need “to participate in all accountability systems” and also be strategically located.

“Alabama underspends on education, and when you are creating more schools you are going to further diffuse those resources. If we are going to look at this effort, let’s make sure we’re putting it in a place where public schools have not been performing well,” Howell said.

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