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Coming Soon to the Heart of Dixie: Charter Schools

• ExcelinEd

In celebration of National Charter Schools Week, we’re highlighting the latest state to authorize charter schools – Alabama.

On a brisk morning in late January, thousands of parents, students, teachers and community leaders met at a hotel in downtown Montgomery, Al.

Bundled in matching yellow scarves, they began a slow march to the state capitol. Their message was simple: Alabama families want choice in education.

Alabama School Choice Rally ImageOn a warm spring day exactly seven weeks later, Gov. Robert Bentley signed the state’s first charter school law. This had been a long time coming.

The Alabama House and Senate took up a charter school bill in 2012 but were unable to agree on a final version. This left Alabama as one of just eight states that still prohibited charter schools.

When the legislative session began this year, however, lawmakers made school choice a top priority. In fact, the charter school legislation was the first bill passed in the Alabama Senate.

Thus, Alabama became the 43rd state to enact a charter school law. Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, one of the bill’s sponsors, thinks the delayed adoption may be to the state’s advantage.

In a March interview, he explained, “The nice thing about being this late to the table is that we have had the chance to see exactly what works in these other states and what has not worked. We’re not going to put up with charters that aren’t getting the job done. Those that are successful will be rewarded and stay in business.  Those that aren’t – we’ll shut them down.”

Alabama has years of other states’ experience to draw from. The first charter in the nation launched more than 20 years ago. Since then, these unique public schools have had the freedom to be more innovative in exchange for financial and academic accountability. Alabama’s future charter schools will have to meet the same standards and adhere to the same assessments as traditional public schools.

In addition to being a solid piece of policy, the nation’s newest charter school law will offer Alabama families exactly what they need: more quality choices and better opportunities.

According to House sponsor and Education Policy Committee Chair Terri Collins, too many Alabama students are currently stuck in schools that aren’t the best fit for their needs. She said, “We hear in the Legislature that a lot of parents feel trapped, that they don’t have options based on where they live.”

Charter schools have proven they can offer quality options and make dramatic improvement.

Over the years and across the states, there has been a rise of high-performing public charter schools that specifically focus on educating students from traditionally underserved communities .

One charter school in Nashville, Tennessee recently announced that for the second consecutive year the school’s entire graduating class has been admitted to a four-year college or university. And all while serving some challenging demographics ( 92 percent of the school network’s students come from low-income families.)

Imagine if such a school – traditional or charter – were available to every Alabama child today.

Duncan Kirkwood, director at Alabama Black Alliance for Educational Options, noted that too often minority students in the state are zoned into historically underperforming schools. He asserts that, “Every child has a different need. And parents, even if they don’t have access to money, should have access to options.”

Within the next year or two, the first charter school should open in Alabama. And with it will come increased freedom for families to choose the best education option for their children.

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