Best I can tell, this leaked draft of charter school legislation is legitimate. A number of news outlets have reported on its contents, so I’m gonna jump in and attempt to put some of this in ordinary people terms to help folks get an idea of what this bill says.
Though the bill itself is 52 pages long, there is a way to break this apart into understandable chunks. There are a number of components of a charter school law that set the tone for how charter schools will operate within a state and within a school district.
If you really want to be a part of the discussion, take the time to understand these components and the parameters within which those components function.
While the Center for Education Reform suggests four areas of importance, Alabamians speak of their concerns around a few different areas, and those typically revolve around local control and shifting of funds.
The components addressed here are posed as questions.
Answering the Questions
You will note that at some points, I quote directly from the draft bill (the “bill”). That is done to minimize misunderstanding and the misconstruing of what the bill actually states.
This is a highly-charged debate, and folks on both sides will likely try to embellish and/or omit portions of the bill. It is up to us to understand what the bill actually states.
Remember, too, that this draft can (and probably will) change before it is filed in the legislature.
Until the final bill is filed, let’s keep the discussion broad and not get tremendously hung up on numbers and dates and details of processes. There will be time to get intimately familiar with the details….
What does the “charter” in public charter school refer to?
A “charter” is the school’s organizing document which states what area or areas will be emphasized in the school’s programming. These areas could include arts, science, STEM, or an emphasis on the basics.
The bill indicates that priority will be given to those charter school operators who focus on at-risk students.
Who can authorize the formation of a public charter school?
Either the local school board or a state commission can serve as an authorizer of a public charter school. An authorizer is responsible for the initial authorization, monitoring and oversight of the public charter school’s operation.
If the local school board chooses to register with the Alabama State Department of Education (the “department”) to become an authorizer, it can do so.
The bill creates the Alabama Public Charter School Commission (the “commission”), composed of eight state board of education appointees recommended by various elected officials. A ninth member will be a person appointed by a local school board to consider a specific application or appeal within that local school district.
The commission serves as an appellate body if a local school board denies a charter application. The commission will serve as the initial authorizer if a local school board chooses not to become an authorizer.
Who can operate a public charter school?
A public charter school must be operated by a 501(c)(3) corporation, meaning that organization must be a registered nonprofit that has been granted federal exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. The charter school must be governed by a board of directors.
The charter authorizer (see previous question) is responsible for monitoring and oversight of the charter school’s operation.
A public charter school can contract with an education service provider to deliver services to the students of the school. It is the education service providers that draw the ire of anti-charter groups.
Section 7(a)(10) of the bill delineates the additional information that is required of a charter applicant who “intends to contract with an education service provider for substantial education services, management services, or both types of services”:
a. Provide evidence of the education service provider’s success in serving student populations similar to the targeted population, including demonstrated academic achievement as well as successful management of nonacademic school functions, if applicable.
b. Provide a term sheet setting forth the proposed duration of the service contract; roles and responsibilities of the governing board; the school staff; and the service provider; scope of services and resources to be provided by the service provider; performance evaluation measures and timelines; compensation structure, including clear identification of all fees to be paid to the service provider; methods of contract oversight and enforcement; investment disclosure; and conditions for renewal and termination of the contract.
c. Disclose and explain any existing or potential conflicts of interest between the school governing board and proposed service provider or any affiliated business entities.
If an applicant operates one or more public charter schools outside of Alabama, the applicant must provide evidence of past performance and current ability to manage for growth.
What’s the difference between a start-up and a conversion charter school?
A start-up public charter school is one that that did not exist as a non-charter public school prior to becoming a public charter school. It is seen as its own “local education agency” (LEA), which is the status given a local school district.
A conversion public charter school is one that previously existed as a non-charter public school prior to conversion. Only a local school board can authorize the conversion of a non-charter public school to a conversion public charter school. Conversion public charter schools remain a part of the school district in which they operate.
Employees of the school to be converted to a public charter school will have the right to re-apply and interview for a job at the conversion public charter school.
How many charter schools can be authorized?
Only ten start-up public charter schools can be authorized in any fiscal year. If fewer than ten are authorized, the unused slots can be rolled over to the next fiscal year.
There is no limit to the number of conversion public charter schools that can be approved.
Who funds a charter school?
Charter schools are funded with the same funds that would be used to open or operate any public school. Section 10(b), beginning on page 47 details how operational funds are provided and provides instructions regarding how much in local tax money that can/must be allocated to a public charter school.
Categorical funding, including funds for transportation and special education, will be provided to the public charter school in the same manner that funding is provided to a non-charter public school if the school incurs those costs.
The bill specifically allows public charter schools the same access to funds to be used for facilities that public non-charter schools currently have, through the Public School and College Authority (PSCA) funds.
Are charter schools held to the same accountability measures as non-charters?
Public charter schools, both start-up and conversion, are required to submit reports about their operations to their charter authorizer and to the department. These reports must be made publicly available.
Public charter schools must also make public the same type of accountability information that non-charter public schools must make public.
Section 8(a), beginning on page 33 of the bill, outlines the “performance framework” that must be adhered to and reported on by the public charter school.
Will public charter schools whose students don’t perform well be closed?
Section 8(b), beginning on page 35 of the bill, details how an authorizer is required to oversee and monitor a public charter school.
Section 8(c), beginning on page 36 of the bill, details how a public charter school’s charter can be revoked or non-renewed. Here is that section in its entirety, as the reasons for which a public charter school can have its charter revoked or non-renewed are among the first questions I typically receive:
8(c)(7) A charter contract may be revoked at any time if the authorizer determines that the public charter school did any of the following or otherwise failed to comply with this act:
a. Commits a material and substantial violation of any of the terms, conditions, standards, or procedures required under this act or the charter contract.
b. Fails to meet or make sufficient progress toward the performance expectations set forth in the charter contract.
c. Fails to attain the minimum state proficiency standard for public charter schools in each year of their operation and over the charter term.
d. Fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
e. Substantially violates any material provision of law from which the public charter school was not exempted.
8(c)(8) An authorizer may non-renew a public charter school if the authorizer determines that the public charter school did any of the following or otherwise failed to comply with this act:
a. Commits a material and substantial violation of any of the terms, conditions, standards, or procedures required under this act or the charter contract.
b. Fails to meet the performance expectations set forth in the charter contract.
c. Fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
d. Substantially violates any material provision of law from which the public charter school was not exempted.
8(c)(9) A charter contract shall not be renewed at the end of the contract term if the public charter school fails to meet the performance expectations set forth in the charter contract, or fails to attain the minimum state proficiency standard for public charter schools (minimum state standard) in each year of its operation and over the charter term, unless the public charter school demonstrates and the authorizer affirms, through formal action of its board, that other indicators of strength and exceptional circumstances justify the continued operation of the school. Any public charter school that receives a grade of D or F on the statewide accountability system for all public schools pursuant to Section 16-6C-2, Code of Alabama 1975, for two consecutive years or for two of the three most recent years shall be considered to fall below the minimum state standard.
The next step after revoking or non-renewing a public charter school’s contract is school closure. The bill provides detailed procedures for how school closures are to be handled, beginning at the bottom of page 40, in Section 8(d).
How often must public charter schools have their charters renewed?
Public charter schools are given an initial term of five years. Renewals are provided in five-year increments. See the previous question for information about how a public charter school’s contract can be revoked or non-renewed.
How will the public know how public charter schools are performing?
There are a number of reports that must be completed and made public. The timing of the reports depends on who is filing the report.
The department must submit a report to the legislature after five fiscal years of public charter schools, delineating the academic performance of all public charter schools in the state, a detailed update on the authorizing process, and recommendations for adjustments to public charter school governance and oversight of the public charter schools.
The department must also submit an annual report on public charter schools. The report must include a comparison of the performance of public charter school students with the performance of academically, ethnically, and economically comparable groups of students in non-charter public schools. In addition, it must include the department’s assessment of the successes, challenges, and areas for improvement in meeting the purposes of the law, including the department’s recommendations and suggested changes in state law or policy needed in order to strengthen the state’s public charter schools.
The Alabama Public Charter School Commission must submit an annual report delineating its activities.
The charter authorizer has a series of reports to complete, including ones in Section 6(g):
An authorizer shall submit to the State Board of Education a publicly accessible annual report within 60 days after the end of each school fiscal year summarizing all of the following:
(1) The authorizer’s strategic vision for chartering and progress toward achieving that vision.
(2) The academic and financial performance of all operating public charter schools overseen by the authorizer, according to the performance measures and expectations specified in the charter contracts.
(3) The status of the public charter school portfolio of the authorizer, identifying all public charter schools within that portfolio as one of the following:
a. Approved, but not yet open.
b. Open and operating.
d. Closed, including year closed and reason for closing.
e. Never opened.
What are the parameters of teacher employment in a public charter school?
Teachers are exempt from state certification requirements.
Teachers in start-up public charter schools can participate in the Retirement Systems of Alabama if the start-up public charter school chooses to participate.
Conversion public charter schools are required to participate in the Retirement Systems of Alabama.
In addition to public charter schools being required to follow civil rights, health and safety requirements, all employees in a public charter school are subject to fingerprinting and criminal background checks.
Who can enroll in a charter school?
Section 5, beginning on page 7, defines who is a “student”. It states that all public charter schools shall be open to all students within the state of Alabama.
Here’s what Section 5(a)(6) states will happen “if building capacity is insufficient to enroll all students who wish to attend a start-up public charter school”:
- The school shall select students through a random selection process. The school shall first enroll students who reside within the school system in which the public charter school is located.
- If the number of local students wanting to enroll in the school exceeds the capacity of the school, then the school shall conduct a random selection process to enroll students who reside in the local school system.
- If the school has additional capacity after admitting students from the local school system, then the school shall admit any students without regard to their residency by a random selection process.
- The selection shall take place in a public meeting, called by the governing body of the public charter school, and following all posting and notice requirements prescribed by the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
Questions always arise as to whether a student can be turned away based on aptitude or ability. Here’s what Section 5(a)(4) states:
A public charter school may limit admission to students within a given age group or grade level and may be organized around a special emphasis, theme, or concept as stated in the in the school’s charter application, but fluency or competence in the theme may not be used as a standard for enrollment.
Section 5(a)(10) adds: This subsection does not preclude the formation of a public charter school whose mission is focused on serving special education students, students of the same gender, 15 students who pose such severe disciplinary programs that they warrant a specific educational program, or students who are at risk of academic failure.
A conversion public charter school must give preference in enrollment to students previously within that school’s attendance zone.
Can students in public charter schools participate in extracurricular and interscholastic activities?
Simply put, yes. If the public charter school fields an athletic team, that team will be subject to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s membership requirements.
Just Barely Scratching the Surface
This article should not be seen as a definitive source on the draft bill. As stated previously, the draft could, and likely will, change even before it is filed with the legislature.
As the bill winds its way through the legislative process, it could change multiple times along the way.
So as always, stay tuned.