Senate Committee Favorably Reports BCA-Backed School Choice Bill

MONTGOMERY, Ala – The Senate Education and Youth Affairs Committee today favorably reported the public charter school bill that is supported by the Business Council of Alabama.

The bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, goes to the Senate where it could get a second reading as early as Thursday and be in position for full Senate consideration on Tuesday.

The 4-3 vote in the Senate Education and Youth Affairs Committee for a substitute Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act – Senate Bill 45 – was along party lines.

Marsh and Republican Sens. Dick Brewbaker of Pike Road, Paul Bussman of Cullman, and Shay Shelnutt of Trussville, voted to favorably report the bill. Democrat Sens. Vivian Figures of Mobile, Quinton Ross of Montgomery, and Hank Sanders of Selma, voted no.

The Senate committee deserves a pat on the back for considering and moving the bill on the second day of the 2015 legislative session that began Tuesday. Charter schools are part of the BCA’s 2015 State Legislative Agenda. 

“Comments at the public hearing and the committee’s positive vote show a desire to add another education tool for Alabama students and parents and the businesses who are the consumers of public school system students,” said BCA President and CEO William J. Canary.

A charter school is publicly funded like a magnet school and is open to any student capped only by the number of available desks. Charter schools are governed locally but must follow certain state and federal regulations including those dealing with health and safety and teacher background checks.

The substitute bill was explained by Emily Schultz, Executive Director of the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

Charter schools are envisioned for Alabama’s four major metropolitan areas. The substitute bill does not allow private schools to become public charter schools, and virtual schools will not be allowed. They must adhere to public big laws and are subject to audits. 

Canary was one of several who testified in support of the bill, which would authorize up to 10 public charter schools a year for five years. 

“We believe that public charter schools will be another tool to use as we strive for education excellence that will prepare our children for a fulfilling future,” Canary said. “Like publicly funded magnet schools that draw students from within districts, charter schools can be an attractive alternative to parents of children who, due to geography, are locked into a situation where they cannot reach their full potential.”

During the public hearing, the most passionate plea for charter schools came from Birmingham parent Sharon Lee who said her son is captive in a school system and does not have the choice of enrolling where his education needs can be met.

“Because of our zip code we’re not able to move him,” Lee said. “My zip code shouldn’t determine his level of education. Please pass this, we need alternatives.”

Business Education Alliance of Alabama Chairman and President Dr. Joe Morton testified in favor of the bill. He said that Alabama’s charter school bill benefits from the experience of charter schools that exist in 42 states.

“Today this is clearly the best charter school bill ever written in the state of Alabama,” Morton said. “This is one of the best if not the best charter school bill in the nation.”

School teacher Catherine Ordeman, who worked in New Orleans where every school is a public charter school, said students can excel in charter schools. “They need publicly funded options and that option is charter schools,” she said.

Alabama Education Association President Anita Gibson, a former classroom teacher, said charter schools will not have to hire certified teachers. “Teachers are trained professionals who meet high standards,” she said.

Sen. Figures said she believes that charter schools will attract only the cream of the crop and leave some children behind. She said public schools aren’t adequately funded now.

“This is taking limited funding from the schools we have,” said Sen. Ross, a former magnet school principal.

“We at the BCA are dedicated to doing our part to improve public education because that is where we will get the next generation of our employees and leaders,” Canary said. “In Alabama we now have the opportunity to expand education choice with public charter schools that can be flexible but which must meet established performance benchmarks.”

In other committee action, the House Ways and Means Education Committee carried over HB 38, which would appropriate $5 million for dual-enrollment, career-tech scholarships. Committee members said the bill should travel with the education budget.

The BCA supports the appropriation to dual-enrollment, career-tech scholarships. “Creating a scholarship program to increase the number of Alabama students who can participate in dual-enrollment is a no-brainer,” Canary said.

-Dana Beyerle