Published Online: December 23, 2009

Gov. Riley Asks Ala. Board to Endorse Charter Schools

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley asked members of the state school board Tuesday to support his efforts to authorize charter schools.

Riley told board members that a bill would be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that would allow charter schools to operate in the state. He said authorizing charter schools would give Alabama a better chance to compete for as much as $200 million in federal money the Obama administration is offering to states for innovative education programs.

Charter schools operate as public institutions, but with less red tape and regulations. The schools must meet state academic standards and are not allowed to discriminate in enrollment. But the schools often operate without requirements that students live in certain neighborhoods or only meet a certain number of days.

"This allows schools to still be public schools but does away with the bureaucracy that limits their ability to succeed," Riley said.

He said charter schools might help improve some poor performing schools in economically disadvantaged areas. He said one approach would be to turn schools with poor test scores into charter schools.

"We could focus on the schools that just haven't been able to put it together. I really believe this is something this board needs to support," Riley said.

Efforts to authorize charter schools have been opposed by the state's teachers union, the Alabama Education Association. AEA officials say charter schools might allow schools to fire teachers without going through the current dismissal procedures.

Mary Bruce Ogles, AEA's assistant executive secretary, said union officials want to look at the legislation.

"Unless we see something very different, we are still concerned about the dismissal issue," Ogles said.

She said it is more urgent for the governor and the Legislature to pass a budget that adequately funds education during a recession than to create charter schools.

The governor and his education policy adviser, Mark Dixon, spent almost two hours explaining to board members how charter schools would work. Dixon said the final bill has not been prepared and it has not been decided which legislator will sponsor it.

Board vice president Randy McKinney said he expects the board will study the governor's proposal, offer input and vote on whether to endorse it.

Board member Ella Bell of Montgomery said she worries that charter schools might cause schools that are now integrated to become all-black or all white.

Bell, who is black, said she has worked much of her life to integrate schools and is concerned that many remain mostly segregated.

"How in the world is this going to make sure schools like that don't exist," Bell asked the governor.

Riley said admission into the schools would be random and not be based on race. He pointed out that President Barack Obama is a supporter of charter schools.

"You have the nation's first African-American president pushing for this," Riley said.

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