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School & District Management

States That Prohibit Charters Likely to Decline

By Arianna Prothero — October 21, 2014 6 min read
Duncan E. Kirkwood, state director of the Alabama chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, talks to local media after a town hall event in support of charter schools in Montgomery, Ala., last week. The group is leading a statewide campaign to pass a charter school law.

The eight states that have staunchly resisted charter laws could shrink in number after midterm elections next month. That, combined with forceful advocacy efforts, could help push the holdouts toward embracing the publicly funded, independently operated schools.

Alabama—where legislators who favor charters for years have fallen short of mustering enough political support—is predicted to be the next to join the ranks of the District of Columbia and more than 40 states that have charter schools. Kentucky and Nebraska may also follow suit.

Even though Alabama’s next legislative session doesn’t start until spring 2015, charter supporters in that state say they are mounting their most comprehensive campaign to date to get a charter law enacted. The situation in that state has made for some unusual allies who are working together to pass charter legislation and counter fierce opposition from the state teachers’ union. They include a pro- school-choice organization that advocates for better schooling for black children, business groups, and GOP lawmakers.

“In my opinion, we have the greatest chance that we’ve ever had of passing charter school legislation the next session,” said Del C. Marsh, the Republican president of the Alabama Senate. His optimism is echoed among some school choice advocates at the national level.

Neonta Williams, a family and community organizer for the Alabama chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, speaks at a town hall meeting on charter schools in Montgomery, Ala., last week. Ms. Williams and her organization are leading a campaign to get a charter school law passed. Eight states, including Alabama, still prohibit the publicly funded, independently run schools, but that could change soon.

Of the eight states that still don’t allow charters, most are heavily Republican, rural, and have been equally resistant to other school-choice efforts, such as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Besides Alabama, Kentucky, and Nebraska, the other holdouts are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia. Among their common traits is their largely rural population, with less demand for new schools.

“If you have a conversation in Kentucky about charters, people think about it as only a solution for kids in Louisville,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support at the Washington-based National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. “I think there’s a mischaracterization that charters are only for cities.”

That perception, Mr. Ziebarth said, exists among school choice advocacy organizations as well, with many focusing efforts on low-income communities in densely-populated urban areas. If constituents and advocates aren’t clamoring for charters, neither will lawmakers, Mr. Ziebarth said.

And perhaps contrary to popular perceptions, states with large numbers of Republican voters and elected leaders are not guaranteed supporters of charter laws.

The Alabama Example

In Alabama’s case, however, the coalition pushing to pass a charter law has players from both major political parties. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO, a nonpartisan organization, is leading the effort along with StudentsFirst, the education advocacy group founded by former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee; the Business Counsel of Alabama; and the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools, which is headed by the former education policy director for Gov. Robert J. Bentley, a Republican.

The coalition has backing from high-profile Republican members of the statehouse such as Mr. Marsh. House Speaker Mike Hubbard, also a Republican, supported a 2012 attempt to enact a charter school law.

Even Duncan E. Kirkwood, the Alabama state director for BAEO, is surprised by his allies in the legislature. “You would think that the Democrats, the black legislators, would be the ones to lead the charge on this social justice movement for poor people, for black people,” he said. “Our graduation rate for black boys in Alabama is 54 percent.”

So far, he said, a handful of black Democrats expressed tentative willingness to support a charter bill, compared to dozens of GOP lawmakers who are fully on board.

Mr. Kirkwood said the pro-charter coalition has been in overdrive to convince state residents that charter schools could help improve the grim graduation rates for African-American students, and help empower parents to make schooling choices for their children. They’ve been lobbying legislators, holding town hall meetings, and taking parents and community leaders to visit charters in Georgia and Tennessee.

The group is hoping to outflank the organizing prowess of the statewide teachers’ union, which has helped block previous efforts to pass charter legislation.

The Alabama Educators Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, doesn’t have collective-bargaining rights, but wields considerable political influence. The AEA has opposed previous charter bills—among other things, it spent millions in the state primary to unseat Republican lawmakers—especially in the face of reductions to the state’s budget for K-12 schools in recent years."We find it hard to expect children to excel at the same rate of other states when you continue to chip away at the funding source,” said Gregory T. Graves, the AEA’s associate executive secretary. “Charter schools have been shown to resegregate, discriminate, and they have been shown to put financial restraints on the existing public schools.”

Some studies have shown that charter schools, on average, serve fewer students with special needs than regular schools.

Despite AEA’s efforts, Alabama’s legislature has taken small steps toward embracing school choice. It passed a law last year that created ways for the state to channel money to eligible families to use for tuition at a public or private school of their choice, which is being challenged in court.

Midterm Elections

The midterm elections probably won’t have much effect in Alabama since the most competitive races in the heavily GOP state took place in the June primary, but they could alter the charter landscape in other states—Kentucky among them. There is no governor’s race in Kentucky this year, and observers expect the state Senate to remain Republican.

“But the [House of Representatives] is controlled by Democrats, and it’s about 50-50 whether they’ll be able to maintain control,” said Mr. Ziebarth. If the GOP captures the House, there’s a good chance the state can pass a charter law next year with bipartisan support, he said.

Nebraska is the other state where advocates say midterm elections are likely to create a friendlier place for charters. Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, can’t run again because of term limits. The GOP candidate running to succeed him, businessman Pete Ricketts, has been a strong supporter of charter schools, Mr. Ziebarth said. And South Dakota might also see a push from its large Native American community to create charters in that state.

Although many school choice advocates see charter laws in all states as inevitable, some experts are skeptical.

Christopher A. Lubienski, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one of them.

“We’ve seen this rapid growth [in charter laws] and then it really plateaued despite these pressures from the federal government and resources from places like Gates,” Mr. Lubienski said, referring to the federal Race to the Top grants,which encouraged states to adopt various school-choice policies, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a large funder of charter school initiatives.

He said these final eight states might be holdouts for reasons that run deeper than union power and the political makeup of their statehouses—a strong, anti-Washington culture being one.

“For better or for worse, charters have been associated with Washington think tanks, and the federal government,” said Mr. Lubienski, who again pointed to the fact that many of these states are largely rural."People take a lot of pride in their community schools.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Handful of State Holdouts Poised to Accept Charters

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