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Alabama GOP Pushes to End the Ban on Charter Schools

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Alabama is one of nine states that doesn't allow charter schools. Top state elected officials are determined to change that.

A still-evolving proposal moving through the statehouse would give state and local officials the power to found a select number of charters, with a series of caveats and restrictions. Gov. Robert Bentley and GOP leaders who control the legislature support the concept.

The current version of the legislation, dubbed the "Education Options Act of 2012," says that only nonprofit, and not for-profit organizations, could operate charters. Legislators this week are considering steps to cap the number of charters eligible to open in the state at 20—down from 50—and limit them to districts that have persistently struggled academically, said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, who supports those changes.

Those modifications are designed to win backing for the measure and address the concerns of some school officials,so that the state can create a foothold for charter schools.

"The speaker wants what will benefit the most students with the most options," Stacy said. "If [the legislation] is viable, it can pass. Not passing anything doesn't help anybody."

Charter school supporters have sought to create a place for them in Alabama before. Former Republican Gov. Bob Riley backed the idea in 2010, though a charter proposal died in the then-Democratic-controlled legislature. Some say Alabama's ban on charter schools may have hurt the state's application in the federal Race to the Top program, though others have disputed that.

There's much less GOP party unity over charter expansion on display in neighboring Mississippi. GOP lawmakers angered Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, by rejecting a measure to allow charter growth. Bryant has threatened to call a special session to resuscitate the proposal.

The Alabama legislation would give school boards the right to authorize charter schools, but if an application for a charter is denied by a board, or if it stalls, the applicants could appeal to a state Charter School Application Review Council. The council can override the local school board, according to a recent draft of the measure.

Debates over whether state or local officials should have the final say over the creation of a charter have been a source of feuding in a number of states, most recently in Georgia.

The other eight states that don't allow charter schools? Like Alabama, most of them are relatively rural: Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, according to the Center for Education Reform.

The Alabama Association of School Boards has voiced concerns about the proposal, but it is warming to it, as long as the proposed limits on charters are included, said Sally Howell, the group's executive director.

The association also likes a provision in the bill—not directly related to charter schools—that would allow school districts to seek waivers of a variety of education regulations and laws.

"Charters, and flexibilty, are tools that schools can use to improve," Howell said. "This really allows us a great deal of creativity."

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