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Q&A: The Charter School Bills One Leading Advocate Is Watching

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Legislatures across the country are now in session, hammering out what will become future law in their states, and many are looking at bills relating to school choice.

To help get a handle on all the proposed legislation at the state level, I reached out to policy experts at two school choice advocacy organizations, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, to explain what bills they're watching this year and why.

Today I'm sharing my conversation on charter school bills to watch with NAPCS's vice president for state advocacy and support, Todd Ziebarth. Check back in tomorrow for a Q&A on voucher legislation with Leslie Hiner of the Friedman Foundation.

Q. First let's start with the states that don't even have charter schools, is there any notable legislation there?

A. There is. Of the eight that don't have charter laws, all but three of them are pushing for it this year with charter school bills. The three that aren't, are the Dakotas and Vermont. But in the other 5 states, there's been each year growing efforts that are continuing this year.

In Kentucky, I think a strong charter bill will get out of the [state] Senate but will go nowhere in the House.

In Nebraska, they heard the bill but it died in committee. But I think it's a state to keep an eye on in 2016 or 2017 with a new governor who supports charters.

Montana meets every two years, and it's possible they'll get over the finish line this year, but I think it's going to be pretty challenging. It's still a tough political environment for charters at the moment.

That leaves the last two which I think are poised to pass laws this year. First is Alabama. The [state] Senate passed a bill through that chamber and it's over in the House. ... The bottom line is that Alabama is moving aggressively to get a charter bill done, although they've been working on it for five years.

I think they have a bill that reflects lessons learned in the national and local context.

[Note: West Virginia's charter school bill died over the weekend since Todd and I spoke.]

Q. Is there any interesting legislation around charter school accountability and quality, and if so, where?

A. There is. A couple of different states that we've been working in, one state is Oklahoma where there's a bill that does two big things—it expands charters statewide, right now they're only allowed in about 20 of the 500 plus districts. But it also does address some of the quality and accountability issues such as automatic closure requirements for chronically underperforming schools.

Then there's the governor's budget in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is another state where they really only allow independent charter schools just in Milwaukee. They allow what we consider faux charters that are controlled by districts outside Milwaukee. The governor's budget will allow them statewide through a new entity that would actually authorize authorizers.

About four years ago, Wisconsin tried to pass legislation that would have created a new statewide authorizer but that ran into some resistance. They didn't want a state entity overruling a local school board. The intent of this bill is to allow more locally or regionally based authorizers to be created, so instead of creating a statewide entity that would create schools, they're creating one that would approve and oversee authorizers. So the authorizers would be local or regional entities.

[In] Ohio, there's a House bill and the governor's budget proposal has a lot of stuff in there to deal with some of the accountability and quality issues in the state. And what we've seen seems to be moving in the right direction—honing in on authorizing again and viewing them as one of the key levers to increasing quality in the state.

Q. How about bills to expand charters in states that have them—like lifting caps. What are you seeing along those lines?

A. I think New York is probably the big one. The governor's budget, and the [state] Senate version of the budget, lifts the charter cap by 100 schools. I think right now they have a cap specific to New York City and a cap for the rest of the state. They're pretty near the cap in New York City and this cap would give New York City room for more growth.

As is Massachusetts, an attempt to lift caps on charters passed the House but failed in the [state] Senate last year. Now there's a lawsuit that might provide a little bit of a push to the legislature to take care of this before the courts step in. And now you have a new governor there who's talked a lot about lifting the cap. It's clear that this is a priority for him. It's just a matter of working with a legislative body that's more mixed in its support of charters.

A couple other things to note, one is Maryland, which has the weakest law in the country by our rankings, there's an effort being led by the governor to improve their law. One is making the state board of education an authorizer in appeals, providing flexibility over whether charters have to be unionized, and lastly,  trying to provide some facility support to charters by giving them access to a state's construction fund. It would change the dynamic and help the charter movement fairly significantly.

Q. Out of everything we've discussed, what are you most excited about?

A. I am most excited about Alabama finally passing a law after seeing several years of work there. It has the potential to be a real game-changer there. 

In Mississippi and Alabama, up until recently there was no charter activity. Mississippi finally got a law passed and now we might see Alabama finally put in place a law. You hear this nationally, too, with people talking about education reform as the next leg of the civil rights movement, but you look at the two states that were part of the battle in civil rights, but there was no action in those states in education reform.

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