Public School Alternatives Gather Steam in States
By Ben Wieder, Staff Writer
About mid-way through Alabama’s legislative session this spring, Governor Robert Bentley and top state education officials hit the road to visit charter schools in New Orleans, where a majority of public schools have been converted over to the charter model. The city is seen as a national laboratory for the publicly funded independent schools, which are exempt from many of the laws governing traditional public schools.
The Alabama contingent was looking at the system in light of legislation before Alabama lawmakers that would legalize charter schools in Bentley’s state. “I learned that Louisiana is about 15 years ahead of us,” he told The Birmingham News.
The Alabama governor, who backed the legislation, toured schools in Louisiana’s Recovery School District, a statewide district responsible for turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, often by converting them to charter schools. The district was touted by the state as the most improved district in the 2009-10 school year and has served as the inspiration for statewide districts in Tennessee and Michigan that are set to open this fall.
Bentley’s visit came soon after Louisiana lawmakers had passed a series of sweeping education bills, backed by Governor Bobby Jindal, which vastly expanded the state’s publicly funded alternatives to traditional public schools. Taken together, the Louisiana changes encompass nearly everything advocates of charters and other publicly funded education alternatives could hope for.
Louisiana lawmakers broadened who can approve charter schools, allowed parents in persistently failing schools to demand that their school become a charter, expanded the state’s voucher program and gave students the option to take courses not offered by their public school elsewhere. More legislation passed later allowed a dollar-for-dollar tax rebate to people or corporations who donate to scholarship programs for low-income students to attend private schools.
While some states are starting down the same path, the success of similar legislation considered in state capitals across the country was a mixed bag this past year. Some states passed legislation with elements similar to Louisiana’s, but opposition remained fierce elsewhere.
Debate of these bills came as more states, including Louisiana, move to rethinking how the performance of traditional public schools and their teachers should be evaluated and as opponents of the private alternatives questioned whether these same measures should be applied to charters and the schools that receive vouchers and tuition scholarships.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire pledged in March that she would veto any charter legislation that came to her desk. “Get over it,” she told legislators, according to The Associated Press. “Stop wasting time.”
New Hampshire Governor John Lynch expressed a more moderated opposition to state funding of alternative schools. He said he “has a number of concerns” about a bill passed by legislators to provide tax credit for corporations who donate to private school scholarships, according to his spokesman, Colin Manning. It isn’t clear whether Lynch plans to veto the bill.
Opposition at the top wasn’t the problem in Alabama. Bentley and leadership in both of the Republican-controlled chambers of the legislature supported charters. But the only bill to pass either chamber limited charter schools to the state’s four biggest cities and required that any location be approved by a superintendent and a legislative delegation from that area.
“It made changes that basically guaranteed that Alabama would never have a charter school,” says Phil Williams, a representative who introduced a House charter school bill that passed out of committee, but never made it to the floor. The state’s powerful teachers union, the Alabama Education Association, was able to kill the bill. “They outfoxed us,” he says.
The Senate bill reflected concerns about how sites would be decided. “Charter schools, with some exception, don’t really function well in rural areas,” says Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards. Her organization ultimately came to support charter schools, after it was clear that school boards would retain approval power in most cases. An uneasiness about funding and how quickly charters could spread were still concerns, she says.
Other critics questioned the academic record of charters. Bentley’s visit to Louisiana itself came under fire after the teachers union pointed out that the schools Bentley toured fared poorly in Louisiana’s school grading system. The vast majority of schools in the Recovery School District still rank D or below, according to Louisiana’s most recent statewide report card, and the union says the academic record of charter schools is mixed.
“Charter schools simply aren’t the answer,” says David Stout, a spokesman for the union.
Mississippi’s legislature heard similar debates. Republicans there took control this year of the executive and legislative branches for the first time in 140 years. Governor Phil Bryant and leaders in the House and Senate made it a priority to pass a “workable” charter school law, to replace a 2010 law that allowed persistently failing public schools to be converted to charters only if a majority of parents requested it. A new law passed the Senate, but not the House.
Nathan Wells, chief of staff for House Speaker Philip Gunn, says the biggest point of contention was which districts would be eligible. Enough legislators were comfortable with the idea of charter schools in the state’s worst-performing districts, he says, but they didn’t achieve consensus on whether the schools should be allowed in all districts. With Gunn assuming control only weeks before the start of session, Wells says there wasn’t time to work out the differences in the House, where Republicans hold only a slim majority. “We didn’t have the time to build a coalition among House members on this issue or on any issue for that matter,” Wells says.
In New Jersey, uneasiness about the spread of so-called “boutique” charter schools to the suburbs, such as one with a dual-language Chinese program, was at least part of the reason why legislators introduced a measure to require local approval of charter schools. It passed the Assembly, but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.
Georgia’s effort to expand charter schools is heading to the ballot this November. The state’s Supreme Court last year struck down as unconstitutional a statewide charters commission set up by the legislature that could approve charter school applications denied by a school district. So legislators this session introduced a constitutional amendment that would give the state authority to create the charter board.
A coalition of groups, including the Georgia Charter School Association, education reform advocate Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Georgia branches of the Chamber of Commerce and the free-market Americans for Prosperity, rallied to support the amendment, which passed in March and will head to voters.
“There was a full-court press like nothing we’ve ever seen in education supporting this,” says opponent Angela Palm, legislative director of the Georgia School Boards Association. Her organization is working with the state teachers association, the PTA and the school superintendent’s association to try to convince voters not to approve the amendment, which she thinks will ultimately result in less funding for traditional public schools.
While 41 states allow for charter schools, most recently Maine last year, far fewer have statewide private school voucher or scholarship tax credit programs. As this year’s session began, 13 states offered voucher programs, which provide state-funded scholarships for students to attend private schools, or tuition tax credit programs, which provide tax breaks to companies or individuals who donate money used to provide private school scholarships, according to the American Federation for Children, which advocates for both.
That number will grow by at least one this year, with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signing into law a tuition tax credit program, and could expand further if the New Hampshire tax credit plan passed by legislators becomes law. Other states, such as Arizona and Florida, raised caps on the size of donations allowable in their programs.
Katherine Shek, a legislative analyst at the National School Boards Association, says there’s fundamentally little difference between vouchers and scholarship programs, both of which her organization opposes. “It’s a more viable way to get vouchers into the community,” she says of scholarships.
In South Carolina, vouchers are a tough sell politically. “The word voucher in this state has been stigmatized,” says Eric Bedingfield, a state representative. He sponsored a bill to create tuition tax credit scholarships and give small tax deductions for public or private school tuition. It passed the House and moved out of a committee in the Senate, but its future is uncertain beyond that.
Elsewhere, vouchers have raised legal challenges, particularly when used in religiously affiliated schools.
Small towns in Maine without a high school gave tuition waivers to students to attend public or private schools elsewhere, in or out of the state. But those waivers can’t be used in religious schools. Court challenges to the ban on religious funding have failed, and legislators in both chambers voted against a measure backed by Governor LePage to allow students to use the waivers for religious schools.
A proposed constitutional amendment in Alaska to allow public money to go to religious schools, a precursor to potential voucher legislation, also died in the legislature.
After its voucher programs for students with disabilities and foster children were invalidated by the state Supreme Court in 2009, Arizona lawmakers last year introduced Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, money that can be used for a variety of educational purposes, including private school tuition, home schooling, tutoring or even college tuition.
The accounts were originally meant only for students with disabilities, but legislators this year successfully expanded eligibility to include students in schools or districts ranked D or F in the state grading system and students in foster care or with parents in the military.
Money Follows Students
Advocates of vouchers, scholarships and charter schools say that giving parents and students choices will lead to better learning in both public and private schools. “It’s the idea that’s put in the back of people’s heads,” says Jeff Reed, a spokesman for the Friedman Foundation on School Choice, which supports the tax credits and vouchers. “If I don’t give my utmost to this kid, he could leave.”
The ultimate goal of programs like the newly expanded Empowerment Scholarship Account in Arizona, is that that they would someday encompass all students, says Jonathan Butcher, education director for the conservative Goldwater Institute.
“The vision for this program is that it would change the funding formula so that funding is attached to the child,” he says, “Student-centered funding rather than institution-centered funding.”
For Shek and other opponents of voucher-like programs, that’s exactly what they fear, and they say public schools will be worse for it, particularly as they continue to recover from major cuts in recent years. “Public schools across the country are struggling,” Shek says, “and they are taking money out of the pot.”