By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—For years, State Republicans have touted Charter schools as the cure all for education. But, is it really the silver bullet that will fix the system, just another way for the elites to make money, or a mixed bag of both?
In a press release announcing legislation to create charter schools in the State, Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh admits it is not a cure all or a silver bullet, but gives “community leaders another tool in their belt, ensures that no child’s dreams are limited by a lack of educational opportunities.”
Marsh does not define “community leaders,” but presumably, these are educators and not the many out-of-state-funded pro-school-choice advocacy groups who have recruited local opinion makers.
Marsh is the sponsor of SB45 which will establish charter schools throughout the State. The bill allows for 50 new charter schools to open over the next five years, with an unlimited number of public schools to convert to charter at anytime.
Recent revelations about Speaker Mike Hubbard’s lucrative contracts and ties to lobbyists who represent companies who produce charter schools have cast doubt over the process. Hubbard, who is charged by the State with 23 felony counts of public corruption, received $7500 a month to promote one such company without publicly revealing that information.
During the one-hour public hearing before passage of the charter school bill, the State’s Superintendents Association spoke in opposition to the bill as well as the Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Alabama Association of School Boards. Also Anita Gibson, President of the Alabama Education Association (AEA, spoke against the measure.)
Prominent among those who spoke promoting the passage of the legislation were the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and its education arm Business Education Alliance (BEA).
Marsh said that all the stakeholders were consulted in writing the bill,but that the public hearing showed several of the organizations closest to education were not in favor of the bill’s passage. Even groups affiliated with the conservative Tea Party movement have rejected the bill on charter schools, noting the alignment of charters and Common Core.
State school superintendents were left out of the debate in the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013, and now their voices are not going to be heard in the charter school discussion.
David W. Hornbeck, who served as Maryland’s State Superintendent of Schools from 1976 to 1988 and Philadelphia’s Superintendent from 1994 to 2000 recently wrote, “As Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students. The last 20 years make it clear. I was wrong.”
Marsh stated, because Alabama is late in establishing charter schools, his legislation has taken the “high points from those states in terms of accountability, transparency and performance.” Marsh said the SB45 took the best from the best in its creation.
However, Hornbeck says, “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better.” He also says that in cities like Philadelphia (where Pennsylvania’s charter law is in the higher rankings) “charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors.”
Here, Hornbeck expresses some of the concerns shared by Alabama’s Superintendents.
Beyond the fear that charter schools will undermine current public schools is the ever present fact that big money is involved in the creation and founding of charters.
Del Stover, writing for the American School Board Journal states, “many may not be aware of just how much private money is being spent to promote charters—or how that money is being put to use.”
Over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars have flowed into the State to fund legislative campaigns as well as advocacy groups promoting the benefits of charters.
One such group is the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools which operates the website: alabamapubliccharterschools.org
It is closely associated the BCA and has Jason Isbell, a former staffer for Speaker Hubbard, on the board.
Isbell was involved in Hubbard’s efforts to place the 23 words into the State’s Medicaid budget which would have given Hubbard’s client, American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc. (APCI), a virtual monopoly over the program’s pharmacy management benefits plan.
The charter school advocacy group is also represented by the lobbying firm Swatek, Azbell, Howe and Ross (SAHR), two of the firms principals, Dax Swatek and Tim Howe are mentioned in the indictments of Hubbard on 23 felony counts of public corruption. Another owner, John Ross, is referred to in court filings as having directed money at Hubbard request, as part of what the State describes as an alleged scheme to pass money from the ALGOP to Howe’s companies and then back to Hubbard’s business interest.
Stover writes, “Today, private money is being spent in an effort to reshape the face of public education and, by default, to affect your work as a local school leader.”
But, in Alabama, few seem to be aware of the close ties between big business, high finance and Republican leaders.
From hedge fund managers, to real estate tycoons, charter schools are offering a stable return on investments and millions are being spent on state elections that ensure politicos stay on point and keep hammering the message of chapter school expansion.
Writing for RawStory, Laurie Levy points out 5 facts about Charter schools:
1. There is no data that supports the idea that charter schools are superior to public schools.
2. Unlike public schools, charters can pick and choose their students. Children with special needs are not chosen.
3. Children who are better resourced with more family support are the winners in the school choice game.
4. It’s family income, stupid.
5. Public schools, in some communities, are doing just fine.
Marsh says he wants to make Alabama’s Charter schools the best in the Nation.
For now, education professionals will just have to take his word.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story AEA was identified as being absent from the charter school public hearing. The list this publication was given of those speaking in opposition to the bill was incomplete. We are sorry for the error.