The Alabama charter school law is an absolute mess, filled with loopholes and nonexistent instructions that make it possible, if not likely, that the state will endure countless bad charter schools that rob taxpayers and leave Alabama school children worse off.
Those were not the words of Alabama superintendent Eric Mackey.
But you could draw those conclusions from the words Mackey did use in an interview with APR about the state’s charter school law and the various problems exposed by the approval of a Washington County charter school.
Mackey’s actual words were much more subdued and measured, and far more diplomatic.
But he still drew the same conclusions: that the charter school law didn’t envision a scenario in which an authorizer would approve a charter school that failed to meet the requirements; that the law provides the Alabama State Department of Education with limited oversight of the authorizers; that the law provides ALSDE with zero oversight of applicants; that the law never spelled out a grievance procedure for the public or others to report issues with charters and charter approvals; and that there is no action that he or the state school board can take to stop an authorizer from approving a charter.
“Because this law is so new, and because we have so few charters approved at this point, we haven’t tried to answer those questions,” Mackey said. “What is our role in this process? We haven’t been forced to answer that until now.”
The Washington County Problem
The reason Mackey and the rest of ALSDE are now faced with that self-examination is due to the Commission’s approval of Woodland Prep — a charter school located in Washington County.
Woodland Prep has drawn national attention and community outrage, and the fire shows no signs of fading out after the Commission recently granted the school a 1-year extension to open.
That extension is the latest of a number of issues that opponents of the charter have highlighted. They also have drawn attention to the management company — a private company named Unity School Services, which is owned by Soner Tarim, a controversial figure in the charter school world.
Opponents maintain that the charter violates two essential tenets of the charter school law — that a charter must be needed (i.e. it must deliver some educational curriculum or fill some void that is not currently offered) and it must be supported by the local community.
Town hall meetings more than a year ago about the charter made it clear that there is little community support. And opponents contend that an uptick in state scores — going from a D to a B in overall grades — is proof that the charter isn’t necessary.
Supporters have claimed that the opponents have bullied others in town into not supporting Woodland Prep. And they tried to tie the criticisms of Tarim and his company to simple religious bigotry.
In the midst of this, as you could probably imagine, Mackey and the state department have received countless complaints, both in emails and letters and in the form of phone calls. They have come from the average citizen, school employees and from lawmakers.
As the complaints started to increase — and media coverage of the situation started to grow, as well — Mackey and the ALSDE legal team began trying to determine what, exactly, the role of ALSDE is in such a situation.
ALSDE’s Limited Role
Turns out, the law didn’t really spell one out. At least, not for this situation.
“When you read the law, it’s pretty clear that the anticipation was that an authorizer would refuse to give a fair shot to a qualified applicant,” Mackey said. “There doesn’t seem to be an anticipation that an undeserving applicant could be approved. That’s a piece that is missing, in my opinion.”
There is oversight responsibility for ALSDE in the law, however.
Sen. Del Marsh, who was a major proponent of the charter school bill, said the law clearly places oversight responsibility in the hands of ALSDE, and his office forwarded a section of the law to APR.
“The law is clear that the ALSDE and State Board of Education have oversight of the commission,” Marsh wrote in a statement. He then went on to try and tie the situation to his push for an appointed state school board, but that is in no way relative to this situation.
The portion of law is, however. It reads: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances may trigger a special review by the department.”
It goes on to say that if ALSDE finds an authorizer isn’t in compliance, the department “shall notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem, and the authorizer shall have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”
And that’s all well and good, but it stops short of the real problem: the charter school law, as passed by the Legislature, establishes the Commission as a separate state entity.
And it never provides ALSDE with oversight responsibilities.
In fact, in the law itself, just a few paragraphs under what Marsh’s office sent, is this:
“If the Commission violates a material provision of a charter contract or fails to remedy any other authorizing problems after due notice from (ALSDE), (ALSDE) shall notify the Commission, within 60 days, that it plans to notify the governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate of the actions of the Commission, unless the Commission demonstrates a timely and satisfactory remedy for the violation of the deficiencies.”
So, to put that in English, if Mackey and his staff have a documented problem with the Commission, they can tell the Commission and the governor and speaker and Senate president about it.
And then … what?
No one knows.
Let’s say the Commission starts approving woefully bad charters because various business arrangements and backroom deals are going down. Even if the Commission repeatedly violated the charter law, there is no means within the law for ALSDE, the governor, the speaker or Marsh to punish the Commission.
Hold on a second. It gets crazier.
If that’s the case and charters that don’t meet the standards are being approved illegally, there’s virtually no chance of stopping it under the current setup. Because right now, as ALSDE and Mackey are experiencing, the complaints from the public that would expose such deficiencies can’t be investigated by ALSDE.
Because ALSDE only has oversight over an authorizer, not the applicant.
So, if Woodland Prep is violating the state’s Open Meetings Act or doesn’t have local support — allegations which have been made numerous times — ALSDE has no authority over those.
The authorizer does.
“The overwhelming majority of complaints that we’ve received about (Woodland Prep) are things we can’t do anything about,” Mackey said. “They are things that should be directed to the authorizer, in this case the Commission. All we can look at is if the Commission is following the law.”
Mackey said he plans to have conversations with lawmakers leading up to the next legislative session about possible changes to the law, but he didn’t seem optimistic. For now, he and the ALSDE legal staff are talking about possibilities and things that might be done.
And the bad law carries on.