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Opinion | Montgomery’s first charter school is failing because the laws weren’t followed

Josh Moon

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Charter schools are not all bad. 

Let’s get that out of the way right at the top. There are charter schools out there that do a wonderful job educating children and filling a need that isn’t being met by the local public school system. 

That was sort of the goal of charter schools when they were created — to a fill a void and help a community better educate its children. 

That’s why the most successful, and most talked about, charter schools always have a niche — some take on at-risk youth, others focus on students who excel at math or science, others focus on the arts. 

They work in conjunction with public schools and public school boards to provide specific options for students or provide an educational life preserver to students with special needs or special circumstances. 

But one thing good charter schools are not are merely another public school. Most often, that’s what bad charter schools are. The ones that you read news stories about, the ones that suck resources out of a state’s school funds and then crash and burn, the operators making out like bandits and leaving the communities high and dry when it all goes belly-up. 

When the Alabama Legislature began pushing charter schools a few years ago, lawmakers promised that they wouldn’t allow such charters. And to their credit, they put a few measures in place to guard against this — they required a national board to review charter applications, they required the charters to fill a need within the local community and they required that the local communities support the charters. 

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All of these requirements were to be monitored by an appointed commission, who would review applications and review the reviews of applications and make sure that we weeded out the sleazy charter operators who were in it for the money. 

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But that process has failed spectacularly. 

Primarily, it has failed because the Charter Commission, under the leadership of former chairman Mac Buttram, chose politics over duty. It seemed to believe that its responsibility wasn’t to properly vet and scrutinize charter operators who wished to use public dollars to open a school, but instead was to figure out ways to get pretty much any charter applicant pushed through the approval process. 

Along the way, the Commission ignored the advice of the national authorizers, ignored the pleas and outcries from concerned community members and let slide troubling revelations about the histories and financial backing of many applicants. The results have been what you’d expect for many of these hastily approved charters — a dumpster fire. 

There are several examples of this around the state — Birmingham, Washington County, Montgomery — but the Montgomery situation is one I know the best, and it is, in my opinion, the one that provides the best cautionary tale for the rest of the state. 

What makes Montgomery, and its one charter school, LEAD Academy, a truly awful tale is that Montgomery could desperately use a few good charter schools to address specific deficiencies within the county school system. A community charter, for example, that served the poverty-stricken, offering extended hours — possibly even boarding for at-risk youth — free meals, job training and GED prep for parents and health care would be a God-send for several areas of Montgomery. 

And don’t think that’s a silly, liberal dream. Other communities have such schools — propped up by local business support and the contributions of the wealthy — and they have been life-changing. 

But instead of a charter school that addresses those very real needs — or any other specific needs — Montgomery was given LEAD Academy. A charter school that is, in reality, just another school. Except this public school costs three times as much, offers fewer services and has little oversight. 

The lone selling point for LEAD, if you listen to its founders, including board president Charlotte Meadows, is that the school doesn’t have to abide by tenure laws. Which gives the school leadership the power to fire ineffective teachers whenever they wish. 

If this selling point sways you, you don’t understand today’s tenure laws. You also probably have a wholly ignorant understanding of the actual problems that exist within troubled schools systems, like the one in Montgomery. 

For starters, any teacher within any school district in Alabama — no matter how long that teacher has worked in this state — can be fired for pretty much any reason, and the firing can take place immediately. There is due process that must occur if the teacher is fired for cause, and not simply for a reduction in force required by budgetary reasons, but there is almost no teacher that avoids getting the ax once that the termination process has started. 

The other problem with this idea that tenure is what’s causing bad schools is this: it’s stupid. 

And if you give it about a half-second of thought, you’ll agree. Try this: I want you to think of your child’s school. Think of his or her teachers and principals. Think of your interactions with them. Now, answer this: setting aside petty disagreements or differences of opinion, how many of those teachers weren’t busting their tails every single day? How many didn’t care about the kids? How many were lazy? How many were bad influences? 

Maybe one? Two? Maybe that many. But 95 percent of the folks you met and interacted with — the people who influenced your kids every day — they were good people, right? They cared and tried and banged their heads against the wall and cried when things didn’t go well because they gave more than a damn. 

 And that’s why LEAD Academy is a mess right now. Because it has essentially vilified these good people — the teachers — to make people believe that it has a place, instead of actually identifying a real problem and structuring a school to address that problem. 

Mark my words: LEAD will fail, and it will fail soon. Teachers are already bailing out and several have told me that the school is short on its annual projection of students. 

And when it fails, the people who created this dumpster fire will blame the “liberals” and the AEA and naysayers, but the actual culprits will be the ones who forced this on a desperate public, using lies and innuendo, belittling hardworking teachers and casting public school administrators as villains. 

And the victims will still be the children that we’re all failing miserably.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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