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Bill altering charter school law makes first committee appearance

The bill would make several changes to the current charter school law, mostly dealing with how the commission is selected and funded.

State Rep. Terri Collins
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Members of the Alabama Charter Schools Commission would see their terms increased from two to four years, they would be able to hire a staff and the way members are appointed would change if legislation altering Alabama’s original charter school bill is adopted. 

That legislation, HB363, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, finally found its way into a House committee on Wednesday, after weeks of behind-the-scenes and debate, alterations and proposed amendments. And even still, Collins said she planned to offer a substitute bill at a later time that would incorporate many of the proposed changes. 

“After a few years, we realize that there are governance issues,” Collins said. “That’s what this is about – trying to fix the governance of the charter system.” 

There will still be disagreement, as Wednesday’s public hearing on the bill made clear. 

The original charter school law, passed in 2015, was painstakingly crafted after years of fights, arguments and compromises. While all agreed that bill was far from perfect, it laid what many thought was a solid groundwork for a charter system that functioned mostly inside of, and complimentary to, Alabama’s public school system. 

The state now has 13 charter schools and the numbers are growing. Some state officials believe it’s time to start altering the commission and making other changes – primarily to the approval and application process – to treat the commissioners more like a separate state board and to make clear the approval and appeal processes for charter applicants. 

Collins’ bill does all of that. And for critics, it does a bit too much. 

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“The AEA is not opposed to charter schools,” said AEA attorney Clint Daughtry. “We’re opposed to bad charter schools.” 

Daughtry pointed out a number of specific issues that AEA had with Collins bill, including the fact that it alters the way the commission is funded by shifting the funding to a percentage of the revenue from the charters. Also, the commission’s employees will not take part in the state merit system. 

“That means that the organization in charge of oversight will be funded directly by the (entities) it is overseeing,” Daughtry said. “If those employees are not in the merit system and they could significantly reduce the commission’s budget by providing bad reviews or shutting down bad charters, there would be an incentive for them not to provide that oversight.” 

Additionally, Daughtry said the proposed changes in the law would allow the commission to override a local authorizer’s denial of a charter school applicant without showing that the local authorizer failed to follow national standards when issuing the denial. 

Collins disputed that characterization, saying that the new language would make clear which national standards were being used. 

There was no vote on Collins’ bill Wednesday, and it’s not clear when the legislation might be back in committee.

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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