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Guest Opinion: With strong laws, charter schools can deliver the promise of an excellent education

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By Kara Kerwin
AL.com
March 4, 2015

Alabama is considering legislation that could change children’s lives.

Implementing a charter school law would allow innovative schools to open that could meet children’s unique learning needs, setting them on a trajectory for success.

But the ability of charter schools to truly influence student outcomes depends heavily on the quality of the law.

The good news? The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and today, all but eight states have charter school laws on the books. This means over two decades of understanding how policies play out on the ground, giving Alabama the opportunity to adopt a charter school law based on what works when it comes to giving MORE choices to MORE students.

The bad news? The legislation currently proposed is far too restrictive. Putting a limit on the number of charter schools allowed, as well as the organizations that run them, ultimately limits opportunities for ALL children to find an educational environment that will help them thrive.

Alabama cannot afford to deny access to education opportunities when just 20 percent of its eighth graders are proficient in math and 25 percent are proficient in reading according to the Nation’s Report Card.

Yet, despite the growing popularity of charter schools, many still don’t understand exactly what they are.

Charter schools are public schools that are open by choice to parents. They’re accountable for results, and free from many burdensome rules and regulations that hinder teachers and administrators from doing whatever it takes to deliver an excellent education for every child.

Charter schools are not private schools, and they do not take resources away from traditional public schools. Like district public schools, charters are funded according to enrollment, receiving money from the district and the state according to the number of students attending.

The proposal on the table in Montgomery is problematic in a number of ways. One such limitation is that it restricts would-be charter schools from contracting with proven providers to help run and manage schools.

The reality is for-profit entities are already integrated into our traditional public schools (textbooks anyone?), and can in fact bring business acumen and resources necessary to help run public charter schools. These organizations are in the business of ensuring charter schools are run to best meet student needs. If not, the schools close.

Strong charter laws feature independent, multiple authorizers, few limits on who can open a school and school expansion, and high levels of educator autonomy. Strong laws mean strong schools, and more of them.

States with charter school laws graded “A” or “B” on The Center for Education Reform’s charter law rankings saw 322 more charter school campuses than states with laws rated “D” or “F.” That translates into nearly 1.3 million children benefitting from a learning environment that better meets their needs thanks to strong laws.

In “A” rated Washington, D.C., over 40 percent of students are enrolled in public charter schools. For nine straight years, D.C. charter students have exceeded state test averages.

But charter schools don’t just improve achievement for those who attend. They create a positive ripple effect on neighboring public schools. Case in point: 2014 was the first year that more than half of D.C. district school students scored proficient in math. In “A” rated Arizona, a Harvard University study found that public schools neighboring charter schools had increases in math achievement of more than three times that of schools with no charter schools in their communities.

In short, charter schools work, and they work even better when there are strong laws. These schools of choice are an invaluable asset to a public education system that is slow to embrace innovation despite an ever-changing and increasingly global world.

The single most important benefit of charter schools is that they put power in the hands of those who know what’s best for a child’s individual learning needs – parents.

On Jan. 28, thousands of Alabamans rallied in Montgomery to support more choices for parents when it comes to their children’s education. It’s time to give Alabama parents the ability to choose a charter school, just as nearly three million students have been able to do nationwide.

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