Gov. Robert Bentley signs charter school bill; schools could open by fall 2016

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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill last week allowing the state’s first charter schools to open as soon as fall 2016.

One major issue of the new law is that it will create a series of public schools that can develop curriculum and select teachers bound by contracts, instead of regulations set by the state.

The bill had been a top priority for the Republican-controlled Legislature. Alabama was one of only eight states without charter schools, say the Alabama Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

While Democrats resisted the measure, saying education funding remains lower than it was before the recession, charter school supporters successfully made the argument that it is important for the state to permit newer schools with less regulation.

In 2012, Bentley and Republican lawmakers failed an attempt to bring charter schools to the state. The following year, legislators introduced the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 – establishing a voucher program to give tax money to families that wanted to send children to private schools.

In a statement, Decatur Republican Rep. Terri Collins, who sponsored the bill, said it was time Alabama joined the “other 42 states that provide this innovative option to educators, parents, and students.”

A few facts about Alabama’s charter school program: charters have more independence than other public schools in matters such as hiring, curriculum, and scheduling. Although publicly funded, they are not regulated by the same rules as traditional public schools. For example, charters are not required to hire certified teachers.

The new law also allows tax-exempt organizations to petition to local school boards in order to launch a charter. If turned down by local councils, the organization can file an appeal to a new state commission set up under the law.

Local boards will have the option not to participate in the charter approval process. Then, organizations can apply directly to the commission.

Start-ups for charter schools are limited to 10 every year for five years. Traditional schools can convert to charter schools, without a cap. Initial permits are valid for five years and can be rescinded.

Alabama charter schools will be eligible for the same per-student state funding and a majority of the per-student local funding available to regular public schools.

Both the Alabama Public Charter School Commission and local school boards will be required to submit annual reports on each charter school in its jurisdiction to the Legislature and Department of Education.

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