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Charter school bill passes

Gov. Robert Bentley signed charter schools into law in Alabama Thursday, but it’s too early to know how the new legislation will affect school systems in Escambia County, local superintendents said Tuesday.
The Alabama legislature passed the charter school bills Wednesday, while Bentley signed the measure into law Thursday.
The law approved on Wednesday allows start-up charter schools for the first time in the state. The schools would be run by nonprofit organizations and not subject to the same education requirements of public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but autonomous, meaning they can operate without the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools in hiring, curriculum, instruction, scheduling and other areas.
And because charter schools are part of the public school system, they cannot charge tuition and cannot discriminate.
Advocates say charter schools can offer innovations that serve some students better than traditional schools. Opponents say they siphon money from traditional public schools to fund unproven alternatives.
Brewton City School Superintendent Lynn Smith and Escambia County School Superintendent John Knott said there are pros and cons to the law.
“It will provide school choice for some parents,” Smith said. Under the law, no more than 10 charter school start-ups can be approved in a fiscal year for the first five fiscal years. This will allow the state public charter school commission to determine the effectiveness of the new schools.
The biggest con, Smith and Knott agreed, is the lack of a new funding source for the new schools to be created.
“These schools will be funded from a tax base that currently serves and underfunds public school children in Alabama,” Smith said. “The same funds that do not provide needed adequacy will now be divided further to fund another segment of public education.”
Smith said the law forces local school boards that may want to convert one of some of its public schools to public charter schools to hire an education service provider, who will be responsible for managing the converted charter school or schools.
“This added bureaucracy is a waste of the limited tax funds that provide a public education for children,” he said.
Knott called the law “good legislation;” however, he remained concerned about accountability.
“I don’t think that – in the immediate future – there will be a direct impact on education in Escambia County,” he said. “Down the road, there are things that could take place, but we’ll have to wait and see.
“I’m concerned if a school comes in and is unsuccessful, then we are still going to get those kids back,” he said. “We’re responsible for educating those students.
“(The state hasn’t) adequately funded schools now,” he said. “We’re at 20 percent less than what we were paid in 2008, and that’s not counting that we are over $8 million in loss in funding at that level,” he said.
“Here we are, implementing a law that gives flexibility and excludes some schools from provisions that tying public schools’ hands,” he said. “Why not make the adjustments in public schools and adjust our funding accordingly?”