By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The non-profit New Schools for Alabama will soon use $400,000 in state funds for their charter school incubator program.
New Schools Executive Director Tyler Barnett told Alabama Daily News that the funds will go toward their school founders’ program, which identifies promising local leaders and helps them cultivate a successful charter school application.
“It’s a year-long fellowship where we identify at least two high-caliber candidates per year and support them with robust technical assistance to make sure they have a high-quality charter school application,” Barnett said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate outside the traditional structure of public schools. According to the 2015 law that allows them in Alabama, their applications must be approved by either local authorizing boards or a state commission.
The legislative Contract Review Committee approved the $400,000 to New Schools on Thursday. It’s part of a total of $800,000 in the 2020 education budget for the Alabama Charter School Commission, the state organization that can approve charter schools.
State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, sponsored the original charter school legislation and said the state has an interest in helping develop the best possible schools.
“The bill was described as one of the most accountable in the nation,” Collins said. “Helping high-quality schools open and be successful is good for Alabama students.”
The chosen applicants of the program also get to participate in a year-long residency program that allows them to shadow a leader or a high performing charter management organization from another state that has proven successful results with creating a charter school.
Barnett said that the application for the school founders’ program should be live on their website within the next couple of days.
New Schools for Alabama also recently received a $25 million federal grant that will help create 15 new charter schools in the state over the next five years. Each applicant will get $1.5 million to help cover the supportive costs during a charter school’s first planning year.
Barnett said the group hopes to award three applicants each year. If it doesn’t, remaining funds will be returned to the federal government.
Barnett said charter schools that want to serve underserved and underrepresented communities are a priority.
“Our target is to make funding available to applications with 60% or higher student populations who qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Barnett said. “So that means 12 out of the total 15 have to reasonably project that 60% of their kids qualify for free and reduced lunch.”
Currently there are four public charter schools operating in Alabama, one in Mobile, Birmingham, Livingstone and Montgomery. Two more are scheduled to open in 2020.
A national poll released in August showed an increase in support for charter schools.
When broken down according to party affiliation, 57 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats voiced support for charter schools, compared to 47 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats in 2017, the Associated Press reported.
The Alabama Education Association has tried to block at least some of the charter schools in Alabama.
“(The Alabama Education Association) continues to support good charter schools and oppose bad charter schools,” AEA Associate Executive Secretary Theron Stokes said. “Even Alabama’s limited experience shows good charter schools are those that start with a groundswell of local support, meaning there are local leaders ready to fund them and parents engaged throughout the process, like University Charter School. Bad charter schools are those that have neither of those things … and instead rely on out-of-state financing by corporate interests. Those charter schools don’t provide decent benefits, like participation in the Teachers’ Retirement System and PEEHIP, don’t provide necessary equipment and supplies, and create poor education environments, as recent media coverage of Alabama’s corporate charters has made clear, in an effort to maximize profits.
“These kinds of incentives tend to encourage more of the bad corporate charters, and do nothing to incentivize communities to work together to create good charter schools or support their community schools.”