There are more than 3.3 million students attending 7,500 charter schools across the United States.
Published: June 29, 2021
By: Paige Townley
A popular topic when it comes to education today is charter schools. According to the latest data offered by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), there are approximately more than 3.3 million students attending 7,500 charter schools across the United States. In the 2018-2019 school year, charter schools accounted for 6.5 percent of all public school students, NAPCS reports.
In Alabama, charter schools began under the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, which went into effect March 19, 2015. The first charter school to officially open its doors in Alabama was Acceleration Day and Evening Charter School. The school opened in Mobile in 2017, and its mission is to help students, especially struggling and displaced students, graduate and prepare for college and career. While the school started specifically for ninth through 12th grades, it will be adding a middle school in the 2021-2022 school year.
In 2018, the state saw its second charter school: University Charter School, which is located on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Sumter County. Originally, University Charter School only served students in grades pre-K through eighth, but its goal is to add a grade each year to 12th grade.
Besides these initial two, Alabama currently has three other charter schools in operation: Lead Academy in Montgomery, Legacy Prep in West Birmingham, and I3 Academy in Birmingham. “There will be four more coming online this August,” says Logan Searcy, Alabama Public Charter School Commission (APCSC) education administrator. “That will bring us to a total of nine throughout the state. Another three have been approved to start in 2022, so then we’ll have 12.”
With charter schools becoming more commonplace, and controversy often surrounding their establishment, it’s critical to understand what they really are. A charter school is a public school that offers primary or secondary education and operates as a school of choice. It receives government funding just like schools in the public school system, though it does have different requirements in order to receive those funds.
Just like selecting between the local public school option or a private school, parents can make the choice on whether to send their children to a charter school. “A common misconception is that a charter school isn’t a public school, but it 100% is,” explains Searcy. “They aren’t getting state money to start private schools. We track the money, and charter schools are accountable for the dollars they spend. Charter schools simply provide another choice. There is no requirement to attend a charter school if one opens in your city. It’s simply another educational option.”
The Foundation of a Charter School
The establishment of a charter school is a rather detailed process. It must have its own governing board, and 20 percent of that board must include parents from the school. These founders must create a mission statement and plan to outline the school’s specific approach to teaching and how the school will offer an innovative pathway for students.
Currently, in Alabama, there are five local school system authorizers that must approve the request for a charter school to open – Birmingham, Montgomery, Greene County, Mason County, and Athens, if the school is located in one of those zones, as well as the APCSC. One particular aspect of starting a charter school that can make it difficult is that the schools do not receive government funding until students are physically attending the school. “Funding is a huge obstacle charter schools have to overcome,” Searcy says. “That is certainly one reason why we don’t have any more than we do in the state.”
Charter School vs. Traditional Public School
While charter schools do eventually receive government dollars just like public schools, there are many differences in how charter schools function. One difference is that charter schools have autonomy. They have more flexibility when it comes to creating the classroom environment and curriculum. Charter schools can also hire an education management organization, a third-party group, to run the school.
“The flexibility charter schools get mainly come in things like school design and operations,” Searcy adds. “What charter schools are getting for that flexibility, however, is more accountability. Depending on the local authorizer, charter schools are accountable to its authorizer. Charter schools also still have the same statewide assessment requirements just like traditional state schools.”
A specific area charter schools are held to a high requirement of accountability is its success rate. Charter schools are required every year to provide a certain percentage of success. If the charter school does not maintain the success rate it is supposed to, unlike a traditional public school, it can be closed.
Like traditional public schools, students can attend charter schools free of charge. There is no fee to attend. Charter schools are required by law to first open up spots to their local attendance zone – the students located in the zone of the local school system – before opening up seats to other students. If that happens and there are still spots to fill, it can be opened up to anyone.
Charter School vs. Magnet School
Another common misconception about charter schools is that they are magnet schools, but they are actually completely different. Charter schools have no qualifications to attend – they are open to any student. Magnet schools typically have a specific academic focus and have qualifications that must be met in order to attend.
Charter School Benefits to Students
Depending on what the parent or caregiver is looking for when it comes to their student’s education, charter schools provide many benefits.
Because charter schools are required to have a mission geared toward something unique or innovative, one benefit is that the school may have a specific focus on something the student is particularly interested in, whether that be a focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) or pursuing a particular trade or career. Or it could be that the charter school provides more flexibility when it comes to required hours. For example, Acceleration Day and Evening School offer daytime or nighttime classes. So, if a student has a job that requires their time during the day, they can attend school at night. “Not every student fits the typical 8-to-3 mold of a traditional public school,” Searcy adds. “For those particular students that could benefit from the flexibility, it’s a big deal.”
Another difference with a charter school that could benefit students is that charter schools do not offer tenure for teachers. To attract and keep teachers, charter schools can also offer incentives, such as bonuses. This can lead to better teacher retention and attracting higher-quality teachers. Teachers at charter schools in Alabama aren’t required to have the same teaching certifications as public school teachers. “This could mean, for example, that a college professor that doesn’t have the teacher certification could be hired at a charter school,” Searcy says. “Of course, they still go through the typical things like background checks, but it means charter schools have access to a wider pool of candidates to hire.”
The Future of Charter Schools in Alabama
While Alabama is scheduled to have a total of nine charter schools by the 2021-2022 school year, three other charter schools have already been approved to come on board as of 2022. While charter schools may not be the right choice for every student, they are another option that parents and caregivers can consider when deciding what is best educationally for their student. “We have many charter schools in Alabama that offer something unique and innovative,” Searcy adds. “It really comes down to parental choice. It’s another option you have when considering the best educational course for your student.”
Paige Townley is a Birmingham-based freelance writer.
Alabama Charter Schools
Acceleration Day and Evening School
University Charter School
Approved to Open in 2021:
Breakthrough Charter School
Magic City Acceptance Academy
Davis Elementary (Conversion Charter School)
Approved to Open in 2022:
Ivy Classical Academy
Empower Community School
Bellingrath Middle School (Conversion Charter School)