MONTGOMERY — The legislation to create charter schools in Alabama passed both chambers of the Statehouse on Wednesday night, but not before some lawmakers expressed concerns about the possibility of private, virtual school companies.
“Virtual classes are a good thing,” said Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison. He went on to say he had concerns about “virtual, no bricks and mortar” schools in Alabama.
“I don’t think we’re ready for virtual K-12 schools,” he said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate outside of traditional rules and regulations. The bill will allow 10 start-up schools per year, chartered by nonprofit groups that can contract educational services to private businesses.
State funding, and most local funding, will follow the students. Local school systems, partnering with nonprofits, can create an unlimited number of conversion charter schools under the bill.
Some educators have expressed concern about for-profit companies benefiting from the charter school bill, including through virtual schools.
The bill, as originally written, allowed for virtual schools. That language was removed, but the bill doesn’t expressly prohibit them. Senate bill sponsor Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he thinks they’re allowed under the legislation.
“We know this bill wouldn’t have cleared the Senate had it had virtual language in it,” Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, said Wednesday night. He represents most of Lawrence County. “I will continue to support this bill, but I am nervous that we have opened the door for virtual schools in this state.”
Both Holtzclaw, who represents a portion of Limestone County, and Bussman said they may sponsor legislation expressly prohibiting virtual charter schools.
Senate Bill 45 now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley. Bentley is supportive of charter schools and is expected to sign the bill, “pending a full legal review,” including the possibility of virtual schools, his spokeswoman said. Earlier in the week, Jennifer Ardis said Bentley didn’t support virtual charter schools because he believes the state needs to study the concept more in-depth to understand the benefits and how they are held accountable for educating students.
The Shoals’ two Democrats, Reps. Marcel Black of Tuscumbia and Johnny Mack Morrow of Red Bay, voted against the bill in the House.
Morrow said early Wednesday that he planned to vote against charter schools.
“I have studied charter schools throughout this country and the fraud, corruption and misuse of public funds follows charter schools,” he said. “I will not stand by and let money be taken from my northwest Alabama schools for some private company to set up virtual schools.”
Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, who represents a portion of Morgan County, was the only Tennessee Valley GOP representative to vote against the bill. He said he was keeping a campaign promise not to support charter schools.
In the Senate, Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, voted against the bill, as they did last week when a different version passed the body. Both men have cited concerns from educators as their reasons.
The legislation, a GOP priority bill that supporters say will give more educational choice and opportunities to families and provide more flexibility to local school systems, passed 58-41 in the House and 24-11 in the Senate.
In the House it was sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur. She said Wednesday evening that lawmakers studied other states’ charter laws and took the best aspects of them.
Several groups praised the bill’s passage, including the Business Council of Alabama.
“I applaud the House and Senate for having the bold leadership to pass this important legislation so quickly in the session,” BCA President William Canary said in a written statement. “Charter school legislation has been a legislative priority of Alabama’s business community for several years. The fact that parents will no longer be forced to send their child to a failing school because of the zip code in which they live is a huge victory we should all take pride in. I urge Gov. Bentley to quickly sign this legislation into law."