90.3 WBHM Birmingham -- Advocates of charter schools in Alabama are getting a do-over. A bill to authorize such schools has been reintroduced in the state legislature after lawmakers killed a similar proposal last month. But if the topic of charter schools weren't controversial enough, mixing it with Alabama politics makes for a potent combination. WBHM's Andrew Yeager continues our look at charter schools by examining the political context.

With charter schools, as with most politics, it's hard not to think of the debate in terms of a battle. But since this is March, NCAA brackets are about to come out, let's imagine this whole thing courtside.

On one side you've got the backers of charter schools. There's Republican Governor Bob Riley, essentially the team captain. The State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton and State School Board. Republican State Senator Steve French of Mountain Brook introduced the charter school bill this legislative session.

"And I'm convinced that we need charter schools in Alabama as a public policy."

So if these are the people driving to the basket for a charter school victory, who is blocking the shots. Well, there are various professional education groups. But the big one, the one which just cleans up on the boards, is the Alabama Education Association teachers' union.

"Charter schools do not have any record of success to any degree anywhere in the country."

That's David Stout, spokesman for the AEA. So the two sides go back and forth, tossing up studies which support their position. Driving through the other's arguments. But State Senator Steve French says, really, AEA's opposition to charter schools is not about the classroom. He says AEA head Paul Hubbert is concerned the looser charter school rules, particularly with tenure, could hamper their ability to recruit members.

"So he's going to fight tooth and toenail not because it's not good for the kids, not because it's not good for the teacher, but because he's afraid it'll undermine his union."

"Well, first of all, it's not true. Those are political remarks that we don't care. We obviously care."

AEA spokesman David Stout says by pushing charter schools, Governor Bob Riley is engaged in a game of misdirection. Stout says Riley has allowed public education funding to drop and charter schools are a diversion from that issue.

"If he were really trying to lead, what he would say is we need to face our funding problems within our own borders."

That last comment, "within in our own borders," is important, because the Obama Administration has announced two programs in which states compete for millions in federal education dollars. While charter schools aren't required for states to apply, the programs do favor them.

Talking to advocates and opponents, it seems almost as if they're not even playing on the same court. That's because it's hard to disentangle the political ideology from the political self-interest according to University of Alabama Political Scientist David Lanoue. Lanoue says he has no doubt the Alabama Education Association believes it's doing what's best for teachers and students. Same with charter school advocates. But the AEA does wield power in Montgomery and charter school backers wouldn't mind undercutting them.

"One could argue that charter schools are the thin end of the wedge here. It's a way to kind of chip away at some of the unity among school teachers and some of the power of schools teachers under the tenure system and chip away therefore at AEA's leadership."

While we've been looking at the players on the court, we need to pay attention to one more thing - who's in the stands. The business community generally supports charter schools. So does Caroline Novak, president of the state education advocacy group A+ Education Partnership.

"Among the stronger supporters of the possibility of having charter schools are some of our teachers and principals who work in some of our high poverty, high performing schools."

But political scientist David Lanoue says you don't see a large, grassroots push for charter schools. There just aren't that many loud fans sitting courtside. Part of that says Lanoue, is charter schools are still a foreign concept to many Alabamians. Also, advocates have pushed charters as a way to turn around poor, failing schools districts. However...

"The people who typically favor charter schools don't really have a lot of alliances within the community of poorer people in Alabama. The people who favor charter schools tend to be Republicans. Poor people tend to vote democratic and trust democratic candidates."

Lanoue says unless there's a push for charter schools from within the AEA's core, democratic constituency or Republicans gain control of the Alabama legislature, charter school advocates will have an uphill battle.

Most political observers don't believe this second attempt at passing a charter school bill will be much different. Pro-charter school forces may have missed their mark on this possession but neither side expects the issue to go away. David Lanoue thinks charter schools will pop up in this year's gubernatorial elections in Alabama. So a little March Madness come November? Just as well. Alabama's so much better suited for football.


~ Andrew Yeager, March 11, 2010.