By Cody Owens and Sam Prickett
Jonta Morris was counting the “yes” votes on her hand under the table at which she was seated during a hearing in Montgomery on May 2. There, the 11-member Alabama Public Charter School Commission was deciding whether or not to accept her appealed bid to open Birmingham’s first charter school, STAR Academy. Her application had been declined by the Birmingham Board of Education (BBOE) in January.
“When I realized we had enough votes, I scooted back from the table, jumped up — I had tears of joy rolling down my face — and ran out into the hallway and just started saying, ‘They approved us!’ They were tears of joy because I had poured my life into this — my soul into this,” Morris said. The lone “no” vote came from Cedric Tatum, the representative from Birmingham.
By declining STAR’s application, the BBOE essentially ceded oversight responsibility to the state commission, which will evaluate the school’s performance annually.
It was the first instance of the appointed commission overruling a local school board in the polarizing new territory of public charter schools in Alabama. That moment, Morris said, validated her commitment to uproot her family of four from Denver, move to Birmingham, and try to chart a new course for education in a school system still struggling to completely free itself from issues that date back to the period of racial segregation.
An overabundance of derelict school buildings, once considered a necessity during the segregated Jim Crow era — the system provided separate schools for black and white students — continue to vex local officials, who seem unsure what to do with them.
Some argue that charter schools will only serve to exacerbate enduring divisions along both racial and socioeconomic lines. “Statistics show that charter schools are widely unsuccessful on a national level,” Jessie Towey wrote in a Facebook thread in which Birmingham residents were contemplating the impact charter schools will have on the system. “It’s basically another way for bigots in Alabama to draw race lines. Either way, segregation is already happening in our public school systems. THAT’S a story for you. Alabama is in a race back to the 1950s. And we are winning.”
Morris, a black woman in her 30s, said she could not disagree more with the notion that her new school will be an institution of bigotry and re-segregation.
“STAR Academy is a community school that believes in joy, excellence, and love,” Morris said, reciting the abridged mission statement of her new school. “Everything we do, everything we believe in, ties back to those three fundamentals. Our mantra is: ‘Creating lives of choice and opportunity.’ We do that by providing the most rigorous academic preparation we can to prepare and empower our stars — that’s what our students will be referred to — to attend any college of their choice or for any life opportunity they wish to follow.”
Perhaps the polarized public opinion regarding public charter schools stems from the bounty of evidence both sides of the argument can cite in order to entrench their respective positions. There is no shortage of charter schools that have succeeded in providing a viable educational environment to students in troubled school systems, but plenty of other institutions have become failed experiments, fodder for critics and those reluctant to relinquish their children’s future to a rising tide of change and uncertainty.
“Just look at Massachusetts,” Emily Schultz said, picking through the remnants of a cranberry muffin at Crestwood Coffee Company. Schultz, who helped write the legislation that allowed charter schools to begin operating in Alabama, tried to include the “high accountability” standards that Massachusetts put in place for their charter school legislation when the state passed the Education Reform Act in 1993. As of 2017, there are 78 charter schools operating there, with over 40,000 students enrolled and another 32,000 on waiting lists, according to Massachusetts state records.
In 2012, Schultz was working as former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley’s education policy adviser when the initial push for charter school legislation, the Education Options Act, failed to make it through the Republican controlled legislature.
“It was a massive failure in 2012. I don’t think the governor pushed it as hard as he should have,” Schultz said. “I think we made some missteps in getting people comfortable with this notion that this was just another tool. People hear charter schools and the think, ‘They’re coming and they’re going to take everything.’ People thought it was this scary thing because we didn’t get out in front on the messaging.”
Addressing that public apprehension is something that Schultz and her team tried to do when making changes to the initial bill, while also mandating that the state maintain a high level of accountability. At any given BBOE meeting recently parents have been outspoken against the prospect of charter schools, holding up signs, protesting in front of the central office.
“It’s a money-making thing,” said Olivia Boykin, mother of a child in the Birmingham City School system. “If they took that money and put it into our school system to make it better, and give state of the art education, then everybody would win.” Boykin thinks the BBOE did the right thing by declining the initial bids from both STAR Academy and another would-be charter school. Boykin did not believe, before talking to a reporter, that charter schools were public.
In 2013, Schultz, who now works for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, left the governor’s office and began work at a nonprofit because it became clear the governor “wasn’t going to lay down on the tracks for a charter effort,” she said. “It’s a part-time legislature and not all of them even have a staff. They’re looking for policy expertise, and I have a master’s in education policy. We drafted what I think is a pretty strong bill that values charter school autonomy but also has strong accountability.”
She believes part of the reason the initial bill failed was because people wanted to see a cap on how many charter schools could open, greater opportunity for local school board involvement, and strong wording around accountability. As someone closely involved with restructuring Alabama’s educational options, Schultz said in an ideal world she would love for local school authorizers, such as the BBOE, “to own the needs that they are not meeting and try and use charter schools as a tool to meet the needs of those children.”
While Schultz said it may be a “kumbaya vision,” in the best instances, charter schools and traditional district schools work in partnership with one another, “with charters filling the gaps” that lead to students dropping out and young people going underserved. “We’re all trying to get to the same goal here,” Schultz said. “We need more good schools, not more bad schools.”
On May 4, a separate charter school bill was rejected by the Alabama House of Representatives. That bill would have allowed charter school applicants to usurp local school boards and apply directly to the state-run commission. The bill also would have allocated more money to charter schools, a move that would have perhaps fueled more opposition had it passed. For Schultz, the messaging about charter school funding is crucial in the early stages of implementation in Alabama.
“If you look at the funding mechanism, at its base charter schools are going to get less than the traditional district schools,” Schultz said. “A STAR Academy student is going to receive less than if they stayed in a Birmingham City School. Already BCS is getting money to keep on the lights, to pay for fixed expenses, because they don’t have to serve that student anymore. You’ll hear a lot about how charter schools take money from public schools. Well, charter schools are public schools.”
A Case Study
The clearest example of the impact of charter schools in a public school system — both positive and negative — might come from New Orleans, a city which reshaped much of its public education in favor of charter schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the community in 2005. Now, the New Orleans school system is comprised almost entirely of charter schools; according to a 2015 study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 93 percent of the city’s 48,000 public school students are enrolled in charter schools. That’s the highest percentage in the nation, beating out Detroit’s 53 percent (the second-highest) and Flint’s 47 percent (third-highest).
When New Orleans began rebuilding after Katrina, its public school system received one of the biggest overhauls. Approximately 7,500 school employees — including unionized teachers — were put on leave and eventually fired after the hurricane, the New York Times reports. The Recovery School District — a special district created by Louisiana state government in 2003 to address underperforming schools — took over 102 of the city’s 126 schools, gradually converting all of them to charter schools.
According to a report by the Washington Post, high school graduation rates in the city have climbed from their pre-Katrina numbers (54.4 percent) to 77.6 percent in 2013. The New York Times reports, meanwhile, that in 2014, 63 percent of students in New Orleans elementary and middle schools showed proficiency on state tests — up from 37 percent in 2005. The impact of charter schools on the city’s education system led then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to famously remark as early as 2010 that Katrina was “the best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans.”
Despite those clear results, New Orleans’ charter schools also have their shortcomings, which has led to the city implementing various corrective measures over the past decade.
Perhaps most troubling has been the way that charter schools addressed special-needs students — or rather, the way they didn’t. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center reached a conclusion it described as “perverse” — that students with disabilities were being turned away from charter schools, despite the fact that charter schools are required by federal law to admit those students.
The study found that New Orleans charter schools reported that 8 percent of their students were eligible for special needs services — roughly half as many as comparable school districts across the country. Other significant findings of the study showed that 49.5 percent of the district’s students with disabilities failed to finish school — and 26.8 percent of all of the district’s students with disabilities were suspended, a rate 63 percent higher than the statewide average. The SPLC, alleging that these schools were deliberately pushing out the hardest-to-serve students, described these practices as “systemic violations of federal law” and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district in 2010. More than four years later, a settlement was reached that would increase vigilance and oversight of charter schools in the district — including “training and technical assistance for New Orleans schools, ongoing monitoring and additions to the charter renewal and extension process that ensure all schools are ready to serve students with disabilities,” according to the SPLC’s website.
Critics of New Orleans’ charter schools also described the system as “undemocratic” because it does not answer to the local school board, the Washington Post reported in 2014. That report quoted Sean Johnson, the dean of students at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, one of the district’s last traditional public schools, which was shuttered in 2010. “They don’t answer to anyone,” Johnson said. “The charters have money and want to make money. They have their own boards, make their own rules, accept who they want and put out who they want to put out.”
The problem of accountability for those charter schools can manifest in odd, often surreal ways. For example, a Politico report from earlier this year features an anecdote where one of New Orleans’ charter schools — which had been the subject of several complaints — was accused by a state official of attempted bribery. The group behind the school was revealed to be associated with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of being behind last year’s failed coup of the Turkish government. The Louisiana state government was apparently unaware of the connection; that school’s charter has since been revoked.
There have been recent moves to democratize charter schools in the area, though. Last year, Governor John Bel Edwards signed legislation returning control over the city’s schools to the local school board, although the legislation prevents the school board from exercising authority over charter schools’ hiring decisions, curriculum, or budgets, among other things. Instead, the bill mostly centralizes the means through which those schools enroll and expel students, and gives the board power to close failing schools and decide where new schools will open. (With separate legislation, the state had also required all charter schools to provide transportation to students, so that poorer students would not be prevented from attending.)
These regulations mark a distinct compromise between the principles of privatization so often identified with charter schools and the governmental control of education they appear to be a reaction to.
Who’s in charge?
Public school enrollment has been on a steady decline in Birmingham since its peak in the 1970s, when the system served roughly 70,000 students. Today, there are about 25,000 students attending 42 schools. The student population is 95 percent black, according to census data, and nearly half of the student population live at or below the poverty line.
Former Alabama Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson, who now sits on the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, contends that charter schools are a way to stop the bleeding. “The issue is this: when the money is budgeted, it’s based on the number of students,” Richardson explained. “How many students do you have? The count takes place every fall. If you have fewer students you get less money. Let’s say a charter school opens up and has 200 students next fall, and they all come from Birmingham. Then the Birmingham school system doesn’t have to hire teachers or anything like that, but the money is not lost on public education as it would be if those 200 students went to a private school. I think that’s the key.”
As of 2017, the annual operating budget of the Birmingham City School system is $378 million, with only $1.8 million coming from the city. By comparison, the city of Huntsville allocates $20 million of their $303 million budget to schools. Richardson does not think the implementation of charter schools will negatively impact the beleaguered Birmingham City School system, because of the way the law is written.
“Charters can’t just cherry-pick which students they want. If they did, then I wouldn’t support it,” Richardson said. “If they don’t perform up to our standards I assure you the commission will not allow them to continue. And in Birmingham, you have plenty of examples of public schools that do not perform well and they’re still open.”
Of course, there are parents in Birmingham who are excited about the prospect of more public school options for their children.
“I love the idea of them and hate the fact it’s taken Alabama so long to give parents the opportunity to choose if we want to send our children to a charter school,” Sharon Lee said over the phone. She has four children, all of whom have attended Birmingham City Schools. “The system needs a lot of help. Choices are always good so I think charter schools are a great thing.” Lee said she would consider sending her son, who is 12, to a charter school in Birmingham if the opportunity presented itself.
Lee said she’s encountered teachers and parents alike who are also in favor of charter schools in Birmingham. “I think people are misinformed about the fact that charter schools are going to take away from our school system. But some of the opposition is based on wrong information,” Lee said. “I would like Alabamians to give charter schools a chance. And if they don’t work out, at least we can say we tried.”
As it stands, a charter school must meet the standards put in place by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. To date, the Alabama Public Charter School Commission has denied two applications and accepted three, including STAR Academy. While the commission accepted an application for a new school in Huntsville, because the city schools are still under a federal desegregation order, “they still have to go through the federal court to confirm it would not have an adverse impact on the racial mixture of the system,” Richardson said. He also said he hopes the charter school can begin operating in the near future.
During a public interview, Dr. Lisa Herring, the newly appointed superintendent of Birmingham City Schools, called charter schools an “inevitability.”
While that assessment might not rise to the level of being prophetic, two weeks later, Jonta Morris was scouting the city for potential locations for STAR Academy, which is slated to open in the fall of 2018. She hopes to find a location in East Lake, which she and her team have determined to be one of the more “at risk” and underserved communities in Birmingham. She has considered setting up shop in an old school, an empty shopping center or building from the ground up.
Morris’s background is in charter schools. After teaching in Atlanta Public Schools through the Teach For America corps in 2008, Morris relocated to New York where she began teaching kindergarten at a charter school in the Bronx.
Soon afterward she and her husband moved to Denver where Morris helped open a charter school. She started as a fifth-grade teacher and eventually became the assistant principal. “I thought I would remain in Denver but my husband, who is originally from Birmingham, his childhood friend, Thomas Beavers, started talking about community development and education as a way to accomplish some of those goals,” Morris said. “Essentially, our visions for what needed to happen with community development and education came together, and here we are with STAR Academy.”
Without a salary, Morris made the “leap of faith,” which resulted in an entrepreneurial process that was more difficult than she initially anticipated, she admitted. “But totally worth it,” she’s quick to add.
Morris began communicating with the BBOE in February 2016, “seeking guidance for what the process should look like.” Morris said she was not receiving any input from the BBOE in order to assist with the application, nor did the board release a request for proposal (RFP) prior to the November 1, 2016 deadline. Board President Wardine Alexander did not return calls regarding the board’s stance on charter schools, though members have been vocally opposed to the idea since the state approved legislation in 2015.
The process was mired in “typical politics,” Morris said. Eventually when the BBOE released their RFP it was for a Spanish language dual immersion school. “[We understood] then that STAR’s model did not meet that need [but also] that’s not what the community needs,” Morris said, “We decided to honor the process and submit the application to the [BBOE] ahead of their December 1, 2016 deadline, knowing we don’t meet their RFP needs and trusting our data and knowing this is something the community needs.”
Morris fully expected to appeal to the state commission even before the BBOE vote on Jan. 24. The state commission granted her appeal and the rest, she said, is history. With an eye on the uncharted waters ahead, Morris is well aware of the public’s apprehension toward charter schools, an issue she hopes to address, especially in terms of funding.
“So for Year-0, currently, the funds come from grants, that’s local or national philanthropy,” Morris explained. “We’ve received roughly $522,000. We’ll continue to apply for additional grants. We’re currently in the running for another major grant. Once we get into operational years, the majority of the money comes from federal, state, and local dollars. The remainder will still come from grants.”
By year two, Morris, who described STAR’s budget as “very conservative,” believes that the school will be able to operate with only 2 percent of funding coming from grants and the rest being publically funded. While she did not say how many teachers will be hired, Morris said the initial student population will be pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade. STAR will add an additional grade for each year afterward in order to accommodate the “founders,” as Morris calls them.
While pecking away at her laptop from her “temporary office” (a local Starbucks), Morris said she hopes people can understand her passion for opening a new school comes from a place of love. “There will be quality learning and instruction taking place,” she said, envisioning what her future school will look like. “Students are learning, innovating, designing, and using technology. You see personalized learning, based on what they need at the time.”
While charter schools will be held to the same academic standards as typical public schools, the curriculum is left largely to those running the school. Morris has her work cut out for her, but as she said, “I’m living my life’s purpose. I wake up knowing that everyday, and it keeps me going.”
As STAR rises in Birmingham, parents, teachers, and community members can only wonder exactly what the new dawn will bring. Richardson curtly summarized the future, as he sees it: “Some charter schools stay open, some don’t.”
Weld’s next monthly installment of the Education in Birmingham series will focus further on summer education programs.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article featured two errors, regarding the year Emily Schultz left the governor’s office and the number of members seated on the Alabama Public Charter School Commission when hearing an appeal. This article has been corrected.