Charting a new course for schools

Published 10:40 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charter schools are publicly funded schools exempted from many of the regulations applied to traditional public schools. Alabama is currently one of eight states which does not allow charter schools. This may change in 2015, as the State Senate has already moved a charter school bill through committee. Charter schools are not a silver bullet, but they will improve public education in Alabama.

A charter school law allows innovation, making it hard to forecast exactly what schools might emerge. Nationally, charter schools often focus on math and science, offer extra instruction time for core subjects, allow teachers more control over implementation of classroom curriculum, and have experimented with online instruction.

Charter schools would immediately and importantly broaden the range of school options tailored to children with different learning styles. Traditional public schools assign students to the schools nearest their homes, and to grades based on date of birth. Students are expected to complete a grade level within the academic year. Public classrooms consequently exhibit excessive diversity of learning styles, and so any curriculum will fail to engage many students. Dr. John Merrifield and Jesse Ortiz document the research on this point in their chapter “Reinventing the Alabama K-12 School System” in the Johnson Center’s new book Improving Lives in Alabama.

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Further, charter schools would move us toward the bottom-up accountability Merrifield and Ortiz recommend, empowering parents with genuine options for their children’s education. Our market economy relies on competition between suppliers, and consumers choose among the available goods and services. The threat of losing customers provides retailers, restaurants, and other businesses an incentive to provide quality.

Critics object that a lack of expertise limits parental choice in education. Certainly most parents will be unable to evaluate curriculum specifics, like the best way to teach reading or math. Yet a lack of consumer expertise is commonplace; most of us do not know the details of repairing cars, safely cutting down trees, or running a restaurant without sickening patrons. We often rely on government regulations which still enable consumer choice.

For instance, we let the Health Department shut down the totally unsafe restaurants, and let consumers eat elsewhere if they don’t like the food or service. Only in education do we so thoroughly limit consumer choice.

A better solution may be to free all of Alabama’s public schools from excessive regulatory controls instead of merely exempting new charter schools, as Pike County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell pointed out in The Messenger last week. I totally agree. Education is an inherently local activity, involving students, parents, teachers, and principals. Yet we have an enormous education bureaucracy, and each layer of bureaucracy above the neighborhood school – district administrators, the state Board of Education, the U.S. Department of Education – influences what goes on in the classroom through regulatory controls. States’ adoption of the Common Core curriculum in exchange for Race to the Top dollars from Washington shows that the trend is toward further top-down regulation.

Public education would improve dramatically with the teachers and resources we currently have if we could free our teachers and principals from burdensome rules. But the rules are our system, so this would constitute a major policy change. No one possesses the magic wand required to make this to happen.

Charter schools provide a start, and I think they will end up benefiting traditional schools in two ways. First, by offering specialized approaches, charters will reduce the learning style diversity in public classrooms. A math and science focus won’t work for all students, but if a charter school serves the math students, the remaining public school students will be better matched to the public school curriculum. Second, charter schools will demonstrate through example the value of loosening the regulatory leash. This may be the quickest way to reduce the rules imposed on our public schools.

Alabama needs to change the course of our public education. Innovative charter schools will help some students immediately. And empowering parents will move us toward truly effective bottom-up accountability. Charter schools are a step in the right direction.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.



About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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