When Alabama enacted its Charter School Law in 2015, did state legislators expect there to be only seven active charter schools statewide seven years later?
In 2015, SB45, more commonly known as the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, passed both chambers on partisan lines, with zero Democrats voting in support of the bill. The Act created the Alabama Public Charter School Commission (APCSC) which intends to provide all children in the state with high quality education outside of the traditional public school setting.
Charter schools gives parents and local educators the power to make the best education-related decisions for each student. These schools use strategies and tools to close the gap between high-performing and low-performing groups of public school students.
In addition to the APCSC, Alabama has six charter authorizer districts. These districts give six local school boards the ability to approve or reject charter applications before the state (APCSC). Outside these districts, charter schools are authorized directly by the APCSC. Schools applying for authorization may also appeal to the APCSC if denied at the district level.
Alabama has two types of charter schools: start-up charter schools and conversion charter schools. Start-up charter schools didn’t previously exist as a non-charter public school, while conversion charter schools are existing public schools that were converted into charters. Currently, there is only one conversion charter school in Alabama, Davis Elementary School in Montgomery.
Though the law passed in 2015, Alabama’s first charter school didn’t open until 2017.
So, what’s the hold up?
Since the state law was enacted in 2015, the Birmingham school system has denied more applicants than any district and has yet to approve a charter school application. The first of six Alabama districts to become a charter authorizer, Birmingham only has two current charters in the city, Legacy Prep located in West Birmingham and i3 Academy located in Woodlawn. Both schools were authorized by the state commission after appeal. Formerly STAR Academy, Legacy Prep was denied charter authorization by the city of Birmingham in 2017, but successfully won its appeal at the state level later that year. Although the Birmingham Board of Education (BOE) sued to block the charter school from opening, Legacy Prep opened in 2019 becoming the first charter school to operate in the Birmingham area. Originally rejected by the Birmingham BOE in January 2019, i3 was approved in March 2019 by the state commission and opened its doors in fall 2020. Both Legacy Prep and i3 Academy operate under the APCSC, rather than the Birmingham BOE since they were authorized by the APCSC and not the district.
Opening this fall in Bessemer, Alabama Aerospace and Aviation High School was first denied charter approval from the city of Birmingham, before winning an appeal in 2021 by the APCSC to open in Bessemer. Similarly, Homewood’s controversial new charter school, Magic City Acceptance Academy (MCAA), originally planned to open in Birmingham city limits, but was denied charter at the city level and consequently by the state commission three times in 2020. Planning to move the school out of Birmingham city limits to Homewood, MCAA applied for charter authorization straight to the APCSC, where it was eventually approved to open on the fourth state commission vote at the end of 2020.
Most recently, in January 2022, Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school network out of Memphis, was denied authorization by the Birmingham City School System. A few months later, in May 2022, the state commission approved its charter school application. Freedom Prep plans to open in fall 2023 and will operate under the state, not the local school board. Other schools denied charter authorization by Birmingham include iBestow Academy in 2017 and Knowledge Unlimited Public Charter School in 2020. iBestow Academy appealed to the APCSC, but the committee upheld the Birmingham BOE’s decision.
The Birmingham Board of Education, which votes on the city’s charter school authorization, has nine members, each representing one of the nine school districts. The school board is elected by the city’s constituents every four years. Members were on the ballot last in 2021. If Alabamians want to see charter schools grow, focusing on one of the biggest cities in the state may be a good place to start. Birmingham residents will have an opportunity to elect members who value school choice to the Birmingham Board of Education next in 2025.
However, constituents outside of the six charter authorization districts do not have as much control over charter school authorizations. The current ten Alabama Public Charter School Commissioners were appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, or president pro tempore. Commissioners serve four-year terms; four Commissioners terms end May 31, 2022, while six will end May 31, 2023.
If pushback for charter schools lies with local school boards reviewing start-up schools, perhaps there should be greater attention on conversion charter schools. While conversion charter schools follow the same authorization process as start-up charter schools, perhaps their prior school performance record will be convincing enough for school boards to authorize them as charter schools. Regardless, if Alabama aims to champion school choice and increase its charter school recognition, constituents should start by looking at their local school boards.