The latest example of Race to the Top driving education policy change in the states may be the Alabama state legislature’s consideration of a charter schools in the state. Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, is making a strong push for allowing the creation of charter schools in the state. The push comes as a result of the state bid for federal education funding in the Race to the Top competition. The US Department of Education’s guidelines indicates that some degree of preference will be given to states that allow for the creation of creation charter schools as a school reform strategy.
As would be expected, there is some resistance to the creation of charters in Alabama, and it comes from the expected places. The Alabama Education Association (AEA), the state’s largest professional educators association, does not support the creation of charter schools in Alabama. AEA opposes the creation of charter schools charging that charter schools will take money “from every student enrolled in the public schools of our state (a total of 740,000) and use it to create charter schools to serve only a relatively few students.” AEA’s argument is one that we’ve heard from profession education association’s around the nation now since the passage of the first charter school legislation in Minnesota in the early 1990s. But to be honest, it’s not a very good argument. There are valid arguments to be made against the establishment of charter schools, but AEA’s argument is not one. Funding for public schools, both charter and traditional, is allocated based on the number of students that a school serves. If Birmingham City Schools is serving a student, then they receive the applicable funding for that child. In the same way, if a charter school is serving a student, the charter school receives the per pupil allocation for that student. AEA is not being honest about their real issue, which is that the presence of charter schools within a school district forces the traditional public schools to compete for that student and the funding that follows him/her, whereas without charter schools, traditional public school districts have a virtual monopoly on public education. But I digress. This is another topic.
My point here is to again highlight the impact that the Obama Department of Education is having on education policy through the Race to the Top competition. The George W. Bush Administration’s handprint on education came with the passage and implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Obama Administration, however, before even taking up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has used the enticement of record amounts of federal education funding to drive states to make substantive overhauls of their education systems. Alabama’s consideration and probable adoption of a charter school policy is a case in point. The US caught charter school fever in the early 1990’s, and as of today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of charter school legislation. Alabama is one of only 10 states that have not. The charter school reform strategy has floated around the US for nearly 20 year now, and for various reasons, many political, Alabama had chosen not to adopt it. I argue that were it not for the Race to the Top competition, Alabama would not be seriously considering the measure now. What we can take away from this is that the scent of federal dollars, especially during difficult economic times, has the power to coax states into doing things that they would not have otherwise done. Money makes things happen; even education reform. And whether you are a supporter, opponent, or indifferent toward the Obama Department of Education’s priorities, you have to admit that their strategy has been masterful thus far in getting states to march to their beat.