MONTGOMERY — As advocates for public charter schools push for more equal funding in the Alabama Legislature this year, an unlikely ally has emerged signaling potential bipartisan support for the proposal.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, a prominent voice in the state’s minority party, recently filed Senate Bill 387, similar to House Bill 487, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, earlier this session.

These bills would make changes to the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act and allow for some local tax dollars to follow students to charter schools similar to how they would to any other school. Currently, both state and federal dollars follow students who leave traditional schools and enroll in charter schools, but local dollars do not.

“Many of these people are constituents and so they asked for some help in those areas, and that’s what the objective was, just to help ... provide them with some funds so that they could ease the burden on the students,” Smitherman said.

Alabama Democrats have historically been against expanding charter schools and fought against the broad 2015 school choice legislation, arguing it would undermine traditional schools.

Smitherman said his bill deals solely with public charter schools and emphasized that such institutions are not private schools. He added that the goal of his bill, should it pass, would be to provide funds for students in the same manner as funds provided for students in traditional public schools and stressed that this would be at a community level. Smitherman’s bill has not yet received a Senate committee vote.

While Collins’ bill differed somewhat originally, it has been further focused so as to reach a bipartisan consensus.

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'Equitable funding'

Collins stopped her bill from being considered on the House floor two weeks ago after she said misinformation was spread about what it does. Collins said she has now spoken to the Republican and Democratic caucuses and has cleared up confusion while providing correct information on the bill.

"I actually think that made some Democrats say, ‘I’m not against all charters, I just want to understand it better,’ and that we’ve pared it down so much to just the two issues that were addressed,” Collins said.

Collins' bill could get a vote in the House today. Collins also voiced support for Smitherman’s bill, which has been referred to the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

Gov. Kay Ivey has also voiced support for more even treatment in charter school funding.

“Charter schools are, in fact, public schools and all schools should get equitable funding,” Ivey told the media last week.

There are currently five charter schools across the state, two of which are in Birmingham. New Schools for Alabama, a nonprofit based in Birmingham, said in this school year, more than 80% of students in charter schools are students of color and more than 60% are considered “economically disadvantaged,” based on qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals.

Despite the bipartisan legislative efforts, stiff opposition remains. The Alabama Education Association, the leading teachers’ organization in the state, hopes to see the bills defeated.

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For-profit school concerns

“The Legislature struck a balance when it approved charter schools in 2015 that allows charter schools to open and receive adequate funding, but caps the local funding they receive so neighborhood schools aren’t hamstrung financially,” said AEA President Sherry Tucker. “That has allowed parents and others concerned about Alabama children to open successful charter schools.”

Tucker added that the main concern would be charter schools siphoning off funds from traditional public schools and directing them toward for-profit charter schools. According to her, the bills currently before the Legislature are the result of an attorney general’s opinion from November that reaffirmed the cap on local funding to charter schools set by the Legislature in 2015.

“The reason charter school advocates attack earmarked money, and other local taxes that local voters earmarked for their neighborhood schools, is to try and make Alabama a profitable market for corporate charter operators, and AEA will never stop fighting against for-profit charter schools,” she added

Mark Dixon, president of the A+ Education Partnership, called Tucker’s assertions the kind of misinformation charter advocates have been fighting.

“Alabama law doesn’t allow for-profit charter schools — period,” Dixon said. “These are public school students that deserve equitable treatment.”

Collins has defended the proposal saying that education tax dollars should follow students to support them in whatever public school they attend, whether charter or traditional. She also said the difference to local districts would be small.

House Bill 487 says that for each student who resides within the county where a public charter school is located, the charter school shall receive from the local school district “a per student share of the net local tax revenue…”

In a public hearing on her bill, Collins explained the local school system could keep the per-student allocation of the 10 mill ad valorem local match required under the state’s Foundation Program, but some money above that, if the system collects additional tax revenue, would follow students to charter schools.

If a local system collects 15 mills, for example, they would keep a per-student allocation of that 10 mills and any money obligated to debt services. The rest could follow the student.

“If you are a student in that district then your family’s local money they’re paying follows the student,” Collins said. “It’s less the match though, so it’s really a small percentage of that local funding.”

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