Editor’s note: Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, more commonly known as AL.com. He has never shied from calling out things that make no sense to him. He does just that in this recent article about the state charter school commission and Washington County’s Woodland Prep.
Rules? Those are for public schools, not charters
“One of the first things you learn when starting school is that there are rules.
No chewing gum.
No pants or skirts above the knee.
No talking in class.
Break the rules and you will suffer consequences. Or so we’re told as kids.
But when it comes to charter schools in Alabama, rules don’t seem to matter much — for administrators and state officials, that is. Not the students.
As the Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon uncovered last month, a charter school in Washington County, Woodland Prep, appears to be breaking lots of rules, and state officials who are supposed to enforce those rules don’t seem to care. In fact, they seem to be in on … just whatever the heck is going on there.
This story is deep and weird — onion layers of non-profits and for-profits, a school principal (identified on the school’s website only as “Amy O.”) who won’t be the school principal after all, connections to a Turkish exile and Islamic preacher, and more.
But I want to focus on the folks at the top. The people who made the rules, and then broke them.
When Alabama legalized charter schools in 2015, the Alabama Legislature created the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, and it set out a process for the creation of new charters in the state.
A handful of school boards, just five, asked to be allowed to approve charters. Most left it to the state. But those local systems, like Birmingham, that asked to approve charters rarely if ever do for reasons easy to understand — it’s their districts’ money that will be redirected to the charters.
And that’s where the Charter School Commission comes in. The Commission can overrule a school district, but when they do, they’re supposed to do certain things.
First, the Commission is supposed to determine whether there’s a genuine need for the charter school.
And second, the Commission is supposed to make certain the proposed charter school meets nationally recognized standards.
In Washington County, neither seems to have happened.
In public forums there, an overwhelming majority of speakers opposed the charter school. The mayor in Chatom, the Washington County seat, says he doesn’t know anyone who’s for it.
But let’s assume that the Charter School Commission’s job was always to overrule local officials and ignore community push-back. There’s still that national standards hurdle to clear.
Woodland Prep didn’t check that box, either.
The Alabama Department of Education hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to review applications and make certain charter applicants are up to spec.
The NACSA said Woodland Prep didn’t meet its standards, and raised questions about the school’s curriculum, management and financial plans.
And yet, the Commission approved Woodland Prep for a charter, anyway.
It didn’t follow its own rules.
This isn’t the only instance where the Commission has ignored the NACSA after it raised concerns. The association has questioned the qualifications of other charters, too.
When a reporter from the Washington Post asked why, Commission President Mac Buttrum all but said “because we said so.”
“The majority of the Commission voted to approve the applicant,” he told her in an email.
Well, that answers everything.
The Alabama Department of Education has dropped its contract with NACSA, but state Sup. Eric Mackey wouldn’t answer the Post’s questions, either.
But from the outside in, it sure looks like the Commission lowered its standards so the school could pass its test — you know, the same thing school privatization folks accuse public schools of doing.
And lawmakers, including state Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, who pushed charter school legalization in 2015, seem to be fine with how things are working out.
This isn’t the first bait-and-switch we’ve seen like this. The Alabama Accountability Act, which Marsh also pushed through the Legislature, promised private school scholarships for students zoned for failing schools — only for scholarships to go to students zoned for schools doing just fine.
But Woodland Prep is something new.
We’re told incessantly that education is an investment in the future. But not all investments pan out. Many go bust. If Woodland Prep were a publicly traded business, you’d be a fool to put your money in it.
But because it’s a charter school, the government is already doing that for you.
Accountability? Transparency? Standards? These were all the things we were promised. But the message from Montgomery is clear: Rules are for public schools, and public schools only.
Not for charters, and not for those who gave the charters a pass.”