ALEC Charter Bill Getting Second Chance in Senate Education Committee

From the Lawrence Journal World Education Blog posted by Peter Hancock:

ALEC-based charter school bill getting second chance

Lawrence schools are on spring break this week, a fact that sparked some fear in the newsroom that there wouldn’t be much education news for a few days. But Kansas lawmakers appear to be picking up the slack.

Specifically, the Kansas Senate Education Committee worked through a pile of bills Monday, including one that would create new opportunities for establishing charter schools in Kansas.

Senate Bill 196, the Kansas Public Charter School Act, is nearly identical to a bill that the House Education Committee rejected last week. It’s based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

ALEC is a conservative, free-market-oriented organization made up of legislators, corporations and foundations. It produces model legislation usually geared toward lowering taxes and reducing government regulation that has been introduced in statehouses around the country.

For those who aren’t familiar with charter schools, they are a special type of school, usually set up within a public school district but operated independently, either by a private company, nonprofit organization or some other public entity. Most are exempt from some laws or regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Charter schools have been a favorite topic of conservatives for several years, for several reasons. Advocates tend to like the idea of injecting free-market competition into the public school system, breaking up what they see as a government monopoly on education funding. Charter schools also provide a testing ground for a fundamental free-market principle: the idea that removing the shackles of government regulations – including things like collective bargaining for teachers – will unleash innovative thinking and creative ideas that will improve education overall.

Critics, on the other hand, view charter schools skeptically. They say there is little evidence to suggest the schools perform any better than traditional schools when they deal with comparable student populations. And they fear that the charter school movement is really aimed at busting teachers’ unions and channeling public education dollars to what are essentially private schools.

To date, Kansas has had a fairly limited charter school law. Public school districts are the only entities that can authorize a charter school. Many districts, including the ones in Lawrence and Topeka, have authorized their own. But outside organizations have to petition their local district and get permission to open one. And even then, the State Board of Education has the final say on approving the charters.

SB 196 would open up the process by giving the Kansas Board of Regents, cities and counties and the governing board of any public or private post-secondary institution the power to authorize a public charter school.

The State Board of Education would still have the final word in granting a charter, but the bill would greatly limit the board’s discretion in making that decision.

The nugget of the bill, though, lies in two other key provisions.

One would provide a 100 percent tax credit for private contributions to a public charter school. That means that for every dollar donated to a charter school, the state general fund would have one less dollar with which to fund education and other state services.

The other is an almost blanket exemption from any state laws or regulations governing public schools, except those related to public health and safety, civil rights and nondiscrimination and handicapped accessibility. There would be no requirement for the charter schools to recognize teachers’ unions.

Last week, an almost identical bill failed to win passage in the House Education Committee. But the Senate Education Committee is now working on its own version. The Senate panel was expected to vote on the bill Monday, but that vote has been delayed.

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