Charter School Laws Surge In Maine, N.C., Tenn.

The charter school movement appears to be making gains as new laws expanding charter access have worked their way through several state legislatures over the past week.

"There's a push to reconceptualize what public education looks like," said Charles Russo, a professor of education and law at at Dayton University. "People would like to see a new model tried to give parents more say. That's what they're selling." Charter schools are publicly funded but can be independently run.

Maine's legislature is expected to rubber stamp a law Thursday afternoon that would allow the creation of the state's first charter schools, leaving only nine states in the country without a charter school law.

On Wednesday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that opens the state's charter schools to more students and lifts the cap of 90 charters state wide.

North Carolina's legislature last Friday passed a bill that would also removes its charter-school cap of 100. The governor is expected to sign the measure.

Backers of what is known as the education reform movement embrace charter schools because the flexibility inherent in their structure is said to allow innovation. Charter schools are generally not subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools, and only 90 percent of the schools employ unionized teachers. A 2009 report lauded as most authoritative research yet on the efficacy of charter schools concluded that 17 percent of the charter schools studied outperform public schools and 37 percent "deliver results that are significantly worse" than those expected of the same students in traditional public schools.

Advocates also laud the school choice charters provide, saying that a child's education should not be firmly bound to the quality of schools located in his or her neighborhood. But opponents criticize charter schools for being unable to serve students with special needs, sucking resources from traditional public schools and what some say is a system that privatizes public education.

This legislative session has seen the passage of several laws in states such as Indiana, New Mexico and Florida that encourage the growth of charter schools.

"There are two factors we can point to that have helped to spur additional and significant activity in states: One is President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan's support for charters at the national level," said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "Step two were the elections last fall that helped to create strong charter-school majorities in legislatures in a number of different states."

He added that Wisconsin and Illinois are poised to be the next states to pass laws that expand charters.

Despite these new laws, charter schools face sustained backlash, the most prominent of which came in the form of a Georgia Supreme Court decision this May -- upheld Monday -- that deemed unconstitutional a state-level authorizer of charter schools that was designed as an appeal for charter schools that did not receive approval from local school boards. Charter-school advocates are gathering in Atlanta today to protest that decision.

"The backlash has always been there from 1991 when Minnesota passed its first law," Ziebarth said. "There's opposition because the charter school movement changes the fundamental power structure of public education, saying that entities other than school districts can successfully run public schools."

Maine's charter-school law includes the creation of a state-level authorizer for charter schools similar to the one found to be unconstitutional in Georgia.

The Maine Education Association opposes to the law, according to its deputy executive director Rob Walker, because more charter schools could strain the system's finances. "We're concerned about the economies of scale," he said.

Tennessee's law, Ziebarth said, is weaker than he'd like it to be. "They lifted the cap but added in language that requires district authorizers to look at potential fiscal impact on the district, which might be used as a different kind of cap," he said.

But it's not too weak for the unions. "The biggest problem with what they passed is that it's contrary to the concept of charter schools as they were originally set up in Tennessee," said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist of the Tennessee Education Association. "They were set up to serve select students who needed special attention. This new law opens charter schools up to any student. I don’t think that's a good thing."

"It has a lot of sex appeal to people," he added. "They think they're a magic bullet. The problem is, they're not. Once they have to start serving a larger number of students, you're going to start seeing that they're not very different from other schools."

The North Carolina bill, said state Sen. Richard Stevens (R), one of the bill's architects, arose as a result of an expressed statewide need. "There are 15,000 or more students, and there parents who want to be in a charter school but can't because of the cap," he said. "Charters are an incubator and a laboratory for public education in general."

The final version of the North Carolina bill, while satisfying to charter-school advocates by ultimately allowing the creation of more schools, stripped away some pro-charter measures, including the legalization of online-based charter schools and a establishment of a state-level commission to approve charters. The final compromise made North Carolina Education Association President Sheri Strickland feel somewhat better about the law, despite her belief that more than 100 charter schools would strain the resources of the office in charge of its oversight.

"We ended up saying that while we still had concerns, we did believe that it was a better bill than the original bill," Strickland said.