Gov. Robert Bentley

Gov. Robert Bentley

A year after major reforms to ethics and immigration laws, education could be the next area to see big changes in Alabama.

Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to make charter schools a priority for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 7.

"Charter schools will be something you see talked about," said Jennifer Ardis, the governor's press secretary. "Charter schools are something the governor's very passionate about."

Alabama does not have charter schools, but could if the Legislature allows them.

Charter schools are public schools that are given some freedoms from local or state regulations in exchange for a promise to achieve better results.

During a recent speech in Fort Payne, DeKalb County's state senator seemed uncommitted to the idea of adding charter schools to Alabama.

"To take on that endeavor would be a large task," Sen. Shadrack McGill said.

The Jackson County Republican added, "Competition can be a healthy thing."

Ardis said Bentley believes charter schools will benefit children.

"The governor likes charter schools because it gives an option for kids," she said. "It's a public school but it allows more freedom ... and opportunity to be flexible.

"The governor just wants to explore that option here in Alabama. He certainly has some ideas for how he wants that done."

He's not alone. In Montgomery, Mayor Todd Strange wants city officials to support legislation for charter schools in the city.

"I believe this is a quicker, less expensive and less divisive way to impact education in our community," Strange wrote to his city council in a veto message on a council resolution calling for a city school system.

Adding charter schools won't come without a fight. The Alabama Education Association's new leader said he is preparing to fight charter schools. The AEA has said funding charter schools would take money away from existing public schools.

"If the argument is we have some failed schools, let's fix the failed schools," the incoming AEA executive secretary, Henry Mabry, told the Montgomery Advertiser.

A bill to bring charter schools to Alabama failed in 2010, when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Then-Gov. Bob Riley - like Bentley, a Republican - supported the bill.

Bentley recently hired an education policy adviser and charged her to work with charter schools.

Emily Schultz came to Bentley's staff after serving nine months for Mass Insight School Turnaround Group in Boston. She managed the "school turnaround strategy and support" in the Central Falls, R.I., schools after all the teachers at an underperforming school were fired.

She was a program manager for the Washington, D.C., public schools under controversial Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Under Rhee, several schools in the capital were closed and many teachers and administrators lost their jobs in a new performance-based system.

Ardis said Bentley is considering charter schools only on a limited basis.

"We want to make sure that when we set them up, that we give them every possible opportunity to succeed," she said. "The governor wants to have that conversation."

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