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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — As Tennessee becomes the latest state to implement a school voucher program, some state officials say it’s time for Alabama to do the same.

LEAD Academy in Montgomery is one of Alabama’s 13 charter schools set to open its doors in the next few weeks. It’s a public school accountable to the state but with more autonomy in how it’s run.

Founder and state Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, said charter schools are one way parents can have a say in public schooling, but she’d like to see others too — especially considering Alabama’s low national ranking in public education.

“If you look at the results that we’ve gotten with what we’ve been doing the last 50-75 years, I think we can all agree, we’re not getting the results we want, so I think it’s important parents get to choose,” Meadows said.

Meadows said education savings accounts could help expand parents’ choices, as it allows parents to spend public money on private schools.

“That money does not belong to the public schools, it belongs to the state of Alabama to educate our children, and if our children are going to be best educated in a tent out there in the yard, then that’s what we should be doing,” Meadows said.

Meadows’s bill for savings accounts failed last session, partly over concerns it would hurt already struggling public schools by diverting funds from them.

Rep. Barbara Drummond, D – Mobile, also worries it could be inaccessible for some communities.

“I represent more poor constituents who don’t have the wherewithal not only financially but also mentally to be able to go and do what is prescribed under this bill,” Drummond said.

Alabama Association of School Boards Executive Director Sally Smith said an ESA program would lack academic and financial accountability for schools. She’s optimistic other efforts, like the recently passed Numeracy and Literacy Acts –meant to improve math and reading skills– will help instead.  

“We think we have excellent public schools, and in some cases we know we’re not quite meeting the standard, and there are rigorous efforts to address that,” Smith said.

CEO of New Schools for Alabama Tyler Barnett said that whether or not a voucher program comes to fruition, expanding charter schools is a good step. He notes that the number of students enrolled in charter schools has grown every year, with an expected 6,000 students this fall, up from 3,465 last year.

Barnett said the biggest hurdle for charters is to obtain local funding to sustain their revenue, something he hopes the Alabama Legislature will consider.

“Charter schools provide an opportunity because of that flexibility to do something different and to innovate,” Barnett said.

By the 2023-24 school year, there will be 15 charter schools open in the state, with a sixteenth currently under consideration in Dothan.