Public education in Alabama does not have a unified VOICE. This vacuum allows efforts that defy common sense and threaten our schools to gather momentum.
Therefore 2016 should be the year when educators of all stripes, from superintendents to school board members to lunchroom workers to teachers to principals–and interested parents–rally with a common voice and tell Montgomery lawmakers ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
For many, this is going against their human nature because at least 95 percent of all educators I know came into this profession because they felt led to work with children. They were not called to meet with legislators, to comply with mountains of rules and regulations or to drown in a sea of “busy work” that some legislative mandates force on them.
But we have come to a point where we either commit ourselves to standing up for public schools–or resigning ourselves to the fact that those who have precious little understanding of what goes on in today’s classroom, those who run Washington think tanks funded by giant foundations and and organizations and millionaires from outside Alabama will increasingly call the shots.
Let’s look at how this perfect storm came about.
If we are honest we begin with the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008. While he was elected nationally with 52.9 percent of the popular vote, he only got 39 percent in Alabama. The dislike of the President was immediate, intense and visceral. Recognizing this, Republican leadership begin developing a game plan to take control of the Statehouse in 2010.
The result was Campaign 2010 and a war chest of more than $5 million to use in legislative races. When the dust settled on the November election, the GOP claimed 17 new House seats and nine Senate seats. For the first time in 136 years, Republicans controlled both the Senate and the House.
They immediately took dead aim at the Alabama Education Association. Lame duck Governor Bob Riley called a special session shortly after the election (legislators take office immediately upon election while constitutional officers do not take office until mid-January following their election). We were told this session was about ethics and transparency. Governor Riley said the reforms passed “represents a sea change of historic proportions and will make Alabama the new standard for ethical government in the United States.”
One of the bills stopped payroll deductions to pay dues to the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Employees Association. The bill passed the House 52-49 and the Senate 22-12.
For decades AEA was the 800-pound gorilla in state politics. Paul Hubbert, AEA executive secretary, was definitely someone to be reckoned with by lawmakers. He was not loved by everyone in education. But even his detractors knew that he had their back and that he had a voice regarding any legislation dealing with education.
Riley supported Bradley Byrne for governor in 2010. AEA supported Robert Bentley in his runoff with Byrne. This only added fuel to the anti-AEA sentiment when the GOP took control of the House and Senate.
Hubbert announced his retirement less than a year later and was replaced by Henry Mabry. To say that went badly is a huge understatement.
How has public education fared since 2010? Not very well.
Passage of the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 was the first real indication that educators were on the outside looking in. The fact that it was a radical piece of education policy that was kept a secret from the education community until the 11th hour left no doubt that present legislative leadership has little regard for public education and those who guide it.
And what was education’s response? Other than a lot of bitching and moaning, not much of consequence. Yes, there was a law suit trying to stop the accountability act and more than 30 school systems filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the suit, but education failed to draw a line in the sand and make a determined effort to defeat those who voted for this bill. Consequently, few of those who supported it were defeated.
And to make sure they are not defeated we had millionaires in Arkansas, California and Michigan pouting money into Alabama campaigns. And StudentFirst, a group from California, spent $200,000 here.
This only emboldened those in charge at the Statehouse. “If we can do something this drastic and get away with it, no need to stop now,” figured the powers-that-be.
So in 2015 we get a charter school bill. We amend the accountability act so that it can divert more money from the Education Trust Fund. (We have now diverted $66.8 million as of the end of 2015.) We take $80 million from ETF to prop up the General Fund. We create a new bureaucracy at the state department of education to work with charter schools and we put a politically-appointed board in charge who can overrule local school boards. We threaten legislation that will have an appointed state school board rather than an elected one.
The next legislative session begins in February. A draft of a bill titled RAISE Act of 2016 has now surfaced. It is perhaps even more drastic than the accountability act. For one it says that teachers will be evaluated by a process known as Value Added Model (VAM). This has been studied by countless researchers and come up short in most cases. A New Mexico judge just ruled against it and a number of other states are in litigation about its use.
It also creates the Alabama Longitudinal Data System which will gather info from 12 sources and operate under the direction of another politically-appointed board. One can only guess at the millions of dollars it will require and how much work it will create for local school systems. For a detailed look at part of the bill, look at this work by Trish Crain with the Alabama School Connection.
I have yet to talk to an educator who thinks this legislation has merit. (And from all indications, the bill’s author, like with the accountability act, did not seek input from Alabama educators.
This bill is not good for our public schools. It should be killed. As much as for what it signifies as for what it does.
We did not draw the line in the sand in 2014. We should in 2016.
This is why Alabama education needs a VOICE. One that is driven by passionate educators and concerned citizens who get informed and contact their legislators, their newspaper editors and their fellow educators and neighbors.
We don’t need this RAISE, but we do need to raise our VOICES.