The Alabama Political Reporter is an on-line publication that does not shy away from asking tough questions about state powerbrokers–and those who wish to be.
Within the last few days, they have questioned a contract for almost a million dollars doled out by the Department of Early Childhood Education with a Birmingham-based PR firm closely aligned with Republican wheelers and dealers. The article was written by investigative reporter Josh Moon.
Here is how Moon begins his piece:
“Last legislative session, with good results and great PR rolling in for Alabama’s Pre-K program, the Department of Early Childhood Education received a record-breaking increase in funding, as Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers pledged to build on one of the few bright spots in Alabama’s public education programs.
The Education Trust Fund budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Ivey included $96 million for DECE, an increase of $18.5 million from the previous year. It was the largest increase in the program’s history and hailed as a triumph for education.
But this is Alabama. And where there’s money to spend, you’ll find the usual leeches lurking about, figuring out ways to divvy up a portion for themselves and their friends and family.”
He goes on to connect some dots and name names.
The second article is by Bill Britt. He talks about how a handful of people, both elected and un-elected, hatched a plan in 2016 to put both K-12 and post-secondary education under the control of the Department of Commerce. Britt reports:
“In 2016, the State Board of Education was in turmoil which led to Philip Cleveland’s appointment as interim superintendent of the Board.
In June of that year, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, emailed members of the board encouraging them to keep Cleveland as interim superintendent “a few more months to work on efficiency and effectiveness of the department and the programs.”
She also urged the members to consider Ross (Jeanna Ross, secretary of the Department of Early Childhood Development) as the permanent superintendent.
According to those involved in the situation at the time, Collin’s email was part of a larger plan to gain control of Alabama’s education system by then-president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama Billy Canary and former Gov. Bob Riley.
Sources who spoke to APR in 2016—on background because they were part of the selection process and did not want to speak publicly—said, “The goal is ultimately is to put both K-12 and post-secondary under the Department of Commerce, because they see education as workforce training,” In fact, several education experts privately stated the same, while accusing Gov. Robert Bentley of being a “useful tool” for Canary and Riley.”
There is no doubt that a small group of non-educators have been trying to enforce their will on how we do education in this state for the past decade. One of the major players was Billy Canary, who headed the Business Council of Alabama until July 2018 when he was forced out.
One of the ways he tried to exert influence was getting his hand-picked folks on the state board of education. This began in 2014 when BCA gave $70,000 to Mary Scott Hunter’s re-election campaign. She also got $15,000 from California-based Students First, a group devoted to charter schools, vouchers and any other idea associated with “education reform.” And the Alabama realtors PAC kicked in $5,000. This group also favors charters and vouchers.
Prior to Canary’s involvement, campaigns for state school board were rather low-key affairs. For instance, when Dr. Charles Elliott of Decatur ran successfully for an open seat in 2010, he raised $38,395. His Democratic opponent, Kim Drake of Cullman, raised $23,353.
Another BCA beneficiary in 2014 was Barry Sadler of Eufaula who challenged long-time incumbent Betty Peters of Dothan. Canary’s group gave him $85,000 and Students First chipped in $15,000. Peters won.
Two years later BCA wrote more checks. They backed Matt Brown who had been appointed by Governor Bentley to an open seat in 2015, went after incumbent Stephanie Bell with challenger Justin Barkley and backed incumbent Jeff Newman. They spent $149,000 on Brown, who lost to Jackie Zeigler. Barkley got $94,755 in contributions and in-kind services–and also got $22,936 from the Alabama Federation for Children, another “education reform” group supported by out-of-state millionaires. Bell beat Barkley handily Newman got $106,730 in contributions and in-kind and kept the seat he won in 2012.
A truism of politics is that “Little money gives, big money invests.” Canary invested heavily in hopes of having more influence over the state board. BCA also created the Business Education Alliance with former state school chief Joe Morton as chairman and president and former legislator Jay Love as finance chair.
Their agenda is driven by the following posted on their web site:
“Just as competitors force businesses to improve quality, service and products for their customers in order to maintain a share of the market, school choice does the same for education. Failing schools are provided the incentive they need in order to improve or risk losing students to better performing facilities.”
But as countless research studies have shown, this rationale is bogus.
BCA has also been a consistent cheerleader for the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, a scholarship granting organization created by former governor Bob Riley in the wake of passing the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013. Though the SGO, Scholarships for Kids in Birmingham, is the largest such organization in the state with more scholarships and contributions than AOSF, BCA pays them little attention.
Realizing what was going on, management of SFK decided to join BCA several years ago in hopes of also being promoted. Nothing changed and SFK pulled their membership.
After Mike Sentance was chosen as state superintendent in 2016, candidate Craig Pouncey sued Mary Scott Hunter for her role in discrediting his name and character. At present, this trial is scheduled for next March in a Montgomery circuit court. Many feel that Hunter was working to support BCA;’s agenda, because they did not want someone of Pouncey’s stature, heading the state department of education.
This trial will be watched closely by educators as it may shed more light on who is trying to pull the strings on education in Alabama and what their motives are.