When It Comes To Education, Too Many Legislators Just Don’t Get It

It was several years ago, I don’t remember how many.  But it doesn’t matter.  What does it that I remember the moments like they were yesterday.  I talked to the principals of two Montgomery elementary schools.  Both with about 500 students.

However, that’s where the similarities ended.  One was a magnet school.  One was a traditional school with a high rate of student  poverty.  I asked the principals of each how many members their PTAs had.  One had 800.  “We have all the mamas and daddies and most of the grandparents” I was told

It was a very different story at the other school where they had ONE parent member of the PTA.

Two entirely different cultures at these schools. One with a PTA that raises thousands of dollars each year to provide needed resources.  The other with no such support system.

And this is what most legislators seem to be clueless about.  It’s one reason I have suggested that every member of the legislature should spend at least four hours as a teacher’s aide in a classroom at a high poverty school.

Instead of trying to figure out where the blood is coming from, all we’re doing is looking for band-aides.

So we get things being considered in this legislative session like the bill by Senator Del March that says that any child can attend school in any system they wish to–so long as their parent pays “tuition” that equals the amount of local funding that system gets.  Which would be about $7,000 per student for someone going to a Mountain Brook school.

Or we get the bill from Representative Terri Collins that would give more funding to charter schools.  Or the one from Representative Charlotte Meadows to divert more money from public schools so that the Alabama Accountability Act can give out more scholarships to private schools–even though studies by the University of Alabama show these scholarship students are performing no better than their peers in public schools.

We’re simply tinkering around the edges.  Just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Just scrambling for more band-aides, and ignoring the real problems of that school with one parent in their PTA.

We love to talk about “failing schools” in Alabama.  Each year we designate about 75 of them.  But we don’t have “failing schools,” we have “failing school communities.”

And in a high poverty schools, we think teachers can solve all the problems.  Which is about as realistic as thinking Nick Saban could be head coach at Vanderbilt and still win the national championship.  Why is Saban such a good coach?  It begins with him getting the top players in the country.  In 2020 his recruiting class was ranked number two in the nation, while Vanderbilt’s was ranked no 53.

So when we bring up bills like those above, we are mistakenly thinking that football players at Vandy are as good as those at Bama.  That they can run as fast, are as big and strong and blessed with as much overall athletic ability.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Still, we constantly hear legislators talk about how they want to give kids from poor homes an option.  Is it realistic to think that parents who won’t even join a PTA, will come up with $7,000 a year to send their child to a Mountain Brook school?

(And don’t forget that when the Alabama Accountability Act was first passed it said kids in “failing schools” could transfer to other systems.  This quickly sent a chill through Birmingham’s “over the mountain” schools and the bill was amended to allow systems to pass a resolution saying they would not take such children.(

So what should we do?

We should adopt the approach of “community schools” that look at the whole child.  Not just their academics, but the totality of their lives.  Health issues, mental health concerns, dental care, mentoring, tutoring. etc.  We should have classes that teach mamas how to raise a child.

This isn’t easy.  It takes a lot of extra resources.  But there are systems all over the country doing this.  Cincinnati is an excellent example.  Several years ago Montgomery began a pilot community school program at two schools.  Then we brought in Mike Sentance from Massachusetts to be state school superintendent and when he intervened and took over the Montgomery system, he stopped these pilot programs.  But this was hardly a surprise since he was not an educator.

Neither or Collins, Meadows or Marsh.  Instead of dealing with the real issues some of our students face, they trot out their bills claiming they will work magic.  Which is about as realistic as believing that Vanderbilt will be national champions this fall.

 

A Sudden Fall From Grace

By now, most folks in Alabama know that Secretary of State John Merrill’s future in politics crashed and burned this week when he admitted that he had had a three-year extramarital affair.

None of us are such prudes as to think such things never happen.  But most are not nearly so public and the person vehemently denying having one is an elected official.

Merrill was once considered by many to be a rising star in state politics.  A graduate of the University of Alabama and SGA president while there, Merrill was elected to the state house of representatives from Tuscaloosa in 2010 and then Secretary of State in 2014.

Everyone knew he had ambitions for higher office.  In fact, not long after becoming Secretary of State to told some folks that his name was being floated as a potential gubernatorial candidate.  And he launched a bid for Jeff Sessions’ senate seat in 2019.. But this was soon aborted.

He also ran into hot water in 2015 when his name surfaced in a divorce deposition when the wife of a friend of his said she and Merrill had an affair. Merrill’s denials stretched credibility in light of the deposition.  A longtime attorney friend of mine has read the deposition and says it is very damning.

However, the straw that broke the camel’s back came to light this week.  On Tuesday, someone on social media mentioned his most recent liaison.  Merrill again went on the defensive, claiming the woman in question had been stalking him for a long time and they had not had a relationship..

Then the other shoe dropped on Wednesday when a taped telephone conversation between Merrill and the lady turned up.  It was  graphic and there was no denying Merrill was part of the conversation  At some point AL.com called Merrill and he immediately went into his denial routine.  Then they played him part of the tape.

At that point it was game over for the Secretary of State, who planned to run for Richard Shelby’s open senate seat in 2022.  He told AL.com that he would not run for the senate, or any other office, next year.  (The Secretary of State is term limited to only two terms.  Merrill is in his second term.)

Merrill is a tall, good-looking man and a tireless campaigner.  He is as good on the stump as anyone.

However, the fact that he has now been proven a hypocrite will follow him a very long time.  Merrill loved to sprinkle religious overtones in his speeches.  For instance, he told audiences that we no longer have any “morally uplifting” TV shows.  That we no longer have shows based on “biblical foundations.”  That people were too interested in things like “wife swap shows,”

The irony that he was ignoring the commandment about “thou shalt not commit adultery” is obvious.

And when you have someone who is proven to be a liar, cheat and hypocrite you certainly don’t see someone who should be trusted in any elected office.

(Though I must add, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that such qualities seem to be tolerated in Washington these days.)

Josh Moon Takes Del Marsh To The Woodshed

Editor’s note: John Moon of the Alabama Political Reporter, is one of the handful of investigative reporters left in Alabama.  As such he is used to taking politicians to task.  He recently took aim at Senator Del Marsh, a frequent opponent of public schools. for a bill he is proposing. Here are excerpts from his article:

“The bill, sponsored by Del Marsh, is the latest in a long line that takes from public schools and students that can least afford it.”

Somehow, State Senator Del Marsh managed to do worse. Yes, it was bad enough that Marsh brought to committee on Tuesday a bill that specifically allows public schools to deny entry to children with special needs — an abhorrent proposal and one specifically deemed illegal by federal law. And one the Republican-led committee passed in a 7-3 vote.

But despite the awfulness of such a proposal, that wasn’t the worst of Marsh’s time before the committee on Tuesday morning.

No, the worst of it was when Marsh, the biggest crutch for the Alabama Accountability Act, stood before the committee — while being questioned about his bill by Sen. Vivian Figures — and said that he was greatly troubled by Alabama’s current school funding structure and that he would love to see more money go to struggling schools.

“…. no one has done more to take funding from struggling schools over the past decade than Marsh.

Marsh was the primary sponsor of the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act, and he has been the sponsor of numerous “improvement” bills related to the Act. If you’re unfamiliar, the AAA was illegally passed and serves as a way to divert tax dollars that would ordinarily go to public schools and instead sends them to private, for-profit schools.

It does absolutely nothing to aid “failing schools” — most of which are located in economically depressed areas — but instead purposefully sucks money and students away from those schools and gives them to private schools.

He’s proposed legislation that has asked for more money for the AAA on at least two occasions. This despite the per-pupil allocation under the Act being higher for students attending private schools than it is for the students who remain enrolled in their zoned public schools.

Marsh also has asked for more money for the charters, proposing in 2019 that some local tax dollars also follow students to the charter schools.

Marsh is now back proposing yet another escape hatch. And of course, he’s also proposing a means to keep more vulnerable students — learning disabled kids this time — from clogging up the hatch. 

All of that is bad, of course. But it pales in comparison to the fact that it’s being proposed even while Marsh — and many, many others — knows where the real problem lies.” 

You can see the entire article here.

Charlotte Meadows Wants To Divert More Money From Public Schools

Montgomery freshman Republican house member Charlotte  Meadows wants to amend the current Alabama Accountability Act to allow donors giving to scholarship giving organizations (SGO) to get an even larger tax break than they currently can.  Each dollar given to a SGO is one less dollar going to the Education Trust Fund.

Presently donors get a 50 percent tax credit for half of their donation.  Meadows wants to increase this to 75 percent.

The Accountability Act has never lived up to its promises.

Figures from the Revenue Department  which administers the bill, show a total of $148 million have been donated in the past seven years.  Originally, total donations per year were capped at $25 million.  However, this was later changed to $30 million.  But records show that the cap has only been reached one time, an indication that the program has never been embraced by tax payers.

In fact, in 2019, the last year figures are available, donations were only $15.9 million, just slightly more than one half of the $30 million cap.  So Meadows has come up with her bill as a “workaround” in an effort to entice more contributions.

Of course, when this bill was rammed through the legislature under very strange circumstances in 2013, bill sponsor Senator Del Marsh wanted us to believe it was a magic potion which would “help poor students stuck in failing schools’.”  The only problem is that it has done anything but.  Numbers taken from SGO annual reports show that in the fall of 2020 there were only 2,925 students receiving AAA scholarships to private schools.  This was the lowest number since the program began..

And what about those students stuck in “failing schools?”  That never happened either.  Of the 2,925 last fall, only 33.4 percent met the qualification of “zoned” to attend a failing school.. And this number is bogus because a student can be zoned for a failing school, but have never set foot in one.

And how are these scholarship students doing?  Not very well says the The Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama which has now reviewed AAA three times.  In their most recent report, for school year 2018-19, the institute says, “Six years after the passage of the AAA, there is no evidence that the scholarship program has resulted in academic achievement that is superior to Alabama public schools.”

Is it any wonder that 24 local school boards have passed resolutions calling for AAA to be abolished?

Shortly after the bill was passed in 2013, Senator Marsh was asked why he did not consult with any educators when creating the bill.  Remarkably, his response was, “Because they might have objected to it.”

But give Marsh credit for one thing–he still refuses to work with educators.  Just yesterday in a committee meeting about another education bill sponsored by Marsh, when Senator Vivian Figures asked him if had talked to educators he said he had no interest in doing so.

The first post I wrote on the blog six years ago was about the Alabama Accountability Act.  I have written more than 100 others since then.

It was a scam back then, and time has proven that it still is.

AAA doesn’t need another amendment.  It needs to be abolished.

 

Terri Collins’ Charter Bill Hits Snag

Representative Terri Collins of Decatur chairs the House Education Policy Committee and has been an outspoken advocate of legislation opposed by many educators.

Her latest was a bill to divert more money to charter schools.  HB487 made it out of committee but when it got to the full house on April 1 Collins did not have enough votes to get it passed and pulled the bill from consideration.

One Republican house member told me that he felt that there were at least 80 votes opposing the bill.  With 105 members in the house, that would mean 75 percent of them were not for this legislation.  And while Collins can try and bring the bill back later, she is facing an uphill battle to get majority support.

Collins sponsored the original charter bill in 2015 and told one reporter that the bill “needs tweaking.”

Probably the major change Collins wants is to give charters funding from local education taxes, which they presently don’t receive.  This was the primary focus of pro-charter folks at the public hearing for the bill.

The bill also changes the way the state charter commission is set up.  There are 10 members on this commission presently who  serve staggered terms.  The governor, lt. governor, speaker of the house and senate pro tem recommend two nominees for each commission open seat and the state school board picks one of the two recommendations for the commission.  Under the Collins bill, the state board of education would be removed from this process and elected officials would name them directly.  Which, of course, interjects even more politics into education decisions.

No doubt the two year battle in Washington County over Woodland Prep charter played a role in opposition to Collins’ bill.  After a long effort by locals to stop this school, which was backed by folks in Texas and Utah, the charter commission revoked its charter last June.

House members from rural areas believe Woodland Prep played a big role in what happened last Thursday.  The fiasco in Washington County received wide spread media coverage and word of mouth traveled from one legislator to another.

Betty Brackin agrees.  She was one of the key figures in the county opposed to Woodland Prep.

“I believe prior to Woodland Prep this charter bill would have slid in without much fanfare,” said Bracken.  “But  Woodland Prep’s attempted invasion and our fight became known to people all over the state.  We were able to show the many flaws with the current charter law that allows outside companies to make large sums of money at the expense of our small community schools.

“It was not easy.  We had to be relentless with our visits to the Legislature and State School Board meetings.  They soon realized we were not going away. After all, if we lost our public schools, the hearts of our communities would have been destroyed.”

Bracken added, “Someone told me recently that many representatives have lost their taste for charters.  I can’t help but believe our fight helped make that happen.”

What happens now?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But the last thing any representative wants is for their bill to be defeated.  And at this point, Collins faces an uphill battle it appears.