Notes From A Quick Trip To Texas

I made it to the luncheon held by Pastors For Texas Children in Dallas June 17 safe and sound.  And home again to Montgomery.  A quick,  but fruitful, trip and glad I went.  I have mentioned this organization several times.  Begun a few years ago by Baptist minister Charlie Johnson, the group has nearly 2,000 affiliated churches who not only partner with local public schools, but advocate for them in the state legislature.

As Charlie says, “It is amazing the reception you get when you show up in a legislator’s office and say pastor so and so is here.” 

This year Texas increased their public education budget by $6 BILLION and Pastors For Texas Children played a role in this effort.  Two freshman senators who were key to this budget increase attended the luncheon.  Both defeated incumbent anti-public school senators in 2018.  Charlie’s organization, along with many others, were involved in these campaigns.

Similar groups to the one in Texas have now been formed in Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

We need to follow suit in Alabama.  Charlie would be glad to speak to ministers in Alabama.  (He has a special interest in Alabama since the grew up in Monroe County.)  If you know a minister who might be interested, please let me know.

Something that has long fascinated me about Texas is the number of public school advocacy groups they have.  I’m not talking about groups like our School Superintendents of Alabama or the Alabama Association of School Boards.  Texas has these.  But they have groups like the Texas Parent PAC, Friends of Texas Public Schools, Texas Kids Can’t Wait, Texans for Public Schools, etc.   All of these are driven by non-educators.

People who believe in public education and are glad to advocate for them.  If we have even one such organization in Alabama, I am unaware of them.

After nearly 20 years of watching charter school spread like a grass fire, there is now substantial pushback against them in Texas.  And for the first time ever, superintendents in local school districts are raising their voices.

This was very evident on June 14 when the state board of education heard a lot of testimony opposing new charter applications.  (This was when Soner Tarim, who has the management contracts for Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery, was turned down in this attempt to open new charters in Austin.)

Speaking of Tarim, I mentioned his name to a number of folks at the luncheon.  Let’s just say no one thought of him warmly, which may be why he is trying so hard to establish a presence in Alabama.

One of the first people I met at the event was Anette Carlisle of Amarillo.  When she learned I was from Alabama she immediately told me her in-laws were from Washington County and asked me if I knew where it was.  I grinned and told her that I do indeed.

Finally, as I do on most of my ventures, I drove.  And while I had to admit it, Father time is most certainly extracting a toll from my body.  The miles don’t roll by like they once did and every stop is a challenge to just stretch the kinks and make sure my legs still work.  All just a not-so-subtle reminder that I have a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows.

Governor Wants An Appointed State School Board. You Mean Like The Appointed Charter Commission?

Voters in Alabama will have a chance next March to approve, or turn down, a constitutional amendment that would replace our elected state school board with one appointed by the governor.  Governor Ivey calls this the “Take the Lead, Alabama” initiative.

But right now she has one huge problem.  The appointed 10-member state charter school commission has proven that it is little more than a bumbling, fumbling collection of ill-informed folks.  And the governor appoints four of the ten members of this group.  (The Speaker of the House appoints three, the President Pro Tem of the Senate appoints two and the Lt. Governor appoints one.)

As we’ve documented over and over, the charter commission’s handling of the applications to open Woodland Prep charter in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery has been a classic case of throwing common sense to the wind and failing to carry out due diligence.

On June 14 the Texas state board of education rejected a request from Soner Tarim to open new charter schools in Austin.  (Tarim owns Unity School Services which has management contracts with both LEAD and Woodland Prep.)  Yet on June 7 this same Soner Tarim appeared before the Alabama charter commission and they gave him everything he wanted and believed anything he said.

This is the same charter commission that ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to deny the applications of Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy and approved them anyhow.   And lo and behold, both Woodland Prep and LEAD Academy have management contracts with Tarim.

(Tarim recently told a group in Texas that the Alabama charter commission did not know what it was doing when it came to grading applications.  Of all the things I have heard Tarim say, this may be the only statement I believe.)

While Tarim is new to Alabama, he is well-known in Texas, having opened his first charter school there in 2000.  Which begs the question, what do folks in Texas know about him that folks in Alabama don’t?  There are 15 elected members of the Texas board of education.  Ten are Republicans, five are Democrats.  The vote against Tarim was 8-5.  Four Republicans voted against him.

The appointed charter commission is an albatross around the neck of Governor Ivey’s effort to get rid of an elected state school board.  If you are really concerned about the future of education in Alabama, it will be impossible to vote for an appointed state school board that might be as unprofessional as the appointed charter commission.





With Soner Tarim, It Is Always The Other Guy’s Fault

If wisdom comes with age–and I’m not sure it always does–at age 76 I should have learned something.  Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t.  But I do believe after so many years in so many different situations, I have figured out how to spot someone who can not be trusted.  Or as they say in Red Level, who can tell when someone is doing you-know-what on your leg and telling you it is raining.

This is my assessment of Soner Tarim.  No doubt the man is very smart.  You don’t earn a doctorate in biology and ecology without having a lot of sense.

Still, as you watch him in action and listen to him dodge direct questions, a little bell goes off in the back of your head.  Something there is just “too slick.”  Too glib.  You can’t pin him down.  One minute he says one thing, the next minute he contradicts himself.  Like when he told the Texas board of education that he never slams public schools and later said that the two teachers from Alabama who testified at the hearings where, in so many words, more interested in their jobs than anything else.

And nothing is ever his fault.  It’s always the other guy who is wrong.  This article from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper is a good example.  This was published June 13 after a host of people testified before a subcommittee saying they were opposed to Tarim’s application for Royal Public Schools.

Here are excerpts:

“Soner Tarim, the founder of Royal Public Schools, told the American-Statesman on Thursday that Austin school officials expressed the concerns because they fear the competition.

“That means whatever I have done in the past is working. Competition really hurts them,” said Tarim, who left Harmony Public Schools in 2017 after building the charter network into one of the largest in Texas.

Austin school district officials have rarely spoken against charter proposals in the past, but on Thursday, school officials pushed back. None of the campuses identified by Royal as low-performing failed under the state grading system last year, they said.

If Royal were allowed to open, the district could lose an estimated $85 million due to the loss of students to Royal schools over a 10-year period, according to Nicole Conley Johnson with the Austin district. Royal aims to enroll 2,390 students in Austin during that period.

Other criticisms of Royal are:

• Seven percent of students will be special education and 25% will be students who did not grow up learning English, far lower than what nearby Austin district schools serve.

• No current board members (for Royal schools) are from Austin.

• Insufficient counselors to properly implement social emotional learning.

• Between 7 and 34 people attended community meetings about Royal, which critics say demonstrate a lack of interest from the community.

Tarim responded to each criticism, respectively, by saying:

• Those percentages were based off of the student demographics of the schools around Alief and his school would aim to serve the same rate of special needs students as the Austin schools.  (Alief is a school district in Houston, not Austin.)

• Although not required, his board will include an Austin member if he wins approval from the State Board of Education.

• He denies it and says he will have sufficient counselors and that implementing social emotional learning to the degree he wants to will take time, just as Austin school district has taken.

• The turnout at the meetings do not necessarily show there is not a need for Royal in the community.”

The Alabama charter law was passed in 2015.  It obviously needs tweaking.  The Mississippi charter law says that for-profit management companies, like Unity School Services owned by Tarim that has contracts with Montgomery’s LEAD Academy and Washington County’s Wooland Prep, can not do business in the Magnolia State.

Which means Tarim can not do business there.  Alabama should consider amending our law to say the same thing.




Texas Rejects Soner Tarim’s Charter School Request

By a vote of 8-5, the Texas Board of Education on June 14 turned down an application by Soner Tarim to build four new charter schools.  Tarim is the consultant who has management contracts for Woodland Prep in Washington County and LEAD Academy in Montgomery..

Today’s meeting was in stark contrast to one in Montgomery June 7 when Tarim appeared before the Alabama Charter Commission to address questions about Woodland Prep.  While the Alabama folks accepted anything Tarim said as the gospel and failed to probe, members of the Texas board had obviously done their homework and zeroed in on discrepancies between what Tarim said in testimony and  information in his application.

For instance, board member Patricia Hardy had questions about Common Core.  Tarim said that his curriculum had no connection to Common Core and was “all Texas.”  Earlier Tarim bragged about getting a $30 million grant for Harmony Charters when he was CEO of the chain.  But Hardy pointed out that this was a Race To The Top grant from the U.S. Department of  Education and all recipients were required to incorporate Common Core standards.  Tarim had no response.

Editor’s note: Tarim wrote the application for LEAD Academy in Montgomery which states: Common Core in Practice: Great Teachers Demonstrate Moving to Deeper Learning.  America Achieves developed a series of videos demonstrating effective instruction aligned to the Common Core. These five videos show how teachers are putting the new standards into practice in their classrooms and how enthusiastically their students are responding.

When it came time for member Georgina Perez to question Tarim, she announced she had six pages of questions.  She peppered him about student applicants with discipline issues, special needs students, lack of diversity among management and much more.  She pointed out that the application for new charters Tarim wanted (known as Royal Charter Schools to serve the Austin area) said they would have 25 percent English language learners and seven percent special needs students and that both were far below the averages for the Austin school system.

She also pointed out that the top 16 managers in the Harmony network were all Turkish men and asked why there was no diversity.  Tarim replied that they were now looking for Latinos, African-Americans and women to serve in management positions.  To which Perez retorted, “Why has it taken you 20 years to figure this out?”

I watched the entire interview and one of the most interesting segments to me was when Tarim said that he works with local school districts and will not locate a school where the local superintendent has strong objections.  That flies in the face of the experience of Washington County superintendent John Dickey who strongly opposes Woodland Prep.

Tarim is hardly a stranger in Texas charter circles as he began his first Harmony school in 2000.  He was CEO until 2017.  So he has an extensive track record there.

Which begs the question after the vote: WHAT DOES TEXAS KNOW THAT ALABAMA DOESN’T?

I listened for two hours on June 7 when Tarim met with the Alabama charter commission and watched his entire interview with the Texas school board on June 14.  There was no comparison to how both bodies approached their duties.  One was very prepared and very professional.  The other.  Not so much.

The Texas folks were armed with facts and figures.  They pointed out inconsistencies between what Tarim said and what he had written.  The Alabama commission seemed more of a rubber stamp than anything.

Charter schools are now a fact of life in Alabama.  But it is our responsibility to make sure charters are managed in the best manner to serve our young people–not to be a cash cow for some for-profit management company.  Obviously Texas understands this.  Nothing I’ve seen yet in Alabama tells me we have.





The Lesson From Washington County For Rural Alabama

If someone from the Midwest showed up at your door and asked to see “rural Alabama,”  an excellent choice would be to get out a map and show them how to get to Washington County.  You see, this sprawling county of 1,000 square miles and less than 17,000 people fits under anyone’s definition of “rural.”

For instance. there are only 16 people per square mile.  This compares to a density for the state of 95 and 1,481 for Birmingham. (New Jersey is 1,195 and New York City is 26,403.)   The largest community in the county is Chatom, the county seat with 1,288.  The other four communities are Leroy (911), Millry (546), McIntosh (238) and Fruitdale (105).

And since there are not many adults, there are not many children either, as borne out by the fact that in the just-finished school year, enrollment was 2,650.  But hold on to your hat, the Washington County public school system is FAR from the smallest in the state.  In fact, of our 137 systems, 64 have fewer students than Washington County does.  Most of these are in rural locations, but not all.  There is Anniston city in Calhoun County, Tuscumbia city and Sheffield city both in Colbert County, Chickasaw city in Mobile County and Tarrant City in Jefferson County..

As surely as the sun comes up in the east, when you are small, money is harder to come by.  This is true whether you are a small church, a small business or a small school system.

In the case of Washington County, while there are 64 school systems with less enrollment, there are only 16 systems with less local funding per student.  The state average for local funding is $2,011 per student.  In Washington County it is $1,010.  This is a far cry from places like Mountain Brook city ($7,324), Vestavia Hills city ($5,159) and Homewood city ($4,917).  Looking at those systems smaller than Washington County you find Geneva County ranked 132 on local funding, Clarke County (120), Cleburne County (123) and Lamar County (136).

Point being, it is a challenge for small school systems to meet their financial needs.

The very last thing they need is for the state charter school commission to cast aside common sense and be bound and determined to plop a charter school down somewhere like Washington County and take dollars away from an already thinly stretched budget.  (In this case, if 260 students leave Washington County public schools to attend Woodland Prep, the county will lose more than $2 million.  And while charter proponents say “money follows the child,” they never mention the expenses left behind.

The public system still has utility bills, support personnel, custodians, bus drivers, etc. to pay.  I have never heard a utility company say “Since you have lost 10 percent of your funding, we will cut the cost of kilowatt hour by 10 percent.”

When it comes to rural Alabama, the charter school commission just doesn’t get it.  But then, until a month ago when Alliison Haygood from Boaz was put on the commission, there was no one on it from a rural location.  They have shown no understanding of how rural Alabama differs from urban Alabama.  They are so fixated on setting up charter schools that they ignore the disruption they are creating.

So.  The message should go out loud and clear from Washington County to all other small school systems in Alabama, when are they coming for you?.  Every lawmaker who serves in either the Alabama House or Senate needs to pay attention to what this charter school commission is doing.  To the fact that they either don’t understand the real world or just don’t give a damn.

Whichever it may be, it is not good for education in this state.