An Honest Look At Education Today

Raise Your Hand Texas is a public school advocacy group based in Austin.  Among the many things they are involved in is an on-going effort to tell the story of today’s schools and what teachers are asked to cope with.

As they say: “Being an educator in today’s schools is hard work. Harder than ever. The expectations are high, and rightfully so. The future of Texas is in our public schools – the future of our economy, communities, and citizenry – and so the responsibility of educators to prepare students to be successful after graduation is tremendous.

The work of educators is made more challenging by inadequate funding for public education, a long history of misguided negative rhetoric about our schools, fast-changing student and family demographics, and a shifting accountability landscape. And yet, every day they face these challenges head-on. They dig deep into their own pockets to provide students with classroom essentials. They work diligently to deliver a high-quality education to every student. And they go way beyond their job descriptions to address student needs.

For that, educators deserve our respect and support.

If you know a teacher or school leader who deserves a little thank you, a little appreciation, we hope you’ll share this video with them. And if you’re an educator, this one’s for you. We created this as one small way to show educators that we see all that they do, for every student, and that we honor them for preparing the future.”

Please watch this video of less than two minutes.  And even better, share it with others, especially local elected officials and legislators.  Alabama teachers face the same challenges as their counterparts in Texas.

Honk If You Have Seen Jason Taylor

When then state superintendent Mike Sentence took over the Montgomery County school system early in 2017 one of his first moves was to sign a three-year. no-bid contract for $708,000 to bring Huntsville City school’s Chief Financial Officer, Jason Taylor, to Montgomery.

Actually the contract was with Northbay Strategic Partners LLC, an entity hastily put together by Taylor.

Taylor did begin working on Montgomery’s financials, which were a mess to say the least.  However, from conversations I have had with other CFOs and local superintendents around the state, Taylor many have been better at sleight of hand than anything else.  Those familiar with Taylor’s work in Montgomery were skeptical of how he was shifting funds from one account to another.  They did not agree with his actions.

But we are now months beyond when Taylor entered the picture.  Mike Sentance is long gone and Eric Mackey is now state superintendent.

But where is Jason Taylor?

All we know for sure is that the state is still paying Northbay Strategic Partners $19,250 a month   According to the state open checkbook web site, his last check was Sept. 13.  The first check was May 17, 2017.  We have now paid Northbay $346,875.

Montgomery County has its own CFO these days, Arthur Watts.  He started in late July.

Since being appointed to the Montgomery board Aug. 31, I have asked several other board members if they knew where Taylor is or what he is doing.  None had a clue.

So at the first board meeting I attended on Sept. 11, which was a budget hearing, I asked publicly about Taylor.  Terry Roller is the state’s chief administrative officer for the intervention these days.  He told me Taylor no longer has any duties involving Montgomery.  However, this not what state superintendent Mackey says.

After I inquired about Taylor to a state board member, Mackey said that Taylor is very engaged trying to get Montgomery’s financial house in order. He was also adamant that MPS is not paying any of Taylor’s contract.

I am not the only one curious about what Taylor is doing and where he is.  Josh Moon with Alabama Political Reporter is also asking questions–and coming up as blank as I am.

Of course I am glad MPS is not writing Taylor’s monthly check for $19,250–but that is beside the point.  I also pay state taxes and the fact that the state is paying this much a month and doesn’t appear to know what its for does not sit well with me.

I gave $50 today to a teacher at Ware’s Ferry elementary in Montgomery to buy tables for her classroom.  I did this through the web site.  This is the fifth such donation I’ve made in recent weeks.  At this moment there are 47 projects at 16 Montgomery schools listed on this site.  They need $42,000 to buy cleaning supplies, books, paper, chrome books, etc.

Three checks to Jason Taylor would way more than fund each of these projects.

If Jason Taylor is really doing something worth while for education in Alabama, fine.  But the fact that we don’t seem to know blows my mind.  Maybe if he shows up he will donate some money to MPS schools.



Two Weeks And Counting

It has now been two weeks and two days (August 31) since I was sworn in to serve the remainder of a term on the Montgomery school board.  Of course, the view is always different on the inside looking out than on the outside looking in.  And so it is here.

One of the things I’m trying to do is get a better “feel” for this system and its schools.  For me, that means seeing things with my own eyes and listening to people with my own ears.

To this end I have joined one PTA (at a school where the PTA is apparently on life support), gave $100 to support a school program, attended a pep rally, went to one open house, attended a ceremony recognizing nine National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists and attended a ceremony recognizing those who helped Booker T. Washington high relocate after a recent fire.

I have visited three schools.

Also had two board meetings dealing with the next system budget and spent six hours at the Alabama Association of School Boards in a training session.

During my campaign I said repeatedly that if done properly, service on this school board calls for a much bigger commitment of time than most people realize.  I still think that.  And probably even more so.

As I’ve said before, I think Montgomery has more of a COMMUNITY problem than an EDUCATION problem.  Of course, we have major education issues–but until this community decides to truly become engaged to help schools, until we look at public schools as “OUR” schools, until a lot more citizens ask what can I do to help, meaningful progress will largely be wishful thinking.




Saluting National Merit Scholarship Semi-Finalists

One  of the highest recognitions a high school senior can receive is becoming a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist.  The current group of Alabama students to gain this honor has just been announced.  There are 215 of them, from both private and public schools. put together a list of all these students.  You can see it here.

I attended the ceremony at Loveless Academic Magnet Program high school here in Montgomery where nine seniors were recognized.  A very, very impressive group.  Congratulations to one and all.


Father Time Taps Auburn Alum On The Shoulder

How many times have I been part of the multitude gathered in Auburn to watch a football game?  No earthy idea.  The first one was in the fall of 1961 back when Shug Jordan was coach and the stadium held about 40,000 people.

No million dollar contracts for coaches, no ESPN, no giant video boards.  If there were RVs and reserved parking I didn’t know about them.

And Saturday night, Sept. 8, as I waited in the stands for the kickoff of Auburn vs. Alabama State I was flooded with memories.  This is where I watched all three of Auburn’s Heisman players perform.  Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson and Cam Newton.  I saw Auburn beat Alabama in Auburn for the first time ever in 1989.  I saw Auburn come up with miracle finishes to beat Georgia and then Alabama in 2013.

I got season tickets for years and remember Auburn beating LSU in the fourth quarter on pass interceptions run back for touchdowns.  And suffering through too many seasons of Doug Barfield and his woeful teams.

But it was last Saturday when I finally came to know that the thrill of being in the stadium is about gone.  It’s been creeping up on me for several years.  Once the hustle and bustle of being there in person was not given a second thought.  But no more.

Several years ago I started taking the shuttle bus to the stadium.  Which makes far more sense to me than trying to find a parking place that may be way away from the stadium.  The bus lets you off about two blocks from the stadium and takes you back to your car away from traffic jams.  But too many sausage and biscuits and too little exercise have made even this journey on foot more of a march than a walk in the park.  You sweat like someone heading to their cell on death row.

Your steps are much more measured and no guard rail goes unused.  You climb stadium steps more gingerly and pray you don’t stumble.  Other old-timers navigate cautiously and you know deep inside you are their carbon copy.

The calm and cool of your living room, with the big screen TV and 10 steps to the bathroom seems all the more inviting.  Midway through the third quarter you leave.  There is not a dry stitch on you.

You pause and look around just before you enter the exit tunnel and quietly utter, “Thanks for the memories.”

You may some day return–or you may not.  But you know for sure that either way, Father Time has claimed another one.

University Of Alabama Study Shows Accountability Act Scholarship Students No Better Academically Than Public School Students

The Alabama Revenue Department has made public another study by the University of Alabama assessing performance of students attending private schools on Accountability Act scholarships in comparison to students in public schools.  Grades were reviewed from the 2016-17 academic year..

Bottom line: Scholarship students do no better academically than public school students.

The report states,” …comparison between the scholarship students and the students attending public schools in Alabama generally indicate that the two groups continue to fall short of meeting the benchmarks on standardized tests.”

To see the entire report, go here.

Following is the executive summary of the report.

Points that are especially noteworthy:

  •  34 percent of students were “zoned” to attend a failing school.  This means the percentage who actually may have attended a failing schools was significantly less.
  • 73 percent of students had been in their private school for at least three years.
  • On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized tests scores”.

Once again we have to question why we are diverting $30 million annually from the Education Trust Fund to support a program yielding such limited results.

Executive Summary

This report fulfills the evaluation requirements of the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act by reporting on the academic achievement of the 2016-2017 scholarship recipients.

The report focuses on three objectives: 1. Describe the academic achievement of students in the scholarship program. 2. Compare scholarship recipients to Alabama public school students. 3. Assess changes in achievement across time.

Scholarship Granting Organizations provided demographic information and achievement test scores for scholarship recipients. Achievement test score information for Alabama public school students was retrieved from the State Department of Education website.

Some challenges were encountered in conducting the evaluation:

The lack of a uniform achievement test among schools constrained the description of the achievement of scholarship recipients and the comparisons that could be made to Alabama public school students.

Norm-referenced tests (e.g., the Stanford Achievement Test) and criterion-referenced tests (e.g., ACT Aspire) are based on different standards and cannot be directly compared.

Some achievement tests were used by only one school or included only a small number of students, making analyses unreliable.

The test score information available from the Alabama State Department of Education only includes the percentage of students in proficiency groups based on ACT Aspire and ACT College Entrance Exam scores, which limited the types of analyses that could be conducted.

Inconsistencies in test score reporting from schools and missing test data limited the number of students who could be included in the evaluation sample.

The evaluation was based upon test scores from 1,991 scholarship recipients attending 114 schools in 43 counties. This represented 76% of the scholarship recipients in the grades for which testing was required. These students varied in their demographic characteristics:

Number of years receiving a scholarship: o 15% were first time scholarship recipients. o 11% were two-time scholarship recipients. o 51% were three-time recipients. o 22% were in their fourth year. • 90% were eligible for free/reduced lunch subsidies. • 34% were zoned to attend a failing school. • 62% were Black/African American, 20% were White/Caucasian, and 11% were Hispanic..

Although this report can show trends for this subsample of scholarship recipients, due to the necessity of excluding a significant proportion of scholarship recipients (24%) from analyses, findings may not be representative of all of the scholarship recipients.

Findings for Objective 1: Describe the academic achievement of students in the scholarship program. • On norm-referenced tests, scholarship recipients generally performed below the average U.S. student at their grade level. • On criterion-referenced tests, the majority of scholarship recipients failed to meet benchmark proficiency scores. • Outcomes were even poorer for African-American participants who made up the majority of scholarship recipients (65%). • These findings are similar to those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for students attending public schools in Alabama.

Findings for Objective 2: Compare the learning achievement of scholarship recipients to students scholarship recipients and students attending Alabama public schools.  .• There were very few subject areas in which more than 50% of the students met proficiency standards for either group of students. • For the ACT Aspire, comparisons did not present a clear pattern across subjects and grade levels to indicate that one group performed better or worse than the other. • Overall, scholarship recipients in the 11th grade performed about the same as their public school counterparts on the ACT.

Findings for Objective 3: Assess changes in achievement across time. • On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized tests scores. • On the ACT Aspire, students were more likely to remain in a non-proficient category than to improve. Although proficiency rates for 2016-2017 were higher for scholarship students than those of Alabama poverty students, the majority of students in both groups did not meet proficiency benchmarks. • The overall lack of change over time follows the same pattern seen in public school students in Alabama and is likely not attributable to participation in the scholarship program.

Issues for Future Evaluations: • Drawing conclusions regarding the academic achievement of scholarship recipients relative to students attending public schools depends on the number of schools with scholarship recipients that use tests that are utilized by ALSDE in the future. • ALSDE discontinued the use of the ACT Aspire for the 2017-2018 academic year, and may change achievement tests again in 2018-2019. This will further constrain comparisons between attending Alabama public schools over time.

Tracking Montgomery County School Board Races

It seems the election for members of the Montgomery County school board is like the Energizer Bunny–it just keeps going and going and going.

Actually they have been going since last Feb. 9 which was the last day for candidates to qualify. This board has seven members who serve staggered terms.  Two of the incumbents, Mary Briers and Arica Smith, did not have to run this year.  Two incumbents did not seek re-election, Durden Dean and Eleanor Dawkins, while three incumbents ran again.  They were Robert Porterfield, Melissa Snowden and Lesa Keith.

Porterfield lost to challenger Claudia Mitchell in the Democrat runoff, while Snowden .lost to challenger Jannah Bailey in the June 5 Republican primary.  Keith, a Republican, had no opposition in her primary and is being challenged by Marcus Vandiver in the Nov. 6 general election.  Vandiver won the Democrat runoff for this seat.

More than 20 candidates qualified last winter, six are still standing and will face off in November.

Let’s take a close look at each board member district:

District 1–Republican incumbent Lesa Keith was elected in 2014.  She is a retired teacher.  Her Democrat challenger Marcus Vandiver works for the state department of education.  To date, Keith has filed no financial paperwork with the Secretary of State.  Candidates are required to file once they raise or spend $1,000.

Vandiver only shows having raised $50 in August and has a balance of minus $51.37.  However, he has raised a total of $7,630 since qualifying.

District 2–Incumbent Durden Dean did not run for re-election and the Nov. 6 contest between Republican Ted Lowry and Democrat Clare Weil promises to be very competitive.  (This is the district I ran for and therefore, know it better than the others.)

Weils’s financial report for August shows she means business.  She raised $6,450 from 40 contributors and another $734 from unitemized donations.  (Contributions of less than $100 do not have to be itemized, though most candidates do.)  By comparison, Lowery had $3,300 in donations, but only had two individual contributions, other than $200 from himself.  He got $2,500 from the Alabama Realtors PAC.

Of the $18,935 Lowry shows in total money raised, $7,000 has come from political actions committees.  By comparison Weil has raised $20,119, none from PACs.  And Weil shows more individual contributions (40) in August than Lowry does for his entire campaign.  The fact she is from a well-known Montgomery family is reflected in her more than 150 individual contributors.

District 3–Democrat incumbent Eleanor Dawkins did not run for re-election.  Retired educator Brenda DeRamus-Coleman won the Democrat primary and since there is no Republican challenger, DeRamus-Coleman will be seated Dec. 1.

District 4–Incumbent Democrat Mary Briers did not have to run this year and has two years left in her term.

District 5–Incumbent Republican Melissa Snowden lost to newcomer Jannah Bailey in June.  Retired educator Rhonda Oats will face Bailey in the general election.  Oats successfully navigated both the Democrat primary and runoff to earn her spot.  Bailey has raised a total of $27,135 since her campaign began (with $6,095 from PACs).  This is far ahead of the $5,061 Oats has raised.

However, the August reports paints a bit different picture.  Bailey showed one $500 donation and a cash balance of $1,706 while Oats raised $477 and had a balance of $521.

District 6–Robert Porterfield, who presently serves as president of the board, lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Claudia Mitchell in the runoff.  Since there is no Republican in this race, Mitchell, like DeRamus-Coleman, will be seated Dec. 1.

District 7–Arica Smith is the incumbent and did not have to run in 2018.  So she remains on the board.

Montgomery is decidedly Democrat.  Democrat Parker Griffin beat Republican Robert Bentley decisively in the general election for governor in 2014.   Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election and Doug Jones trounced Roy Moore in the 2017 special election for U.S. Senate with 72% of the vote.

Given this, it is insightful to look at the three school board seats presently held by Republicans, Districts 1, 2 and 5, as to how they voted in 2017 and 2016.  Trump won all three in his race with Hillary Clinton.  He took District 1, 51%-49%; District 2, 53%-47% and District 5, 51%-49%.  None of these were landslides.

By comparison, Jones clobbered Moore in each.  He got 62% in District 1, 61% in District 2 and 69% in 5.  So the potential for any of these flipping from Republican to Democrat is certainly there.  However, as always voter turnout will be important.  Presidential elections always boost turnout.  Montgomery County had 95,000 votes in the 2016 Presidential and only 57,000 in the governor’s race in 2014.  (The 2017 special had 66,000.)

At this point, nothing indicates any increased interest in the November general election.  While I do think Democrat Walt Maddox may do better in his race with Governor Kay Ivey than many think, I don’t think he wins.  However, if there is a strong Democrat effort to turn out votes, as there was for Doug Jones in 2017 as the numbers above show, it makes the Democrats in District 1, 2 and 5 very competitive.

A new “player” in this year’s election is a political action committee closely aligned with Mayor Todd Strange and the chamber of commerce.  It files reports to the Secretary of State under the title MGM NXT PAC.  Its expressed purpose has been to defeat incumbent board members.  District 5 incumbent Melissa Snowden was one of their targets.

They targeted me in District 2, though I was not an incumbent.  And they supported Lowry and Weil with mail outs.  While records show they have raised $101,762 and spent $99,714 so far, they show no contributions in August and spending only $740.  So they may consider their job done.  (It is interesting that though this PAC paid for mailing in support of certain candidates, none of these candidates show these as “in-kind” contributions to their campaigns).

Notable contributors to this PAC include: Dave Borden, former MPS board member ($7,500); realtor Jimmy Lowder ($2,500); realtor Owen Aronov ($5,000);  chamber of commerce employee Sheron Rose ($700): Mayor Todd Strange ($2,000) Thomas Rains ($800) employee of A+ Education Partnership; Mac McLeod, chief of staff for Mayor Strange ($2,500): Goodwyn Mills & Cawood ($5,525) and Stivers Ford ($5,000).


When Did Rube Goldberg Highjack Public Education?

Rube Goldberg is a name that will sound vaguely familiar to many of you–but you don’t know why.

Goldberg was born in San Francisco in 1883 and though he graduated from the University of California with a degree in engineering, he gained fame as a newspaper cartoonist.  He was noted for drawing cartoons depicting complicated gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways, giving rise to the term Rube Goldberg machines.

He even won a Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons and today there is a national Rube Goldberg machine contest where high school and college teams build contraptions that have to complete a certain task.

For an up close and personal look at some Rube Goldberg machines, go here.

As I’ve poked around in public education for the last decade I have often thought that what education has today morphed into reminds me of a Rube Goldberg device more than anything else.  By this I mean it seems we basically continue to add to and add to whatever we are supposed to be trying to achieve education wise until we end up with an insufferable number of rules, regulations, steps and mis-steps between good intentions and the classroom.

And now, having been appointed to serve on the Montgomery County school board for the next three months and having spent nearly six hours earlier today in a training session about how school boards work, who does what, and the myriad of rules and regulations associated with EVERYTHING, I am thinking more and more of Rube Goldberg.

There are wonderful, intelligent and dedicated professionals doing their damnest to make sure our young people get good educations.  But to this country boy, it appears we have burdened them with more “stuff” than Carter has liver pills.  It seems we are drowning in a typhoon of paperwork and bureaucratizing the process to the point of unreasonableness.

Yes, I know we want to ensure equality and equity and ensure fair treatment to all children and level the playing field as much as possible. but have we gone overboard?  Is it really necessary to Rube Goldberg any and everything?

Were I czar (and trust me, I am not even czar fourth class) I would have all central office personnel at both the local and state level carefully consider every single piece of paper or documentation they handle and ask if schools would cease to function if that form did not exist?




In A Strange Twist Of Fate, I Am Now On The Montgomery School Board

Yes, sometimes life takes twists and turns that we never would imagine.

Exhibit A is the fact that just after noon today (Aug. 31) I was sworn in as a member of the Montgomery County school board for District 2.  This is the seat I ran for earlier in the year and lost the election on June 5.

So here is what happened.  The incumbent, Durden Dean, was giving up his seat to move to North Carolina to be closer to grandkids.  To my knowledge, he originally planned to stay through the end of his term that ends Nov. 30.  However, the tug of grandkids came into play and Durden resigned his position effective Aug 28..

This meant the MPS board could name someone to fill out the rest of his term. I sent an email to all board members when I got the news and told them that I would consider filling this position.

I was picked in a special called meeting.  Here is the story in the Montgomery Advertiser.

Obviously I am grateful for this vote of confidence.  And though I will serve for only three months, every journey begins with a step and hopefully I can be part of taking some positive ones for this community and school system.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can ask a lot of questions.  (Maybe this is why I became a journalist.)  And I already have a number of them.

I also know that real education takes place in schools and classrooms and it is very important that those who make decisions about education work hard to keep in touch with the reality of classrooms and listen to teachers and principals at every opportunity.  Since being sworn in today, I have been in two schools.  I will be in many more in the next three months.

Six Years Later, 3,436 Students Still Waiting For Help From Accountability Act

When the Alabama Accountability Act was passed in 2013 we were told over and over that it was all about helping low income students.  And we were told that competition would save “failing” schools.

It went like this: some schools would work really hard to get out from under the “failing school” stigma.  Because their students could transfer to non-failing schools or get scholarships to private schools, either of which would cause them to lose funding, they would compete hard to prevent this from happening.

But the accountability act did not tell these schools what they needed to do to get better, nor did it provide them extra resources to help struggling students.  We just patted them on the head and wished them well.  Didn’t matter if there was not another non-failing school in their system to transfer to, nor a private school participating in the scholarship program, we just wished them well.

Today, there are eight schools that were on the first “failing” list in 2013 that are still there.  There are 3,436 students in these schools.  Of these, 72.1 percent are black and 92.5 percent get free lunches.

They are: Bullock County high; Carver middle in Greene County; B. T. Washington middle and Scarborough Middle in Mobile;  Bellingrath middle in Montgomery; Camden School of Arts in Wilcox County; Hudson Middle in the Selma city system and Central High in Tuscaloosa city.  Basically they are forgotten schools full of invisible students.

Since 2013 we have diverted $147 million from the Education Trust Fund to provide scholarships to private schools.  But how much help have we diverted to those 3,436 students in the eight schools just listed?

Look carefully at the language in the first Alabama Accountability Act and you find it mentions “tax credits” 28 times and “failing schools” 27 times.  This bill was amended in 2015 to restate the purpose of the legislation.  Interestingly enough, the 2015 version mentions “tax credits” 22 times and “failing schools” only 10 times.

This would probably not be a surprise to any of the 3,436 students in these eight schools.