Did The State Shaft Montgomery On Charter Schools?

I think they did.  And so does Josh Moon, who writes for the Alabama Political Reporter.  Read his story here.

Here are parts of what Josh reports:

“There is a process in place to approve charter schools in Alabama.

When the Alabama Legislature passed the law allowing charters in the state, they spent some time putting together a written plan with steps that must be followed. Things like: any organization wishing to start a charter school must submit an application that includes a detailed plan with specifics about funding and student-teacher ratios and facilities.

That plan must be approved by the state’s charter school board, or by a local school board that has applied and received approval from the Alabama State Department of Education to become a charter school authorizer.

But before any plan can be approved, it must first be submitted to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, to which the state pays an annual fee to have all charter applications reviewed. The NACSA then makes a recommendation to the state’s charter school board or the local school board authorizers.

Last year, LEAD Academy became the city’s first-ever charter school, despite failing to satisfy any of NACSA’s criteria and failing to receive its recommendation. LEAD also failed to receive a majority of the state charter board’s vote — a fact that has left it in limbo after the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit and a Montgomery Circuit Court judge blocked its approval.

And now, the approval of four conversion charters has been pushed through, despite that plan also failing to meet NACSA’s approval and despite the Montgomery County School Board failing to vote for the charters’ approval.

The four conversion charters will be operated by the Montgomery Education Foundation. To date, the MPS board members said, the Foundation has not presented the board with a plan for approval.

Under the current charter schools law, that’s an important step, since the Department of Education considers the MPS board an official charter school authorizer.

But their application was rejected by the state and sent back to MPS to work on. The primary issue, according to the board members and people within MPS who worked on the application, was funding — the system lacked the financial resources to set up and operate an office devoted to authorizing charters.

The MPS application also received an unfavorable review from NACSA.

ALSDE, however, takes another view. According to Michael Sibley, the department’s director of communications, MPS’ original application “was never denied.” Instead, it was “left in pending status.”

And although the MPS board never addressed any of the concerns raised by NACSA, last January, “(interim superintendent Ed Richardson) removed the pending status,” Sibley said.   

“This is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” said an MPS employee. “There’s no way he has the authority to both approve the board as a charter authorizer and then approve four conversion charters using that authority.”

Josh raises valid points.  I do not think due process has been followed.

Local education foundations are scattered all across the state.  For the most part their role is to work with the local school systems and help them bring projects to fruition.  Jefferson County has had one for years.  They are housed in the building with the Jefferson County school system.  Sally Price ran this organization for years and retired recently.  I know her well.

She told me that were treated about like “a member of the family” and their purpose was to shore up efforts the system was putting in place and providing necessary financial support.  Many foundations run grant programs for teachers to provide supplies the system can not fund.  When I told Sally that the Montgomery foundation planned to get in the charter school business, she could not believe it.

I have never known what the Montgomery Education Foundation does.  Nor can I find anyone who is a Montgomery principal or teacher who does either.  When I was on the Montgomery school board, I asked other board members about MEF.  They were in the dark as much as I was.

When I went on the board last September one of the first things I did was ask superintendent Ann Roy Moore if we could have a work session with the foundation.  It never happened.

In the spring of 2018 MEF held a meeting at Lanier high school to tell the world how they planned to convert Lanier high, Bellingrath middle and Davis and E. D. Nixon elementary schools to charters.  They had not discussed this plan with the MPS board, nor with any principals involved.

Some 15-20 local people spoke,  NO ONE was in favor of the plan.  Ed Richardson was there.  Had Jesus spoken against this conversion it would not have mattered.  We were just all standing beside the railroad while this train sped by.

I later had lunch with Ann Sikes, who runs the Montgomery Education Foundation.  I asked how many blacks were on her board.  She told me 27 percent.  I told her that this didn’t look like either Montgomery which is 55 percent black, or the school system which is 78 percent black..  I asked how the board is selected.  She told me they “self select.”  I responded that this was like going to a family reunion looking for a date.

The Bourbon Democrats were the landowners, mill owners and mine owners who rose to power in Alabama after Reconstruction in the late 1800s.  They wrote the 1901 Alabama Constitution that said my grandpa Horace Lee, a Covington County sharecropper, could not vote because he did not own land.

From what I know about this situation, you can’t tell me the Bourbon Democrats aren’t still alive and well in Montgomery.


University Charter School Makes National News

Last summer we told you about the brand new charter school opening in Livingston, that is closely alighned with the University of  West Alabama.  I have been to the school and am very impressed.  The fact that its leadership is home grown can not be over emphasized.  It is not run by some so-called education management organization that is basically a hired gun.

The relationship between the university and the school is also critical.  Experts on almost any subject may just be a couple of buildings away.

But what drew attention to this venture, that began in the fall of 2018, is the makeup of the study body.  The fact that it is basically 50-50 black and white students means it is unique in the Black Belt where white faces in public schools are a rarity.  Many have said it is the first integrated school in Sumter County, though I doubt that is factually correct.

However, there is no doubt that it is the most integrated school ever in the county.  Which is why it caught the attention of folks as far away as New York City.  Like folks who work for NBC News.

So recently a film crew showed up to document what is going on.  You can see the segment aired on the Today show, Saturday, Jan. 19 right here.

It is well done and paints a much more positive picture of Alabama than most of us have come to expect.

The Iron Bowl And Education

As I watched the team in white (Auburn) get methodically picked apart by the team in red (Alabama) last Saturday to the tune of 52 points to 21 points, I couldn’t help but equate this to a situation unfolding in Montgomery about charter schools.

What IF the two teams switched uniforms at half time?  Would the team now wearing red continue to dominate the game?  Or would we still have the same players just in different uniforms?

Fantasy?  Not really.

Because this is what is being proposed by a plan of the Montgomery Education Foundation to convert some existing schools to charters.  When this plan was unveiled to the public at a meeting at Lanier high school months ago, we were told that the students who today attend the schools to be confiscated and made charters will remain the same.

This includes an elementary school where the principal guesstimates that 90 percent of her students come from single parent homes and where the PTA only has ONE parent member.

Let’s call them the team in white.

According to the charter conversion proponents, the school year will be lengthened at this school, more special services will be provided, an education management organization will be hired to run the school and existing teachers may be replaced by non-certified teachers.  And all of this will be done on the same amount of funding the school now receives.

In other words, the students are now the team in red, even though 90 percent of them still live in a single portent home and the PTA only has ONE parent member.

It will be nothing less than a miracle.

And since miracles don’t happen every day, it would seem that the good folks at the Montgomery Educatio0n Foundation would be so proud of what they are about to create that they would have rushed out and told the Montgomery school board what they were want to do and ask for their blessing and input.  However, that is not the case at all.  If anyone on the MPS board has been briefed about this plan, I don’t know who it is.  I certainly have not been.

THIS is what some folks in Montgomery consider progress?  Sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors?

God help us all.


Reinventing Education In West Alabama

The Black Belt has always been a study in contradictions.  Both bewitched and bewitching.  It was always the land that set the table for both wealth and grinding poverty.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, the scramble for new lands to grow cotton was on.  The Black Belt lay waiting.

Of the ten most populous counties in Alabama in 1850, five were in the Black Belt.  Greene county had more citizens than any other county in the state.  (Today it is the smallest county.)  These five counties had 18 percent of the state’s population in 1850.  Today they have two percent.

From the beginning, this region has had two cultures.  One white and one black.  The whites owned the land, the blacks were slaves who worked the cotton fields.  And probably nothing better illustrates this division than public schools.  There are six school systems in Lowndes, Dallas, Wilcox, Perry and Sumter counties.  Of their 12,022 students, 92.6 percent are black and 72 percent get free lunches.

It has been this way since desegregation, two generations ago.  There is little point to arguing if this is right or wrong.  It’s just important that we face reality.

Which brings us to a fascinating effort taking place on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston known as the University Charter School where nearly 300 students from pre-K through eighth grade have just begun a new school year.  The racial breakdown is about 55 percent black and 45 percent white.  Many of these students have never been in a class with someone of the opposite race.

The design of the course of study is unique in that it includes both traditional and non-traditional approaches to education.

In elementary school the morning is dedicated to traditional instruction with an hour each of reading, writing, and mathematics. The second half of the day for elementary includes recess, place-based education (PBE) and an hour of specials/elective courses. For middle school, their entire day rotates back and forth through traditional courses (math, reading, writing, and science) and non-traditional, custom courses  called STREAM  (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, math) and PBE. They start their day with an hour of specials/elective courses and then rotate through the rest of their courses in 45-minute blocks.

All students have a daily 60-minute block of PBE. Teachers plan lessons/units based on the interests of their students. For example,  students are interested in the history of the Livingston area. Based on this, teachers have been working a project where the students find local people to interview to create a compilation (a documentary in elementary and individual oral history accounts in middle school) of the history of Livingston and what the area has to offer to visitors as told by the public figures and long-time residents in the town.

As this project progresses, teachers will work on other necessary skills with literacy (writing from the voice of a journalist), career exploration (doing research on the job titles and responsibilities of the community figures chosen to be interviewed), interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (eye contact, greetings, formality, dressing for interviews, best practices for interviewing), and other related topics. As this project nears completion, the same process repeats where teachers start surveying student’s’ current interest to build a unit that brings in multiple skills and content to complete through project-based learning.

The goal, since this PBE time is the same for all students in all grade levels, is to have students sign up for their favorite PBE topic so that students of various grades can work together instead of keeping them contained by their birthday.

I recently visited a fifth-grade class where two days a week the course is taught by a college instructor with a background in theatre/drama, and three days by teachers with backgrounds in coding, computer science, and mechanical engineering. Students study aspects of theatre and learn to code robots with the other teachers. Coding will reenact some of the plays, movies, and texts they study.

One example is studying The Wizard of Oz. One instructor teaches costuming, lighting, stage design, etc. while other teachers (the ones with engineering and computer science backgrounds) continue to work on coding and programming to have the robots reenact parts of the performance.  Such as the scene where the characters circle around the start of The Yellow Brick Road and then continue down its path. The students will have to use precise mathematical calculations to successfully program the robot to maneuver correctly

A key component of the school is parental engagement.  A Parent Academy meets monthly with the purpose of educating parents on instructional and operational life at UCS. Parents have learned about plans for handing out iPads to each student, the security to keep students safe, how parents have access to the content students access on their iPads and how they can access this at home.

Being associated with UWA is significant because a number of university professors can work as adjuncts in the charter school.

All in all, it is quite a venture.  Not only because they are breaking the mold of how most schools approach education, but equally as much as to its impact on the local community and any success it may have in breaking long-held perceptions.

Editor’s note: Few things in education are more controversial than charter schools.  Their original intent was to be places of innovation and partners with more traditional public schools.  However, it didn’t take long for this concept to become bastardized and dollars replaced good intentions.  I have written many pieces about charter shortcomings.

But I have long maintained that each potential charter should be examined carefully on a case by case basis, not simply turned over to some group with little real experience in education whose first step is engaging some management group.

Because I know the people so well at UWA and their motives, resources and experience and because I understand the unique cultural challenges of the Black Belt, I fully support this effort and will watch them closely.






Nashville Charters Having Big Problems

Will Pinkston has been on the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education since being elected in 2012.  He is not a fan of charter schools as  he explains in this article in the Nashville Tennessean.

According to Pinkston:

“It was just a matter of time before the wheels came off Nashville’s charter school industry. This year, it’s finally happening.

“Advocates for charters — publicly funded private schools — have long argued they’re the best approach for improving K-12 public education. But national research shows, and now a series of new local developments reinforces, that charters are just a collective ruse pushed by special interests trying to privatize our school system.

The latest example is RePublic Schools. In March a federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit brought by Nashville parents who complained their families are being subjected to illegal hardball recruiting tactics by the charter chain.

RePublic allegedly sent text messages to thousands of parents. As it turns out, RePublic harvested student and family contact information from a Metro Nashville Public Schools database, then turned over the personal information to an out-of-state vendor that generated the texts.

On March 7 WSMV-TV reported that California-based Rocketship isn’t providing legally required services to students with disabilities and English language learners. A report by the Tennessee Department of Education even found that Rocketship is forcing homeless students to scrape together money to pay for uniforms.

Despite failing to serve its current students, Rocketship routinely makes end-runs around the local school board to seek state approval of more charters. That’s because Rocketship’s growth isn’t driven by what’s best for kids but rather by its real-estate deals with Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a for-profit investment fund co-managed by tennis star Andre Agassi.

In other words, contrary to popular myth, charters do not deliver equal educational services at equal or less value than traditional schools.

Many people predicted this day would come. We just weren’t sure when.”

This is quite a different story than I recently heard at a public meeting in Montgomery when we were told that the solution to our woes is to convert five public schools to charters.



Montgomery Charter Plan Runs Into Buzz Saw At Public Hearing

There was a public hearing at Montgomery’s Lanier High school April  5 to discuss the plans of the Montgomery Education Foundation to turn five local schools into charter schools.

After a presentation by the education foundation about what the plan encompasses and breakout sessions where people could get questions answered, the session was opened for public comments.  Of the 15-20 people who spoke, NOT A SINGLE SOUL spoke in favor of the idea of converting Lanier high school, Bellingrath middle and Nixon, Floyd and Davis elementary to charters.

And if more who were there were like me, they left with far more questions than answers.

For instance, why were the principals of the elementary schools involved not consulted prior to this meeting?  That seems just common courtesy.  But I went by two schools the afternoon of the meeting and principals told me they had no clue what was going on.

Yet, under this plan each of these schools will basically be “confiscated” and run by an education management organization.  All staff will have to reapply for their  jobs.  There are no assurances that anyone will be asked to stay.  They can be replaced by non-certified teachers.

So here is a principal like Dana Williams at Nixon who has put 60+ hours a week into this school for the past three years and no one tells her what is going on.  That is just plain wrong.  I nave never met a  principal who doesn’t think every child in their school is their baby.  Working with children is not their job, it is their calling.  They deserve more respect.

We were told that the school year would go from 178 to 190 days.  That teachers would get an extra ten days of professional development and that each staff would see an influx of special ed and other support staff.

And it would all be done on the same amount of money now spent per pupil that all MPS schools get.  You have to suspend common sense to buy into that notion.

One thing we were not told is that research shows that there is much more turnover in teachers in charters as compared to public schools.  Look at this info from Texas.  

The article states, “Teachers quit Texas charter schools at nearly three times the rate of traditional public school districts, according to state data. Dozens of individual schools lost well over half their teachers in the latest year.”  It goes on to report a study from the Texas Center for Education Research showing turnover rate for charters at 43 percent, compared to 16 percent at traditional public schools.

At one charter chain of seven schools, the average teacher was 25 years old and average pay statewide for charter teachers was 79 percent that of public school teachers.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about education knows that constant teacher turnover is not good for a school or its students.

I recently wrote that distrust is damaging Montgomery public schools.  Unfortunately the meeting at Lanier was just another example of what I wrote about.

Rather than having a public meeting to tell folks what some group had already decided to do with their schools, why not a meeting to ask the public what they want from their schools and how can we be a part of making that happen?

Charter schools are a lightening rod.  They have been researched endlessly.  For every report someone can dredge up that they are good, I can find one that says they are not.  It makes no sense to roll a grenade into the middle of a situation that is already a mess.  We need consensus, not more chaos.

there are plenty of ways for the education foundation to help this school system.  Go to Huntsville and look at the health clinics and dental clinic located on the grounds of high-poverty schools.  Montgomery needs the same things.  Go to Cincinnati and look at the 50 community-centered schools where they are striving to meet the needs of the whole child and having success.  Go to Jefferson County, AL where their education foundation is supporting teacher mentoring programs and career tech academies.

Go to Fort Worth and visit with my friend, Baptist minister Charlie Johnson and learn about Texas Pastors for Children that now has a coalition of 1,000 churches partnering with local schools.  Charlie grew up in Monroe County, AL and  would love to come work with ministers in Montgomery.

Montgomery schools need all hands on deck, especially right now.  The Montgomery Education Foundation can be a very positive force and should be.  They should be part of the solution–not part of the problem.