Catching Up With Richard Bryant

The phone rang at 10:15 p.m. Sunday night.  My first reaction was, “Who in the world is calling at this time of night?”  When I saw that the my cell phone screen said UNAVAILABLE I was really curious.  I immediately thought there was no way this was good news.

But I was wrong.  It was my friend Richard Bryant from Wilcox County returning my call from earlier in the day.

I met Richard when we did the study, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, in 2008-09He was principal at F. S. Ervin elementary in Pine Hill on the west side of the county.  And a good one.  The school is tucked away on a side street, out of sight of those who zip through town on highway 10.  It was Richard’s pride and joy until he retired in 2011 after 40 years in education.

The school was a tribute to his dedication.  Neat as a pin inside, landscaped outside.  Richard said the school was painted each year, even though the school board gave him no money to buy paint.  But this didn’t deter him because he was very resourceful and had a lot of friends he didn’t mind calling on to help the school.

For instance, he would ask community members what they were doing next Saturday morning.  When they wanted to know why he asked, he told them, “We’re mowing grass and thought you might help.”  If they said they already had plans and could not help, he was likely to then ask if they could give him a gallon or two of gasoline.

When he first became principal he found a building in need of a lot of cleanup and repair.  The first thing he did was find the custodian and take away his keys, telling him, “It’s obvious you don’t need them because the school looks terrible.”  His next stop was the Wilcox County jail where he rounded up some trustees who promised to work hard in return for the best food they’ve had in since being incarcerated.

Dr.  Owen Sweatt was one of our three team members working on the study.  I well recall Owen calling me shortly after his first visit to Ervin to tell me it was one of the best kept facilities he had ever seen.  Anywhere.

Richard believed in discipline and high expectations.  And in a community mired in poverty, he didn’t let this keep him from developing pride in his young students.  He constantly sought out ways to show his students a world they were not normally exposed to.  Which is why he started having a parade in Pine Hill one Saturday each fall.  He simply thought his children deserved to see what a parade was all about,  And on an October Saturday I drove from Montgomery to Pine Hill to watch as fire trucks, bands and Miss this and that, honked and tooted and threw candy to happy youngsters.

One of the etched-in-stone things I learned from this study was that the principal is the most important link in the education chain.  You don’t have good schools without good principals.  Richard Bryant drove this point home forcefully.

Some today would call my friend “old school.”  He worked hard to get his own education, driving a school bus in Wilcox County each day before driving 90 miles one way to take classes at night at Alabama State University in Montgomery.  Richard would not argue with this description and would wear it with pride.

Richard Bryant is a good man.  In his own way, he made a difference in the lives of hundreds of young people.  He knows far more about what education is really all about than will ever be conjured up in strategic plans or legislation pushed on us by non-educators.

But people in Montgomery seldom turn to folks like Richard Bryant for advice.  Which speaks volumes about why education in Alabama continues to flounder.

House Joins Senate In Saying “No” To Elected School Board.

If there was ever any doubt that the state board of education has friends in the legislature, they were erased today when the House voted 78-21 for an appointed, instead of elected, state board.  The Senate had voted earlier 30-0 on the same legislation.

For this to happen requires a constitutional amendment, the public will vote on the proposal during the 2020 presidential election next March.  The fact that of the 129 total votes cast on this bill, only 16 percent voted to keep an elected board, sends a loud and clear message of how representatives and senators perceive the present state of education.

There is little doubt that the way the charter school commission has mis-handled the Washington County charter school situation played a significant role in this perception.

Ironically, though the charter school commission is a classic example of what happens when an appointed body has authority, in the minds of most lawmakers, anything dealing with education is viewed as one big mess.  Regardless of who created  it.  And in the case of the charter commission, it is a creation of the legislature who passed a charter law setting up the commission in 2015.

However, lawmakers I have talked to blame the state school board and state superintendent Eric Mackey for not stepping up to hold the commission accountable for its actions.

While it can be argued that the legislative view is not accurate, at this point such an argument is meaningless.

Under this legislation, the governor would appoint the state school board.  To her credit, Governor Kay Ivey has taken her role as chair of the state board seriously.   She presides over the majority of board meetings and has not been shy about making her voice heard.  However, she is the exception, not the rule.

To see the perils on putting the board in the hands of the governor, you only have to recall Governor Robert Bentley.  When Mike Sentance was selected as state superintendent in 2016, it was Bentley who cast the deciding fifth vote for him.  Bentley was fixated on the fact that Sentance was from Massachusetts and since they had the nation’s top fourth-grade math scores, Sentance would somehow magically turn Alabama into Massachusetts with a drawl.

We all know how that exercise in madness worked out.  Sentance was a disaster from day one and lasted just a year before heading home to the Bay State.

Nor can we forget that it was the same Robert Bentley who picked Matt Brown from Baldwin County to fill a vacancy on the state board.  Someone who had just played a key role in making sure a vote to increase funding for Baldwin County schools was defeated.  Someone who never attended public schools and said his children would not either.  And someone who was easily defeated in 2016 in spite of getting major financial support form the Business Council of Alabama.

I have no clue how the vote will go next March.  No doubt there will be strong cases made for both an elected and an appointed board.

In the meantime, I offer this advice to my friends now serving on the school board.  Be proactive.  Members of the charter commission board are nominated by the governor, lt. governor, speaker of the house and president pro tem of the senate.  They submit two nominations to the state school board for each slot to be filled. The state board makes the final selection.

When at full strength, the charter commission has 10 members. (One member resigned in March and that seat is vacant.)  Five of the 10 have terms that expire today, May 31, 2019.  Within the next few weeks, the governor, speaker of the house and president pro tem of the senate (the lt. governor’s slot was filled May 9) will send you their nominees to serve on this board.  Even though all five members just mentioned can be reappointed, the appointing official must send at least two names to be considered.

Judging from what has come to light in recent months, we desperately need new blood on the charter school commission.  Please show the people of Alabama that you want to fix our problems and begin by selecting new charter commission board members.




A Celebration Of Perseverance

Even though it was a Monday afternoon, the sanctuary of Freewill Missionary Baptist Church in west Montgomery was full.  There were  mamas and daddies and brothers and sisters and friends–and 12 teenagers in the first two rows in cap and gown.

It was not an arena with thousands ready to cheer and clap.  But Pomp & Circumstance filled the hall right on cue as McIntyre Comprehensive Academy held its first ever graduation ceremony on May 20, 2019.  And it was not lost on most of the audience that this was as much a celebration of perseverance for the dozen young people who had already faced a lifetime of challenges just to get to this special day as anything else.

Presiding over the event, and grinning from ear to ear, was principal Sabrina Johnson.  A  woman who shows up for work each morning at 6:30 a.m. with a smile on her face and concern and care in her heart.  She leads a faculty who have the same dedication to their jobs and young charges.

When their names were called, all graduates got a diploma and a great big hug from Sabrina.  A very heart felt hug, the kind you give when you genuinely mean it.  Jasmine Franklin was introduced as SGA president and gave brief remarks.  Principal Johnson made a point to tell  everyone that she and Sabrina had been together since the sixth grade and their journey had sometimes included some “rocky times.”

But both were determined to overcome the challenges and Sabrina told with great pride that not only had Jasmine gotten a job with a fast  food company while in school, she had worked up to being a shift manager.

The success of McIntrye could not happen without partners.  One being Freewill Missionary Baptist.  Rev. Edward Nettles recounted how the church has furnished school uniforms, filled backpacks with food on Fridays and even bought a new washer and dryer.  And he got a rousing round of applause when he announced that the church would provide $500 scholarships to any students wanting to further their education.

We too often forget that the world is saved one life at a time.  That point was forcefully driven home on May 20.  I was glad to be there and be reminded.

Like The Ostrich, Lawmakers Continue To Bury Their Heads In The Sand

Politicians are fascinated with the BIG idea, something that goes BOOM, something that will make voters stand up and listen.  Don’t believe me?  Then listen to some of the things Senate pro tem Del Marsh says about education.

On an appointed vs. elected state school board: “If we look at some of the problems we see in education, I think we can track them back to that the elected board isn’t working as smoothly as you like it to.”  So the fact that only three other states have a higher poverty rate than Alabama and poverty is the greatest indicator of school and student performance has nothing to do with education in Alabama?

Or what about this doozy, “This proposal would take politics out of K-12 governance.”  Really?  So you have an elected official, the governor, appoint all the members of a board and these folks must be approved by the senate and you remove politics from the process?  And the public is so dumb we are expected to believe such babble?

“Right now they (governor and legislature) have no say in education other that the budget process.”  Has he forgotten the Alabama Accountability Act he passed in 2013 that has diverted $145 million from the Education Trust Fund?  What abut the charter school law he sponsored in 2015, or his effort this year to abolish the Alabama College & Career Ready standards?  This is having no say so in education?

But put aside statements like these, the truth is that neither Marsh, or anyone else I can find in the Montgomery halls of power, are willing to face up to the hard truths that confront education in this state.

If poverty impacts education attainment more than anything else, which it does, when your poverty rate is one of the lowest in the United States, you have your work cut out for you in the classroom.  This also translates into the amount of resources available per student.

Right now we are looking at math scores of the top five states according to their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  These are Wyoming, Virginia, New Jersey, Minnesota and Massachusetts.   One list I found says Alabama spends $9,236 per student.  How does that compare to the five states we are studying?  New Jersey is almost double with $18,402.  Then comes Wyoming with $16,442, Massachusetts with $15,593, Minnesota with $12,232 and Virginia with $11,432.

Could there be a correlation?  According to the logic of Del. Marsh, there isn’t.  Instead, it’s all about having an appointed school board instead of an elected one.  It’s all about coming up with another BIG BOOM idea–instead of facing reality.  Let’s just be like the ostrich, bury our head in the sand, and don’t confront our real challenges and roadblocks.

Let’s go to another conference put on by Jeb Bush and his Excellence in Education Foundation and do what Jeb did in Florida.  Which, as we point out here, ain’t all he would have us believe.

I am familiar with two elementary schools here in Montgomery. They are about four miles from each other.  Both are K-5.  One has 528 students, the other has 489.  The larger has 800 PTA members.  The other has ONE parent who belongs to the PTA.

This is the kind of info that speaks volumes about the challenges our schools face.  Info that is far more significant than any school board governance plan Del Marsh conjures up or any new strategic plan the state superintendent develops.

Folks, we don’t have failing schools.  We have FAILING SCHOOL COMMUNITIES.  Plain and simple.  Until we see that schools are a key part of community development efforts, we are basically spinning our wheels.  Until we come to understand that teachers can not solve all the ills society sends to their classrooms every morning, we will make little meaningful progress.  Politicians can cry about the “status quo” until the cows come home, but they are only sticking their head in the sand like the ostrich when they do so.

And claiming we will magically change student performance by changing education governance is just another example of how clueless so many of our elected “leaders” truly are.

Yep, any full-blooded ostrich would feel right at home in Montgomery.


House Committee Puts Another Nail In The Coffin Of State School Board and State Superintendent.

The bill to switch from an elected to an appointed state school board that passed the Senate 30-0, has now cleared another hurdle on its way to passage.

The House Education Policy Committee passed the bill with only one nay vote (from Rep. Bob Fincher of Randolph County).  The bill is sponsored by Senate president pro tem Del Marsh with support from Governor Kay Ivey. Rep Bill Poole, chair of the House Education Ways & Means committee, handled the bill when it came to the house committee.  This was significant as Poole is one of the most-respected members of the House.

It is also noteworthy that the motion to pass the bill was made by House Minority Leader Democrat Anthony Daniels and seconded by Democrat Barbara Drummond.  Rarely does legislation have such bi-partisan support in this age of the Republican supermajority.

Next stop. will be a vote by the entire House.  There is no reason to think it will hit a stumbling block there.

Since it is a constitutional amendment, this measure will go before voters during the March 2020 presidential primary.  What happens then?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Some feel there will a lot of pushback from those who claim they do not want to lose their vote.

However, since this is Del Marsh’s bill, I think it is a safe bet that he will marshal forces to get it passed.  So don’t be surprised when money from out-of-sate major donors shows up in Alabama.  We’ve seen such happen previously when the Alabama Federation for Children has stuffed their stocking with money from donors in Texas, Arkansas, Michigan and California.

But at this point one thing is certain, the legislature is not happy at all with the elected state board and superintendent Eric Mackey.



We Need To Stop Drinking The Florida Kool-Aid

“He could sell snow cones to Eskimos.”   Nothing could be more true if some of the Eskimos are a handful of Alabama legislators and “he” is Jeb Bush.  They gobble up any and everything Bush or his Foundation for Excellence in Education foundation peddles–no questions asked.

However, there are people in Florida who are not so gullible.  They have reviewed the last two decades of Bush’s so-called education reforms and see them for what they really are, mostly smoke and mirrors.

One of these realists is former University of Florida professor and researcher Sue Legg.  And with a doctorate in Educational Research, Measurement and Evaluation, she is well-qualified to dig through mountains of data and burst the Bush bubble.  Her latest report is “Twenty Years Later: The Jeb Bush A+ Plan Fails Florida’s Students.”  You can find the 66-page report here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in 2018 that Florida’s educational system was a model for the nation.  (That should be all the warning any sane person needs since DeVos is the most unqualified person to ever head the U.S. department.)  But according to the Network for Public Education, the reality in Florida is that large numbers of students are enrolled in an unstable charter sector, nearly half of which are run by for-profit companies, combined with no less than four different voucher programs with another on the way, NPE says Florida is poised to be the first state in which public education collapses.

Here is Dr. Legg’s summary of what is really going on in Florida.  And instead of continuing to embrace what doesn’t work in Florida, this should be a warning of Alabama.

“The A+ Plan is a failed attempt at a solution to the wrong problem. The problem is not low test scores. It is whether we value the children we have with all their diversity. It is common to hear the lament…”but what can be done to help children succeed?” There may be no single right answer. There are, however, better choices than those offered over the last twenty years. Local communities can insist on a balance between choice for the individual and access to a quality education for all children. As John Dewey said a hundred years ago, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

The trappings of school choice: test driven curriculum, school grades, and bonus systems should be replaced.  Options for schools must be based on inclusion, not exclusion if all children are to thrive. Educational policy must ensure that public schools have public oversight. And finally, the A+ Plan has shown that there are no ‘cheap’ choices. The assertion that high quality can be achieved with ‘little monies’ is false. If Floridians want more from their schools, they must do more for their schools.

There are seeds for constructive changes in public schools everywhere. Take for example, magnet programs that are selecting students not on test scores but on talents and interests. Consider schools based on collaborative learning strategies where teachers work together in teams to build hands-on experiences for student teams. Community schools are being created to bring into the schools the social services children and their families need. Adapting to change can be energizing if Floridians chose to work together.

Parents have the right to expect that the schools they choose represent high quality with good management oversight. Consider the alternative offered by the A+ Plan. First, student achievement can be increased not by appropriate funding of services, but by rising expectations and the consequences for failure. This view demoralizes teachers and students and creates more social inequities. The conclusion on the success of the A+ Plan to boost student achievement is:

Florida’s average student achievement is no better and no worse than in 2002. Retained fourth grade students lost their initial gains over time. Eighth graders were at the national average then and are now. The achievement gap for twelfth grade black and white students is wider than in 2002. Florida’s graduation rate is below the national average and one half of its graduates do not read at grade level.

The second assumption that the system of rewards and punishments will create competition and motivate teachers and students to meet higher academic standards is false. The conclusion on the effectiveness of this strategy is:

Bonus plans, school grades, and teacher evaluations based on student test scores are so unstable that they are not only ineffective, they are invalid and harmful. They reward those who are already successful. They create ‘choice churn’ in schools and communities.

Finally, the A+ Plan supposedly promotes choice to create competition. The lack of regulation and variable quality standards, which are integral to this view of school choice, promotes exploitation, self-interest and corruption.The conclusion regarding the impact of choice on raising student achievement is:

Proliferating cheap, low-quality private and charter schools spreads funding too thinly. It is creating serious problems that threaten to undermine all schools.

Reforming the neglect and abuse in the private sector alone will not solve basic inequities in our educational system. Funding to support additional services for low performing students and reasonable salaries for teachers is essential. Florida’s funding effort was ranked 43rd in the nation based on U.S. 2016 federal data. Improvements in funding will be hampered by the 2018 constitutional amendment that requires a super majority vote of 60% in both houses of the legislature to increase state revenue, taxes and fees. Early signals from the 2019 legislative session point to an effort to increase funding for the charter and private sectors and to continue the attack on public schools. It is a route to bankrupt our schools and rob our students of opportunity. Florida has some choices to make.”

Alabama public school students would be far better served if some of our legislators attended fewer out-of-state meetings to be brain-washed, did more homework, and talked to more teachers who understand the challenges and limitations we have in Alabama schools.