Legislature Begins Budget Process

With the next regular legislative session less than three months away, the House Ways & Means Education committee started work today (Oct. 25).  It is a massive job to put together a $6+ billion budget.  And chairman Bill Poole and the other 13 committee members spend untold hours in hearings and discussions and digging through reports.

And as anyone who attended today’s session and sat through a 45-minute presentation about the PEEHIP insurance program can tell you, there are more crooks and turns and details to how all the parts fit together than most can imagine.

Bill Poole does an excellent job as chair.  He is a fine young man, conscientious, detailed and hard-working.  I am a Bill Poole fan and certainly appreciate his friendship.  In fact, I introduced him one time to a small group as “the kind of guy every daddy hopes his daughter will bring to dinner one night.”

Interim state superintendent Ed Richardson made a presentation.  Anyone looking on quickly realized that the state school board made an excellent choice when they brought Richardson in to right the ship at the state department of education.  It was obvious that the legislators there today think of him like he is E. F. Hutton.  When he talks, they listen.

He is amiable, but straight forward.  He doesn’t search for words that are “politically correct.”  He doesn’t stammer and stutter when asked a question.  He personifies “been there, done that.”

Among the points he made were:

  • The department will have a balanced budget.  This is in contrast to news that got out several months ago that there was a sizeable deficit in the ALSDE budget.
  • Finances at the department are being carefully reviewed.  Vacant slots are not being filled at present.
  • The department has too many non-merit positions.  These jobs are being reviewed as to their functions and salaries.
  • The present organizational chart put in place by the former superintendent is being studied carefully

To me, the most telling part of the entire meeting were comments by chairman Poole at the conclusion of Richardson’s presentation.  Under the previous administration, state department of education credibility took a tremendous hit.  The constant squabbles between the superintendent and the state school board did not go unnoticed.  Poole brought this to the attention of everyone.

And many legislators, especially some who hold very important positions, did not like what they saw and at the end of the day, placed the blame squarely at the feet of the state board.

Hiring Ed Richardson was a good first step at restoring credibility.  But for now, and a long time to come, the state school board has a target on its back.  Which means their every move is being scrutinized.

My advice to them would be to keep Ed Richardson around as long as he will stay.

Haven’t We Seen This Before?

Many of us remember the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character, a local weatherman, discovers that every day is really the day before, which happened to be groundhog day.

Nothing really changes.  Just round and round we go.

Which is what we’re doing in the Alabama Senate with the latest attempt to repeal the Alabama College & Career Ready standards.  Last week, GOP Senator Dick Brewbaker, chair of the Senate Education & Youth Affairs Committee, gaveled another hearing into session.  Brewbaker said to the committee and audience, “After many years and at least six or so public hearings on this bill in some form or fashion, I think I have come to the conclusion that our problem is not content standards, but rather the fact that we are a low-funding state.”

I did not attend this hearing.  I’ve seen enough already.  If you’ve seen a bad movie once, why go back the second time? Time after time I’ve listened to well-meaning folks tell us of the evils of Common Core and describe how the use of the new, more rigorous standards will scar our children for life.  And I always find it interesting that educators I know well and trust do not share the opinion of my Tea Party friends.  In fact, I have asked some opponents to go visit a school with me to see how the standards are being used.  So far, none have agreed to do so.

One of the educators I trust is Jennifer Brown, a science teacher at Vestavia Hills high school and the current Alabama Teacher of the Year.  She was at last week’s hearing.  She spoke in favor of AACR.  Here are her thoughts.

Time after time I have asked one of the opponents what they would like to do if ACCR standards are set aside.  “Why, we’ll go back to the old standards.”

Excuse me.

I invite everyone who really thinks this to go to this link on the Alabama Commission on Higher Education website.  This is ACHE’s most recent compilation of Alabama high school graduates needing remediation when they get to college.  These are for 2014 graduates who were enrolled in college in the fall of 2014.

Data is from 350 high schools.  Only two had no graduates who did not need remedial classes.  Little Fruitdale high in Washington County sent nine to college that fall.  None of them had to remediate.  And Loveless Academic Magnet Program in Montgomery (a school that has received national honors countless times for academic achievement) had 56 students enter college.  None needed Remediation.

Of the 23,379 students in the high school class of 2014, 7,514 had to retake either (or both) math or English when they got to college.  That is 32.1 percent.

Auburn high sent 307 to college, 54 needed remediation.  Spanish Fort high had 20 of 129 who needed remediation.  Vestavia Hills high had 25 of 312; Hoover high had 83 of 381.  And of the 193 Mountain Brook high grads, eight had to repeat courses.

And this is what some folks want to go back, to?

This is as incomprehensible as someone who yells “Roll Tide” saying they want to replace Nick Saban with Mike Shula.


How To Find Your Legislator

With the next session of the legislature less than a month away and with all the ruckus being created by the RAISE bill, it’s important that folks concerned about the direction of public education know how to get in touch with their Representatives and Senators.

Here is the web page for the legislature.  Look at the menu at the top and pick House of Representatives or Senate and go from there.  Some have their personal email address listed, some don’t.  All have a phone contact listed.

The Most Dangerous People In The World

As the years roll along, those of us who qualify as “seniors” have the benefit of viewing things through a lens that includes far more life experiences than those who are our junior.   Some call it “wisdom.”  I prefer to call it “common sense.”

And one of the things this common sense has taught me is that the most dangerous people in the world are those who don’t know what they don’t know.  It is no sin to not know something.  However, it is a sin to try and bluff your way through a situation when you clearly are in way over your head.

If I’ve ever seen a case where this is applicable, it’s the next major piece of education policy legislation in the pipeline for the February legislative session known as the Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence (RAISE) Act of 2016.  This bill has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.   Time after time it defies logic and ignores good research.  I will be pointing this out in days to come.

But let’s begin with the emphasis the bill puts on standardized testing and evaluating teachers on their student’s tests scores.

The profession education society, Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup polling organization have been surveying the American public for 47 years as to how they look at public education and what is meaningful to them.  The most recent poll was released last September and sampled more than 4,500 people.

Guess what?  The public puts very little stock in using tests as a benchmark of education quality.

In fact, testing came in last as a measure of effectiveness with just 14 percent of parents rating test scores as very important, behind How engaged students are with their classwork, The percent students who feel hopeful about their future, Percent of students who graduate from high school, Percent of high school graduates who go to college or community college, Percent of graduates who get jobs immediately after completing high school.

When asked what is the most important way to improve public schools, 95 percent said teachers were the most important factor.  Using tests to measure what students have learned again came in last with only 19 percent saying this is important.

What provides the most accurate picture of a public school student’s academic progress?  No. 1 is example of student work, No. 2 is written observations by the teacher, No. 3 is grades awarded by the teacher and No. 4 is scores on standardized tests.

Some 55 percent oppose using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.  But this is what RAISE wants to do.

Pollsters wanted to know what are the three most important factors considered when a parent is choosing a local public school for their child to attend.  The top three were quality of teachers, curriculum and maintenance of student discipline.  The three least important were proximity of the school to the workplace, success of athletic programs and student achievement as measured by standardized tests.

It is also noteworthy that 57 percent oppose allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.  Which of course is what the Alabama Accountability Act does.

But considering that the folks pushing RAISE are the same folks who passed the accountability act, our lawmaker’s insistence on swimming upstream is understandable.  After all, if you don’t know what you don’t know…………

Is Senator Williams Really Carnac the Magnificent?

Those of us old enough to remember when Johnny Carson ruled the late-night TV market with the Tonight Show recall his character known as “Carnac the Magnificent.”  This mystic from the east would divine answers to unknown questions.

Much like Carnac, Senator Phil Williams of Etowah County continues to insist that he sees things no one else can see.  In this case it is a $400 million “surplus” in the state education trust fund by the end of fiscal 2016.  Though the good senator is not a member of the Senate Education Ways & Means committee, he must be privy to info that committee chairman Senator Trip Pittman does not have.

(Both Senator Pittman, and his House counterpart Rep. Bill Poole, insist there is no surplus.)

As I have previously pointed out, Senator Williams and his fellow surplus finders, are ignoring the simple fact that we have worked to created the illusion of a surplus by not paying our bills.  Would the senator boast about how much he had in his personal bank account at the same time the power company was telling him he was three months late in paying his bill?

And if the senator is really concerned about funding our schools, then why don’t you take your hand out of their pocket?

This is the link to financial records for the state.  Spend some time there and you come up with all kinds of interesting insight about money.

For instance, you will find that between July 23 and Aug. 22 Senator Williams was paid $2,059.90 by Alabama taxpayers for in-state travel.  And where did the money come from?  The Education Trust Fund.

I worked for the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries from 2007 until I retired in 2011.  The last two years we were constantly told that we had to save as much money as possible.  So for two years I drove my own car, bought my own gas, paid for my own meals, lodging and conference registrations.  Never turned in an expense account because I felt that the work I was doing was important enough to be continued.  And if it took me paying my own way, so be it.  No big deal.  I didn’t expect a medal, didn’t brag about what I was doing, just went my own way.

Senator Williams, maybe you should try the same thing. At least stop talking about a phantom surplus while you get the school kids of this state to pay you to drive to Montgomery.


Take Cover, Legislator on the Loose

The last time we heard from Rep. Ed Henry of Hartselle he was talking about phantom funds in the Education Trust Fund that even the chair of the House Ways & Means Education committee, Rep. Bill Poole, cannot find.

Now Henry tells Mary Sell of the Decatur Daily that we should abolish the state Department of Education. According to Henry, “That would save the state $1 billion and they don’t do anything, as far as I can tell, that they don’t duplicate at the local level.”

Mr. Henry first needs to go back and read some of the bills he voted for in the last regular session that dictate new duties to the state department. For instance, he voted to set up charter schools in Alabama.   This bill required that the state set up a new department to work with only charter schools and all the rules and regulations that tag along.

And it’s funny that he implies that he is all for doing things at the local level, not the state. So how does he square this with the fact that the charter bill he supported sets up a politically-appointed Charter School Commission that can overturn decisions made by local school board. Henry lives in Hartselle which has a city school system. If this school board decides to become a charter school authorizer and denies a charter application, the commission in Montgomery can trash their decision and tell the charter that Hartselle is open for business.

In 2013 Henry voted for the Alabama Accountability Act that diverted at least $25 million annually from the Education Trust Fund, meaning there was potentially less money for every school in his district. In fact, Vic Wilson, the superintendent of the Hartselle city school system was one of 30 superintendents who signed a “friend of the court” brief last year urging the state Supreme Court to rule this law unconstitutional .

Again, Henry’s vote required a tremendous amount of work by the state department of education to comply with the mandates of the legislation. And in June he voted to amend the accountability act so they will now divert $30 million each year from the Education Trust Fund.

The Charter School Commission will have their first meeting at the state education department on Aug. 27. Henry should drop by and see the new bureaucracy he helped create in action.

I have never met Ed Henry. But I know he postures himself as a super conservative and someone who feels the more decisions are made at the local level, the better.

If you want to get a good look at an office holder, you can turn to the Secretary of State’s web site and look at their campaign financial info and learn a great deal. Such as in this case.

Henry ran for re-election in 2014. He had a primary opponent in the June 3rd election. He won 4,350 to 3,243. He had no opponent in the November general election. He raised $180,455 between Sept. 3, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2014. He had an additional $13,164 of in-kind contributions.

However, it’s not until you examine where he got his campaign funds and what he did with them, that a picture emerges. For instance, you would expect someone like this to largely depend on the homefolks to fund his campaign. Not so. He shows only 37 individual contributors giving $8,940. On the other hand, he shows 79 contributions from political action committees totaling $140,200.

They are a Who’s Who of Montgomery special interests, even including money from pay day lending supporters and trial lawyers. (Not so long ago we heard a constant demonization of campaign contributions from plaintiff defense attorneys by the party now in control of the legislature. Just like money from the Alabama Education Association, it was tainted. Somewhere along the way it became green–not tainted, and folks like Henry welcome their checks.)

And if he is intent on making sure decisions are made at the local level, why was his single largest contribution of $15,000 from StudentsFirst out of Sacremento, CA. Does he think lobbyists from California know more about educating students in Alabama than Alabama educators do? He also took $1,000 from the Alabama Federation for Children, the group that raised $350,000 from millionaires in Arkansas, California and Michigan to spend on political races in Alabama in 2014.

Maybe the folks in California are telling Henry that the Alabama Department of Education is unnecessary.

Campaign expenditures are basically “no holds barred.” Which is why you often see candidate expenses and scratch your head. For instance, Henry says he spent $4,021 with American Express on June 1, 2014. But there is no explanation for what. What was the purpose of a check for $3,625 on July 3, 2014 to “Auburn Athletics?” Or the one for $860 to “University of Alabama” on April 31, 2014.

What about the payment of $754 on Oct. 3, 2014 to Delta? Can you fly from Vinemont to Laceys Spring? Or a meal at Arnaud’s restaurant in New Orleans? What about the cab rides in Washington, DC?   Remember, his last election was June 3, but from July through December he spent $23,760 out of his campaign account.

To Henry’s credit he contributed more than $8,000 from his campaign funds to help local schools and band and athletic programs.

Still this does not erase the doubt created by knowing what I now know. Is Ed Henry really who he says he is and should his ideas be taken seriously?

And if I were him at this point in time when the legislature has just had a special session and wasted another $500,000 of taxpayer’s money, I would tread lightly with the notion of abolishing anything in Montgomery. Given their choice, I believe the good folks of this state would run the legislature out of town right now before they would the educators.