Did The Legislature Paint Themselves Into A Corner?

There were hosannas and smiles all over goat hill when the legislature recently passed a bill calling for a vote on a constitutional amendment next March 3  as to whether Alabama should have an elected state school board or one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

The fact it passed the senate 30-0 and the house, 78-21, sent a loud and clear message that the legislature has little confidence in the present state school board and the leadership of state school superinte4ndent Eric Mackey, who the board hired on a 5-4 vote just over a year ago.

However, it’s unlikely that legislative leadership stopped and considered that this vote will, in effect, be a referendum on what the public thinks about them.  A YES vote will mean that people agree with the legislature and trust the governor and the senate to do what is right for our 720,000 public school students.  But a NO vote will mean that they simply do not trust our politicans.

My guess is that this was never given any thought in legislative chambers.

Results of the survey we recently did that had 1,170 responses, indicate that many of the 140 house and senate members may have made a serious miscalculation.

Granted that 44 percent of respondents are teachers and that many more work in public education, but their responses are so overwhelmingly against an appointed state board that they can not be discounted.  How overwhelming?  Try 89 percent against and only 11 percent in favor of the constitutional amendment.

But what makes the numbers so intriguing is that these are not people enamored with education in Alabama as we now know it.  Anything but.  In fact, 60 percent think education is headed in the wrong direction and 45 percent give the state superintendent a letter grade of C, D or F.   In fact, slightly more give him an F than they do an A.

So one can not claim that respondents are happy with what we are doing and don’t want change.

Rather, they don’t believe the change we need means giving final say on who sits on the state school board to the Alabama state senate who must sign off on any names a governor sends them.  Only 18 percent have confidence in the senate to approve competent people.

This is easy to understand.  Since 2010 when today’s super majority came to power, education has been hit with A-F school reports cards that serve no useful purpose for educators, the Alabama Accountability Act that has diverted $145 million from class rooms and the charter school act, that is governed by an appointed board, and has caused chaos in tiny Washington County by approving a charter that is unwanted and unneeded.

All of these have a collective impact and weigh heavily on the minds of educators now being asked to ignore the track record of those running the legislative process and entrust them with even more power.  Respondents, 49 percent who identify as Republicans, see senate majority leader Del Marsh as the primary architect of this attack on public schools.

We have heard legislator after legislator lament that education needs to get better and somehow, turning even more control over to them, will be a step in the right direction.  That’s an argument that 1,039 (89 percent) survey respondents just ain’t buying.

And the day after the vote, legislative leadership may well find themselves way over in the corner of the room looking at the fresh paint that has just stuck them in the corner..


Why They Cheered In Austin, TX When Soner Tarim Was Turned Down

When Soner Tarim pleaded his case for four new charter schools in Austin, TX on June 14, the Texas school board was not impressed and voted 8-5 to deny his application.  Four Republicans and four Democrats turned him down.

Yes, the same Soner Tarim who has management contracts for charters in Washington County and Montgomery

Here is part of what the Austin American-Statesman had to say about what happened:

“In a victory for the Austin school district, the State Board of Education on Friday rejected an application 8-5 by a new charter school operator to gain a toehold in the Austin district.

Royal Public Schools, created by Soner Tarim, founder and former chief executive of charter school giant Harmony Public Schools, was seeking to open new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, near Burnet Middle School in North Austin and in the Houston area by August 2020.

The Austin school district has been losing students — and the money that comes with those students — for several years, and district officials forcefully pushed back against the Royal application. Once a charter operator wins approval to open a school in a district, expansion requests are routinely approved administratively by the Texas Education Agency.

The decision came after board members questioned Tarim about his curriculum plans, whether he would serve special needs students and whether he would deny admission to certain students.

Board member Georgina C. Pérez, D-El Paso, pressed Tarim to explain why he targeted the Burnet Middle School area when none of the nearby campuses are failing under the state grading system.

Tarim justified opening schools near Burnet Middle School because he said six nearby schools were failing based on data from Children At Risk, a Houston-based organization that grades campuses every year in a widely cited report. But under the state accountability system, none of the campuses failed last school year.

“Royal has created a personal Royal-specific rating system,” said Pérez, who was one of four Democrats and four Republicans to vote against the Royal bid. “Your application and my information don’t match.”

Tarim said the board turned down his charter school because members fear he might create a charter network as large and successful as Harmony. Harmony had enrolled about 34,000 students across 56 campuses in 2018, including 4,000 in the Austin area.

 Tarim said he would reapply. This is the second time the state has not approved his application for Royal.

A committee of the board on Thursday had recommended that the full board reject Royal. More than a dozen people testified against Royal, including Austin school district officials.

The Austin school district would lose $85 million over a 10-year period due to the loss of students to Royal Public Schools, Nicole Conley Johnson, the Austin district’s chief business and operations officer, told committee members.

“The district and our community can’t continue to sit idly on the side while our students and taxpayer funds are siphoned off by charter,” Conley Johnson told the American-Statesman after Friday’s vote. “We are certainly willing to compete, but in this case there were too many holes in what Royal was proposing, and our community saw right through it and made clear what the best choice was for our students.”

Responding to concerns raised by Pérez, Tarim denied he would ask prospective students about disciplinary history on the application form. He also promised to serve proportionately as many students with special needs as Austin district schools, although his application had said he would serve far less.

Tarim said he was meeting a need because no one else in the area would be integrating social emotional learning and science, technology, engineering and math curriculum as he was proposing.

The Austin school district has been one of the country’s pioneers of social emotional learning, Pérez said.

“It was very difficult for me to determine if it was innovative or unique,” she said. “Austin ISD has been implementing that for at least eight years on all of their campuses. Their pilots are even older than eight years. To implement SEL in every content area is absolutely nothing new.”

What stands out about all of this?  Instead  of using the state’s grading system to evaluate local schools, Tarim used one that supported his for-profit agenda.  (Like he did in Washington County when he used numbers from U. S. News & World Report, instead  of those from the Alabama department of education when he falsely claimed math proficiency levels were much lower than they actually are.)

And that he touted using social emotional learning because no one in the area was doing so when the truth is that Austin public schools have been using it for at least eight years.

This is Tarim at his finest.  Ignore the truth.  Make up your own facts.

And bless their hearts, our charter commission–unlike the Texas school board–does not question anything Traim tells them.  We dance while he plays any tune he wishes.  Maybe our commission should check with some folks in Texas about who they are dealing with.  I will be glad to give them some phone numbers.



Turmoil Amidst The Pines

It’s reasonable to think there might be some controversy about any new school. Maybe where it is located, what it is named, who the principal may be, what courses will be taught?

But seldom do you expect the wholesale turmoil that hit rural Washington County, AL when locals learned that a handful of folks wanted to open a charter school.  In a close-knit county of only 17,000 souls, news travels fast, people choose sides and lines are drawn.

Add in the fact that the new school went off to Texas and hired someone with a controversial past and the pot nears the boiling point very quickly.

However, to fully grasp how this all came to be, it is important to understand, as best we can, Washington County and its people.

In The Beginning

The county has been around longer than the state of Alabama. St. Stephens, on the county’s northern border on the Tombigbee River, was the Alabama territorial capital before there was officially an Alabama.  Sitting atop a limestone bluff, it was a trading post, steamboat landing for cargo headed downstream to Mobile and the place where official territory business was conducted.

As was much of Alabama, many early Washington County settlers were descendants of Scots-Irish, a fierce, independent people. Larger in land area than Rhode Island, timber has long been its principal commodity.  In fact, in 1870 local farmers only produced 1,200 bales of cotton, a far cry from the thousands of bales produced 100 miles north in the state’s Black Belt region.

Demographics underscore this fact. Only 25 percent of Washington County is African-American, as compared to Black Belt counties such as Wilcox, 72 percent; Perry, 69 percent; and Lowndes, 74 percent.  A stark reminder that in 1850, cotton and slavery were synonymous.

To add more context, jump the Tombigbee and go a few miles into adjoining Clarke County where the War of Mitcham Beat took place in the 1890s. This was an honest-to-goodness shooting war that grew out of unrest between tenant farmers and merchants.  At least a half dozen citizens were killed by vigilantes.

As with much of rural Alabama, politics in Washington is conservative to say the least. The election of Ronald Reagan basically switched the county from D to R when it comes to national politics.  Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the county in 1996.

John McCain beat Barack Obama here in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney got 66 percent in 2012 and Donald Trump got 72 percent in 2016.  In 2017 when Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat, he lost the county to Roy Moore 35-65.

The School

So, what does all of this have to do with trying to put a charter school, Woodland Prep, on highway 17 between Chatom and Millry?

A helluva lot actually.

Without understanding who the 17,000 residents of the county are, the DNA that runs through them, how they react to things that are not familiar, etc. is burying your head in the sand and living in a fantasy world.

And from all indications, the Alabama Charter School Commission failed miserably to do their homework about the community and its nuances.  Their first misstep was ignoring how the idea for this charter came to life. Normally one would think that some parents, disappointed in how a child is doing in school, come up with the idea of seeking an alternative education path.

This was not the case in Washington County.

Instead, the notion was largely conceived by a wife who could not come to grips with the fact that her husband, a teacher for many years, failed to always conduct himself professionally and because of this, the school board was forced to take action.

Though a native of the county and extremely well thought of by locals, an outsider sees her as someone who became overly zealous and to some degree, took advantage of both her job and longtime friends in an effort to avenge what she considered a wrong.

Hardly the foundation from which one embarks on such a complex challenge as starting a school from scratch, with little funding and no expertise.

Enter Soner Tarim

Somewhere along the way, this lady heard of Sonar Tarim, who began the Harmony charter chain in Texas in 2000.  She connected with him and apparently came to believe that no one in the country knows more about charters than he does.

Tarim is controversial and not held in high esteem by many in Texas. His most recent effort to get state approval for four new charters in Austin was resoundingly turned down by the state school board.

During his presentation before the Texas board he had a hard time keeping his facts straight and was tripped up on several occasions by school board members who had done their homework.

But obviously the good folks wanting a charter in Washington County drank his Kool Aid and did little background checking.  Apparently neither did the staff and members of the state charter school commission.

The fact that Tarim is affiliated with the highly controversial Gulen Movement, has simply added another degree of complexity to the entire episode.

Tragedy Strikes

Unfortunately, this story took a tragic turn in June 2018 as the lady in question sat reading her Bible on her front porch one Sunday morning when her husband shot her in the head. He then killed himself.

The county was stunned. Suddenly the charter effort was without its primary mover and shaker.

And there was no one to be questioned as to why the application submitted to the Alabama charter commission, which Tarim says he largely prepared, was so riddled with inaccuracies and false claims.

For example, from the outset, proponents of the charter have declared that 900 students a day leave Washington County to attend private schools. But no one can verify where this number came from and a look at census data and other sources indicate that it is totally without credibility.

When Woodland Prep supporters were quizzed about this at a June 7, 2019 state charter commission meeting, their answer was that the lady who first used the number had access to lots of data and since she is no longer alive, they don’t question it.

End of discussion.

The State Charter Commission, etc.

Alabama passed its charter law in 2015. It set up a 10-member commission to govern charters.  Four named by the governor, one by the Lt. Governor, three by the Speaker of the House and two by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

Though members may serve up to six years, only two of the original ten remain. Presently, five of these members are serving terms that expired May 31, 2019 and there is an additional vacancy due to a member’s resignation in March 2019.

Judging from their actions involving Woodland Prep, as well as an overall lack of professionalism and attention to details, many feel that wholesale change in membership is due.

A very meaningful measure to see how a community feels about its schools is to compare school system demographics to community demographics.  The fact that both the school and the country mirror one another in Washington County is insightful.  African-Americans make up 25.1 percent of school population and 24.6 percent of county population.  Whites are 63.0 percent of school population and 65.5 percent of the county.

This, coupled with the fact that there are no private schools in the county, speaks volumes about how the public feels about its school system.

By comparison, the Montgomery County school system is 78.5 percent African-American, while the county is only 57.3 percent.  There are about 40 private schools in Montgomery.

Once again it is obvious the charter commission didn’t bother to  do its homework.

It is impossible to believe that this board and its staff conducted adequate due diligence. How do you ignore the red flags in the application?  How to you take unsigned “support” letters at face value?  How do you maintain that there is not substantial local opposition to this school?  How do you disregard the financial impact a charter will have on the existing public school system?

And how in the world do you pay the National Association of Charter School Authorizors thousands of dollars to evaluate charter applications and then ignore their recommendation to deny the Woodland Prep application?

(Interestingly enough, NACSA also recommended that the application for LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery be denied, but it too was approved. And surprise, surprise, both of these charters signed management agreements with Soner Tarim.)

Why has the state superintendent refused to conduct a wholesale investigation into this entire affair? Why has the state school board not demanded that he do so?

Too many have shirked their responsibility to put school children first.  We have been told over and over that the charter law sets the commission above anyone’s jurisdiction.

However, the first and only real allegiance to education anyone in Montgomery, be they politician or bureaucrat, has is to help children and those local schools who teach them.  When they are in harm’s way, you do what is right.

Besides, who is going to stop you?  Is there an education policeman who will arrest you?

You don’t hide behind some legal ambiguity; you don’t try to placate this one or that one. You just do what is right.  Period.

If you are the charter commission your allegiance is not to some guy from Texas who is more interested in money than in educating children. It is not to the money that people like Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton send to Alabama to fund political action committees.  It is not to a think tank created by Jeb Bush.

You have a higher mission than to just plop down charter schools across the state’s landscape as it they were convenience stores.

And you understand that not all communities and school systems are identical.  Washington County is unlike any other community in the state.  Just as is Huntsville or Franklin County or Union Springs or Henry County.

There is not a farmer in the state who thinks corn planted on a worn-out red clay hill top will do as well as corn planted on rich bottomland. So why do we think what may work in one community will work in all of them?

We know that only about ten percent of all charter schools in the United States are in rural areas. Why?

Because most charters are business ventures, not educational ones. Do you think Soner Tarim would be involved in Washington County without a management contract that gives him 15 percent of all the revenue Woodland Prep will get?  Do you think he woke up one morning in his six-bedroom house in Sugarland, TX with a burning desire to open a school in tiny Washington County because he was “called” to help their students?

Schools are a central part of the fabric of a rural community. The community often revolves around the school.  Woodland Prep has the potential of taking $2.2 million away from the Washington County school system which struggles every day to meet its needs.  People in this county resent that.

It will threaten the foundation of this system.  Which community will want to close their school because a charter school took their funding?

In a system of only 2,650 students, would anyone in their right mind suggest opening another school with 260 students and diluting resources that now go to the seven schools in the system?

By and large rural communities look at outsiders with caution. Will Sonar Tarim ever be considered a member of this community?

These are all things the state charter commission failed to acknowledge.

Woodland Prep recently was given a one-year extension for their opening date because they could not meet enrollment expectations.  The result?  A community in continuing chaos.  Teachers and bus drivers and custodians wondering if they will have a job a year from now.

It is a travesty that could have been easily avoided had charter commission staff and members done their homework and used some common sense.

But they didn’t. And Washington County is left twisting in the wind.



Brittany Williams Shows What Is Right About Alabama Education

I believe Brittany Williams is the epitome of what we are doing right in education in Alabama.  She was in the inaugural cohort of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama and has just completed her first year as a kindergarten teacher at University Charter School on the campus of UWA.

The Rural Schools Collaborative is a national organization that played a major role in getting the Black Belt Teacher Corps up and running.  I have the good fortune to serve as secretary of the RSC board.  Gary Funk is the executive director.  Several years ago he came to UWA and introduced them to the teacher corps concept, based on the Ozark Teacher Corps in Missouri.  Dean Jan Miller embraced the idea and it was off and running.  We were fortunate to convince state senators Bobby Singleton and Arthur Orr and representative Bill Poole to furnish the initial seed money.  As we have since seen, it was  money well-spent.

RSC believes strongly in place-based education which is another way of saying that students use community resources as  part of making their classroom lessons more meaningful.  To this end, the organization awards small grants, normally $1,000 or less, to teachers to implement projects.  I have blogged about a number of these, such as this piece about Monette Harrison at Greenville Middle School.

Brittany also received a grant.  Go here to read about how she and her young students put it to good use in Livingston.  It will show you once again that education is all about what takes place in our schools and that what we hear coming out of Montgomery is far, far removed from the real world of education.



All Alone In A Cold Cruel World

Winston County is a small, rural county in northwest Alabama.  Double Springs, with just over 1,000 residents, is the county seat.  Its “claim to fame” is the fact that citizens here were very opposed to Alabama withdrawing from the Union during the Civil War.  When the Union Army invaded north Alabama in 1862, many locals joined forces with them.

Feelings ran so deep that county leaders met and made plans to secede from the Confederacy.  And though this never occurred, the county is still often called the “Free State of Winston.”

To say that some in Washington County can relate to the thought of seceding from Alabama is not much of a stretch.

Hardly a day goes by that I am not in contact with someone in Washington County regarding the continuing upheaval there about the location of a charter school, Woodland Prep, between Chatom and Millry.  They have fought this battle for more than 18 months and have hit one brick wall after another.

Their growing frustration is because no one will help them.  Like all local school systems, they pay dues to several statewide groups that are supposed to “represent” education.  But you can’t prove it by anyone in the county.  “Apparently we are supposed to just be seen and not heard–and keep sending money to Montgomery,” one told me.  This was evident in May when a charter bus load of folks made the 350-mile roundtrip to Montgomery and back to attend a state school board meeting–but were not allowed to speak.

How the hell do you pretend this is a democracy when citizens can not address a public body?” asked one person who was on the bus.  I do not have an answer for this very valid question.

The state charter commission has been no ally.

They have scoffed at their own guidelines, failed miserably when it comes to due diligence and paid the National Association of Charter School Authorizers thousands and thousands of dollars only to ignore their recommendations.

Or what about the legislature?  After all, they wrote the law that created the charter commission.  But turns out, they can’t even follow the laws they created.

The state school superintendent?  The state school board?  Those education groups that represent teachers, school boards, superintendents, principals, etc.?  The Alabama Education Association did send some lawyers to town, but as someone at the meeting said, “They blew in, blew off and blew out.”

Others have sent emails saying locals should not be overly concerned because the charter school will probably never open.  Wow.  Such a statement is little more than an affront to someone having to prepare for the potential loss of $2 million from their budget.  Maybe they are right.  But then, given how the charter commission acts, maybe they are wrong.

Alabama loves to pound its chest and proclaim its faith in all that is good and decent.  (Heck, the Ford dealer in Chatom was recently giving away Bibles to anyone who bought a new car or truck.)  But talking about the Golden Rule and actually putting it into action, are two entirely different things.  One Washington County educator summed it up this way, “Evidently in Montgomery the Golden Rule means we are to send them our gold and not question how they rule.”

Supposedly when Winston County was trying to figure out what to do, they met at Looney’s Tavern in Double Springs.  To my knowledge, there is not a Looney’s Tavern in Washington County.  However, I have no doubt that Jake’s Restaurant in Chatom, a popular meat and three, will gladly host a gathering of those who want to talk about creating the “Free State of Washington.”

I will volunteer to buy the coffee.