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Guest Columnists

What Does Success Look Like?

Terri Michal



By Terri Michal

“What does success look like?” That’s the question Sacramento, CA, Mayor Kevin Johnson posed to a roomful of Birmingham citizens that had gathered in the 16th Street Baptist Church last Tuesday morning to discuss charter schools in Alabama. The event was sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and featured Michelle Rhee Johnson of StudentsFirst. Unfortunately, we never really received an answer to the question Mr. Johnson posed. Actually, not one minute was spent talking about what a successful charter looks like. Not. One. Minute.

Why is that?


Are there no success stories for the corporate-owned charters that the BAEO and StudentsFirst represent?  Could it be because the public is becoming more aware that many ‘charter success stories’ actually involve manipulating data? Let’s take a look at Foundation Academies in Trenton for example. Their test scores are the highest in Trenton, but Jersey Jazzman, a highly respected teacher blogger from New Jersey, exposes…

…the truth behind the population that is enrolled there and how they manipulate the data to show high graduation rates.  One way to cheat the system: take special need kids but make sure none of them have profound learning disabilities.

Yes, charter schools, in many instances, cherry pick their students which invalidates its comparison to public schools. “Open access” is a term charters love to use, but how open is it when you have to write seven essays and an autobiography just to get into the lottery? That’s what students have to do…

…in Santa Rosa, California.

The public is educating itself, that’s one thing you can’t deny, and as time passes by these corporations and foundations can no longer hide the fact that charters just aren’t performing at the level they first suggested.  As a matter of fact, only 17 percent perform better…

…than traditional public schools. It is evident, when comparing the underlying tone of Michelle Rhee Johnson’s September 2013 Town Hall meeting in Birmingham to last Tuesday morning’s summit, that the shiny promises of the charter movement are starting to tarnish.

So, it appears that instead of discussing what success looks like, they decided to tap into their audience’s fears. Failure after failure after failure was discussed. From student test scores to high incarceration rates to low graduation rates it was a constant barrage of negativity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that those aren’t real concerns. What I am saying is, if charters were really the answer, why did they not then follow up the gloom and doom with facts about how charters will help? How will charters address these problems? If they truly believe in their charters they could have, and should have, been creating excitement over their potential, instead of spending so much of their time discussing failures.

The time that wasn’t spent talking about failing students and bad teachers was spent talking about how white people have oppressed people of color. I know this has happened, and I know this is, indeed, part of the equation. I’m just quite exasperated with organizations, like BAEO, that come from out of state and represent white-owned and operated corporations and foundations, talking to us about civil rights to further their agendas. These agendas are decimating public schools in high poverty urban districts all across this country.  It’s almost incomprehensible when you hear them use such tragic events as the 16th Street bombing to further their cause as BAEO board chairman Howard Fuller did at the beginning of this summit.

In this summit, they told us the “belief gap” is a huge problem. I completely agree that society’s lack of faith in the intellectual abilities of our children of color is a very real problem. Yet, organizations like BAEO are in bed with such folks as Eli Broad, the billionaire that published an instruction manual on how to close urban schools, and the Waltons, who are more than happy to fill school systems like Chicago’s with non-professionally-certified, fresh-out-of-college, Teach-for-America teachers.  What are the “beliefs” of those foundations and corporations concerning our high-poverty kids I wonder? They must believe that closing neighborhood schools and hiring lesser qualified teachers are better for those students than life-long educators that are committed long term to the surrounding communities in which they teach.

You really have to wonder what qualifies an organization like BAEO to say what a civil rights issue is when they are cozying-up with the likes of the Friedman Foundation. The Friedman Foundation is known to be on the opposite side of the table from those that fight for civil rights. Here is just one example: Milton Friedman had this to say…

…about a market economy and discrimination in relationship to fair employment practices legislation: “Such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another…. Thus it is directly an interference with freedom of the kind that we would object to in most other contexts.” 

Seems the BAEO may be suffering from its own “belief gap.”  Don’t you think it’s time we talk about that?

So, what does success look like? It looks like adults putting aside their personal agenda to sit at a table with others from all political parties and backgrounds, to talk about the real issues affecting our high poverty kids. Until we have true discussions about poverty and race, brought about by people acting independently of any financial or political benefits, our high-poverty kids are going to continue to suffer in Alabama. You may think my definition of success is nearly impossible but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true, just like ignoring the absence of data about these corporate charters successes won’t make them, or our students in Alabama, successful.

Parents, educators, and stockholders, you deserve a place at the table when it comes to our public schools in Alabama. Write your legislator today and tell them that there needs to be more transparency concerning decisions about vouchers and charters in Alabama. There is something terribly wrong when Michelle Rhee and Howard Fuller are at the table deciding the fate of our students’ education and parents and educators are left in the dark.



Terri Michal believes strongly in the power of the citizens voice. She is a community organizer and founder of the non-partisan grassroots organization SOS – Support Our Students.  She is also an administrator for both the national BATA (Badass Teacher Association) and the Alabama BATs. From Washington DC to Montgomery Alabama she has sat on panels and participated in rallies to raise awareness about the privatization of our public schools. She has called Alabama her home for over 27 years.  Her four children all attended public schools in Alabama, two went on to become public school teachers, a third is attending UAB and will also become and educator. If you would like to host a community conversation about charters, the corporate reform movement and what it means to Alabama, or if  you’d like more information, please contact her at [email protected] or visit


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Guest Columnists

Opinion | The push for a balanced budget

Bradley Byrne



When the 115th Congress kicked off last January, I immediately introduced a bill that I believe is fundamental to the future of our country: a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The premise of a Balanced Budget Amendment is pretty straightforward. The federal government should not be allowed to spend more than we take in, except in extraordinary circumstances like a time of war.

This isn’t some sort of far flung idea. When I served in the Alabama State Legislature, we were required to pass a balanced budget each year. It was not always easy, but it was the law. The vast majority of states have the same requirement.


Balancing a budget is also a common occurrence for families in Alabama and across the United States. Every month, people sit around their kitchen table to figure out how to make ends meet and live within their means. Small businesses must do the same.

The federal government should have to play by the same rules.

To truly enact a Balanced Budget Amendment, we would need to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a reminder, in order to amend the Constitution, the Balanced Budget Amendment must pass both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states, which is 38 out of the 50 states. The only other way to amend the Constitution would be through a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the states.

Recently, the House voted on House Joint Resolution 2, proposing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Despite receiving the support of a majority of us in the House, the bill did not receive the two-thirds majority necessary under the Constitution.

I was deeply disappointed that most Democrats in the House opposed the Balanced Budget Amendment. Despite talking a lot about our debt, they rejected one of the best opportunities to actually restore fiscal sanity in Washington.

Throughout the course of the debate, two important topics were raised, and I wanted to briefly address each of them.

First, despite what my colleagues on the other side of the aisle believe, the answer to our debt issues is not to tax the American people more. We do not have a tax problem; we have a spending problem.

To be clear, the recently passed tax cuts are not to blame for our nation’s debt issues. As the Heritage Foundation recently pointed out, “tax revenue is expected to fall by only 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year and spending is expected to climb by 3 percent of GDP.” Again, we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem.

Second, the most serious drivers of the national debt are on autopilot. For example, if you eliminated every penny Congress appropriated for defense spending next year, the federal government would still be projected to operate in a deficit.   So-called mandatory spending programs must be reined in, and a balanced budget amendment would finally require Congress to tackle those programs head on.

Now, I know passing a balanced budget would be hard, but I did not run for Congress because I thought the job would be easy. We were elected by our neighbors to make difficult choices and decisions.

So, while our recent effort to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment came up short, I will not let it stop me from continuing to push for a balanced budget that requires the federal government to live within our means, just like the American people.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Vengeful Alabama to kill 83-year-old man

Stephen Cooper



Barring intervention by courts or its governor, Alabama will kill an 83-year-old man on April 19; long-incarcerated for the 1989 mail-bomb killings of United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance and civil rights attorney Robert E. Robinson, Walter Moody, Jr.’s wizened, withered body, will, three decades after his crimes, be strapped to a gurney, pricked with a sharp needle (possibly many, many times), and pumped full of chemicals until he is dead.

Why? Other than the reactionary, regressive idea of “retribution” – whose flawed moral underpinning is interchangeable with bloodthirsty, wild, wild West revenge – how will justice be served? And, for whom?

The premeditated, state-sponsored senicide of the most senior of senior citizens on Alabama’s death row won’t make anyone – not anyone in Alabama, and not anyone anywhere in the United States or the world – safer. As I have written elsewhere, the myth that capital punishment – in this instance for an old man at the tail-end of a tortured existence in “hell-on-earth” Holman prison – provides deterrence, is an outmoded shibboleth. No mentally disturbed person intent on a bombing rampage will be dissuaded by Alabama prosecutors’ tri-decade pursuit of Moody’s execution. (As the Tuscaloosa News editorialized in a piece titled “Attempts to carry out the death penalty have gone from bad to worse”: “Thirty years is a long time to wait to die, but the State is persistent. Alabama has spent a lot of money and a lot of energy to usher out these old and infirm inmates before nature takes its course.”)


Additionally, and arguably most important, Alabama’s unrelenting desire to exact violent vengeance for the deaths of Judge Vance and Attorney Robinson is improper because of: (1) who these champions of justice were, their respective legacies of honor, and the principles of equality their lifework embodied; and (2), because it is undesired by the people whose opinion should matter the most – the family members of the victims – who have spoken publicly about this.

A crusader for civil rights in the segregated South, Robert Robinson served on the executive board and as general counsel of the NAACP, and so it seems certain he would not favor the death penalty – for Moody, or for anybody – the practice having been hewn from the hell of slavery, subjugation and the suffering of black people. Interviewed for a 2016 essay called “Celebrating Black History: Remembering Robbie Robinson,” Robinson’s widow, Ann, “says she may never know the reason why her husband lost his life to such a heinous crime but she harbors no ill feelings towards Moody. Instead, she’s focused on keeping [her husband’s] memory alive.”

By the same token, Judge Vance’s wife Helen, who was seriously injured as a result of the bombing that killed her husband, told reporters after Moody’s 1991 conviction in federal court that, “she wouldn’t press for a state death-penalty case” (Helen Vance died in 2010). And recently, in March, Robert Vance, Jr., Judge Vance’s son and a circuit judge in Alabama, told a news reporter: “We achieved peace when [Moody] was convicted,” later saying “he’s not sure what can be gained from the execution of his father’s killer.” This ambivalence and distaste for executing an impotent, likely soon-to-die-anyway old man, would undoubtedly have been shared by his father. For as now-deceased former acclaimed death penalty attorney and law professor Michael Mello wrote about Judge Vance, for whom he clerked, in his book “Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment”: “Judge Vance personally did not believe in capital punishment; if he were a legislator he would vote against it; if he were an executive he would commute death sentences; and if he were a Supreme Court Justice, he might well hold it unconstitutional. Robert Vance’s personal opposition to capital punishment was genuine and heartfelt . . . . He did not believe that the death penalty was a proper form of punishment[.]”

Which brings us full-circle to the questions I posed earlier: Why is Alabama intent on killing an octogenarian who can no longer hurt anyone? And, who on God’s good earth will benefit from such ghastliness?

For as renowned Christian author, ethicist, and theologian Lewis Smedes once powerfully observed: “The problem with revenge is that it never evens the score. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops.” This is why Sir Francis Bacon once counseled that “[i]n taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”

If Alabama does not spare Mr. Moody, this time-tested wisdom, together with whatever honor and capacity for human dignity that exists within the office of Alabama’s governor, its Department of Corrections, and its Office of the Attorney General, will be lost.                  

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | How we can make our schools safer

Craig Ford



Education is the most important service our government provides, and one of the top issues impacting education is school safety.

Unfortunately, it seems like every conversation about school safety always turns into a debate about guns, and nothing ever gets done.

But there are a lot of things we can – and should – be doing to make our schools safer without even getting into the gun issue. In fact, mass shootings are only one threat to our schools. Kidnappings, sexual assaults, fights and bomb threats are also concerns, and none of those have anything to do with guns.


First, there should be a trained resource officer or law enforcement officer in every school.

Yes, this would cost money that some school systems might not have, which means the state would have to help pay the bill.

Plus, resource officers can’t be everywhere at once. And as we saw with the school shooting in Florida, just because a resource officer is there doesn’t always mean that officer will do what they are supposed to do.

But having a resource officer in a school could make the difference in a mass-shooting situation. And having an officer on each campus could be a deterrent to potential kidnappers, sexual predators and students who might get into a fight.

Aside from resource officers, there are other common sense measures we can take to keep our schools safe. And we can start by applying the lessons we learned from the shooting that took place at Huffman High School in Birmingham last month.

In that case, according to Superintendent Lisa Herring, the school had 43 entry points, and those entry points were not appropriately monitored. Also, their metal detectors were not working.

First, there should only be one or two places where someone can enter a school. There can be multiple exists for emergencies, but those exits need to be one-way doors so that people can go out but not come in.

Second, no person who isn’t a faculty member should ever be able to walk into a school without having to check-in at the main office. And I would consider supporting legislation that would make it a crime to enter a school without registering with the main office except in emergency situations.

Third, every school entrance and exit point ought to be monitored with video surveillance cameras, and all entrance points ought to have functioning metal detectors. At the very least, our state government needs to look into funding a grant program that would help local schools be able to afford these kinds of metal detectors and surveillance systems.

Along these lines, the state should consider using technology funds to help put computerized visitor management systems in our schools. Front office staff can use these systems to check visitors against a national sex offender database by scanning their driver’s license or other government issued identification. These systems also allow staff to flag visitors and cross check their system with larger databases at the state and federal levels.

Schools should also have perimeter fences to deter trespassers and limit an intruder’s access to school grounds.

Fourth, all school entrance points should have a double entry door system where the second door is locked and can only be unlocked from within the main office. This way, even if a person comes in with a gun they cannot get passed the second door unless the front office staff lets them in. And there should be at least one panic button in the front office.

Because of the cost of some of these security measures, I wouldn’t want to make them a mandate on existing schools. But I do believe we need legislation mandating that all future school construction take these guidelines into consideration when designing the layout of a new school. And we need to look at using state funding to match local investments in these kinds of security measures for existing schools.

Other things we can be doing to help school safety and public safety would be to better fund mental health care and do a better job of enforcing the gun laws we already have (too many shooters, including the shooter in Florida, were known to be threats but the system failed to stop them).

There are a lot of things we can be doing to make our schools safer, and doing these things can not only help stop a potential shooter but also prevent other threats such as kidnappings and sexual assaults. School safety is not just a gun issue, and continuing to do nothing is not an acceptable option.

Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He is currently running for the State Senate in District 10 as an Independent.


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What Does Success Look Like?

by Terri Michal Read Time: 6 min