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Fake news, alternative facts

Larry Lee

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Education Matters
By Larry Lee

Just to prove they understand “alternative facts,” the Alabama Federation for Children sent out a news release and a study proclaiming that the Alabama Accountability Act is saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

The report, done by Auburn University Montgomery, contends that every time we divert money from the Education Trust Fund and give it to a scholarship granting organization to give a voucher to a private school student we save money. As best I can tell, their “logic” is that private schools educate students at less expense than public schools, so paying for scholarships in less expensive that paying for that child to go to a public school.

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(This approach was ruled unconstitutional a few years ago in North Carolina by a Circuit Court that said the state could not foregone their obligation to provide public education by trying this approach.)

The AUM report clearly says they were looking at the fiscal impact of AAA, not the merits of the program itself. But having just sat through a Senate hearing about the accountability act and hearing “facts” fluttering everywhere, plus the fact that I am hardly someone to decipher monetary issues, I turned to a couple of folks who have experience in separating the wheat from the chaff in education research.
One is Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. This organization is known nationally for reviewing education research and determining if it is valid or not. Here was his response: “Fairy dust.”

You just can’t add and subtract programs from other states and project savings from it. Each state has its own unique set of laws and rules.

Second, the savings are projected. Is this real?

Third, there is no measure of learning so you really don’t know if the program worked or not.

Fourth, it compares choosers vs nonchoosers. Assuming there was an effect you don’t have comparable groups.
Fifth, as you have to be poor to get in the program means that the poor children have less invested in them. This may violate your equal benefits clause and raises serious legal questions.

It is safe to say he was not impressed.

Next I turned to David Berliner, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Education at Arizona State and a past president of the American Educational Research Association.
I will not use his initial response since this is a family-oriented column. But having grown up on a farm, it was something I stepped in many times.
“If I get a $1,500 tax credit, the state loses my $1,500. That’s tens of millions lost, year by year from the monies needed to pay the salaries to teachers, etc.
The money they “save,” say $9,000 for not paying a public school for an elementary kid that left is only saved if the public school budget could be reduced by $9000. That cannot be done!

The school stays open when the kid leaves. Heating and cooling costs are exactly the same, a custodian and school transportation costs are not really affected. Unless lots of kids leave the teacher salaries will be the same. Those teachers and a principal are still needed, etc.

That is, per pupil costs will not change $9,000 if a kid leaves. If, say, 10 kids leave you end up reducing the schools budget $90,000, but you reduce the costs to run school hardly at all. So it’s no real savings unless you close schools.”

Last fall the University of Alabama put out a report about the academics of AAA. They concluded that students getting AAA scholarships do not perform any better than their public school counterparts.
Wonder why the Alabama Federation for Children didn’t put out a press release about it? Guess it just slipped by them.

Larry Lee is a public school advocate in Montgomery and the co-arthur of Lessons Learned from Rural Schools. [email protected]

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Electric vehicles make sense for Alabama drivers

Mark Bentley

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As many as 50 million Americans are about to flip the switch over to electric automobiles with their next purchase, according to the American Automobile Association. A recent survey conducted by the AAA found that popularity of electric cars is trending upwards. With infrastructure and availability all here, Alabama can lead the charge toward electric vehicles.

In its survey, AAA asked Americans if they were considering electric vehicles for their next car purchase. The survey found that 20 percent of Americans say their next vehicle will be an electric car – up 5 percent from 2017.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition encourages Alabamians to make the move to an alternative fuel vehicle, such as an electric car. Electric vehicles offer nothing but benefits, from being more cost-efficient due to cheaper fuel to less expensive maintenance to being environmentally friendly.

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Alabama’s relationship with Mercedes-Benz could be a factor in the state’s future with electric vehicles, too. The automaker announced in January it would be rolling out an electric version of each of its vehicles by 2022. With Mercedes – and most other automakers – launching more electric options, there have never been more alternative fuel vehicle options than we have today.

The Tuscaloosa County facility is the only Mercedes plant in the United States, and it will play a central role in the production of these electric vehicles. As these electric vehicles begin to be produced by the people of Alabama, the next logical step is for them to begin driving them as well.

There has never been a better time to switch over to electric. It is a common misconception that it is a hassle to charge your electric car, whether that be at home or on the road. Charging at home can be done through a 120-amp power supply, which is the same three-prong outlet that powers your television.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition is determined to make driving an electric vehicle in Alabama comfortable by assisting in getting proper infrastructure in place. Alabama currently has 84 electric charging stations, and a total of 198 charging outlets scattered across the state in almost all major cities.

More and more charging stations will continue to pop up across the state as more electric vehicles hit the streets. Current electric charging stations can be found at convenient locations in public, and some residential areas. The new Tesla charging stations in downtown Birmingham are just one prominent example. Several online sites, such as plugshare.com, provide charger locations.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition serves as the principal coordinating point for clean, alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle activities in Alabama. The ACFC is part of the national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions that bring together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging technologies.

According to Alabama AAA PR and Marketing Director Clay Ingram, our state is warming up to electric vehicles as the technology and infrastructure begins to develop at a rapid pace.

“We have come a long way in accepting this, in a short number of years,” Ingram said. “We love our vehicles in Alabama, and I think there is a lot of room for (electric vehicles) as the technology continues to develop.”

With an average gas price of $2.91 – its highest cost since 2014. Gas prices are expected to increase over time without any anticipation of dropping. The average American spends $1,400 on gasoline a year, while average electric vehicle charging costs are $540 annually. Unlike gasoline cars, electric vehicles don’t typically require oil changes, fuel filters, spark plug replacements or emission checks. In electric vehicles, even brake pad replacements are rare due to the fact regenerative braking returns energy to the battery.

With all the aforementioned factors in mind, it is no surprise that the AAA estimated a below-average cost of ownership with electric vehicles. Electric cars also are the least expensive when it comes to yearly maintenance.

Since the 1970s, lawmakers in the United States have been putting effort into facilitating the research and growth of electric cars. The urge to reduce carbon emissions has given electric car production a lift. Electric vehicles emit an average of 4,500 pounds of CO2, with gasoline cars emitting more than double that.

This current shift to electric will not only have an environmental impact, but also an economic one. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States has made progress in importing less oil, but still imports nearly 20 percent of what is consumed. The increasing use of electricity as an alternative fuel will further push the United States toward economic independence from foreign countries.

The benefits to driving an electric car are endless! To learn more about the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition and advice on purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle, please visit www.alabamacleanfuels.org.

Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, a nonprofit membership-based organization, is the state’s principal coordinating point for alternative fuels and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program. The promotion of clean, renewable, domestic energy sources helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improves local air quality and increases economic development opportunities in our local communities. For more information, please visit www.AlabamaCleanFuels.org or call 205-402-2755.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Biofuels are still an important component of our energy mix

Steven Taylor

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During the last 15 years, biofuels have been a hot topic in the energy production world. You could hardly turn on the television or radio without hearing about the latest research and benefits of biofuels, which can be produced from agricultural and forest residues and dedicated energy crops. In fact, to help encourage the development of biofuel technologies, Congress provided tax breaks and incentives for companies that produced and sold biofuels.

Times have changed, though, and biofuels are not a front-page story today. Presently, natural gas is the darling of the electrical power industry for baseload operations. It’s clean, relatively inexpensive and readily available. Many power plants and manufacturing facilities are converting their old boilers to burn natural gas. Natural gas is on a high and there’s no forecast to determine when it will come down.

But for a moment, let’s reexamine biofuels, as they can still play an important role in our state’s energy production and economic development. According to the Energy Institute of Alabama, our state ranks fifth in the nation for electricity generation from biomass-based fuels. Biomass consists of plants or plant-based materials such as agricultural crop residues, forest residues, or dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass or fast-growing trees. These various sources of biomass can be used not only for generating electrical power or making liquid transportation fuels like gasoline or diesel fuel, but they can create a wide arrary of co-products like plastics and adhesives.

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Here at Auburn University, we are conducting research to maximize the usage of biomass for conversion to biofuels and valuable coproducts. While most people think of corn-based ethanol when biofuels are mentioned, researchers at Auburn are advancing the technology to convert grasses, pine trees and hardwoods to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels. And to make the fuel production process more economically feasible, we are developing a suite of co-products that can be produced at the same time.

Through grants from Alabama Power Co., the Electric Power Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we have been addressing many of the challenges in using biomass to create renewable biofuels and electrical power. One of the greatest challenges with biomass-based fuels is logistics. Forest and agricultural biomass is usually scattered and is difficult to collect and transport cost-effectively using traditional harvesting machines and trucks. In projects sponsored by the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, we have developed innovative and efficient ways to collect and transport the biomass from its original site to a power plant, refinery, or manufacturing facility. Other research is developing biochemical and thermochemical methods to convert the biomass to liquid fuels, chemical products, and electrical power.

Auburn researchers are also tackling the challenge of capturing gases emitted from landfills. Currently, it’s cheaper to flare the landfill gas than it is to clean and transport it to another location for re-use. Our faculty have developed methods to remove unwanted sulfur from the gas which then makes the gas valuable for production of electrical power or liquid fuels. Additional research has developed smaller-scale, more cost-effective reactors that can convert this gas to gasoline and diesel. Once these processes have been perfected, it will not only allow electric utilities and fuel producers another viable option in clean fuel choices, but the resulting new industries will open the door for more employment opportunities, particularly in our rural areas where forest and agricultural biomass is produced

As you can see, these are exciting times for Alabama’s energy industry. We are continuing to expand our diverse energy base, while finding new ways to utilize resources already in place. Biomass and the resulting biofuels can and will continue to play an important role in adding to our resource mix. To learn more about Alabama’s reliable, clean, affordable energy resources, visit the Energy Institute of Alabama at: https://energyinstituteal.org.

 

Dr. Steven Taylor, P.E. is Professor and Associate Dean for Research
Samuel Ginn College of Engineering Auburn University.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Letter to the Editor on FCPA and the Ethics Commission

Secretary of State John Merrill

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In the 2015 Alabama Legislative Session, the Legislature passed legislation that required all county candidates and political action committees running for public office to file campaign finance reports with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. The 2015 legislation did not change the requirement for all state candidates to file with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. This 2015 filing process was to be accomplished through the electronic filing portal made available by the Secretary of State at fcpa.alabamavotes.gov. This legislation gave candidates until the 2018 election cycle to become familiar with the law. Beginning with the 2018 election cycle, the Secretary of State’s Office was required to issue civil penalties to candidates who did not meet the campaign finance filing requirements. Those who received a civil penalty can either pay a civil fine or appeal to the Alabama Ethics Commission. The review and appeal process was put in place to allow for expungement in specific instances in which the Commission felt the candidate had extenuating circumstances which prevented them from meeting the standard deadline applied to all candidates for public office.

All committees, regardless if it is a candidate or Political Action Committee, are required to file yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, and major contribution reports to show Alabamians the source of all contributions, expenditures, and loans. The 2015 law required the Secretary of State to issue civil fines as listed below:

  • 1st Offense 10 percent of contributions or expenditures or $300 (whichever is less)
  • 2nd Offense 15 percent of contributions or expenditures or $600 (whichever is less)
  • 3rd Offense 20 percent of contributions or expenditures or $1,200 (whichever is less)
  • 4th Offense and all proceeding penalties are the same as the third offense but this activates our requirement to report the Candidate (PCC) or Political Action Committee (PAC) to the Attorney General and the District Attorney in the judicial circuit in which they reside.

When a committee files a report late, a comprehensive review process takes place to ensure that each penalty is legitimate and that the report in question is a required report for that candidate. Step one involves one staff member of the Elections Division reviewing the late reports and preparing a file documenting the required reports and the violation number for the candidate or committee. That employee then delivers the penalty files to Clay Helms, the Assistant Elections Director and Supervisor of Voter Registration. Mr. Helms then reviews the files and corrects any errors before delivering the penalty files to John Bennett, Deputy Chief of Staff, who then reviews each penalty and checks the math on the amount of the civil fine. Once Mr. Bennett completes his review, he then delivers the penalty files to David Brewer, Chief of Staff, who then completes a final review. After Mr. Brewer’s review, he then delivers the penalty files to Brent Beal, Deputy Attorney General. Once signed, the letters are scanned and emailed to the email address on file for the PCC or PAC, and the original is mailed to the candidate via certified letter to ensure delivery. This intensive review process ensures there is a system of checks and balances to protect candidates from unwarranted claims of impropriety.

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As previously noted, a campaign committee can request an appeal if the committee believes extenuating circumstances caused them to not meet the deadline for filing their report. The appeal is reviewed by the Alabama Ethics Commission at their quarterly meetings.

The Ethics Commission held its first quarterly review of the fines against committees who had requested an appeal in December, and has held subsequent reviews in April and June. During each of those meetings the five member Ethics Commission voted to overturn all of the 54 requests for appeal that were submitted to the Commission for review for a total of 113 civil penalties. The fines were overturned based on concerns from the Commission that this law was a new law which campaigns could not be held responsible for accountability at this time.

The appeal process is in place for a candidate or committees first offense for which someone does not meet the standard as prescribed in state law. If they are a repeat offender, the law requires a monetary penalty be issued by the Secretary of State’s Office. My question to members of the Ethics Commission, members of the media, and the people of Alabama is why do we pass ethics laws and employ an ethics commission if we do not intend to enforce the rule of law?

Further, the law was not established to function as an expensive, tax-payer funded, reminder to candidates who fail to timely file, but it was created to provide transparency on campaign contributions and expenses for all Alabamians to see and serve as a deterrent to candidates who wish to deceive voters by not providing evidence regarding the source of their campaign donations or expenditures.

Simply put, the Alabama Ethics Commission, like all other state agencies should follow the law, or ask the legislature to change it!

 

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Fake news, alternative facts

by Larry Lee Read Time: 3 min
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