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Analysis: Why a city-run school system is a bad idea for Montgomery

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The City of Montgomery is planning to study the idea of creating a city-operated school system, moving from the current county system.

It is nothing more than window dressing meant to appease the business community.

It is the latest in a long line of “fixes” for the troubled Montgomery Public Schools system, but like the rest of them – including the ongoing Alabama State Department of Education intervention – it ignores the root causes of the problems in favor of window dressing designed to fool outsiders that the school system is changing.

If anyone doubts the ineffectiveness of such a shallow approach to decades’ old issues, look no further than the ongoing intervention.

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It has been handled poorly on every front, and because officials ignored the dynamics of the city, ALSDE officials, including State Superintendent Michael Sentance, cut locals out of the process. That has led to community mistrust and has led Sentance to cozy up to a Montgomery community organizer named Cubie Ray Hayes, a longtime and well-known community figure who often serves as a go-between for city officials and community leaders on sensitive matters.

But the intervention’s biggest issue is that it hasn’t gone as billed. When the intervention came to life, it was pitched as a means to pump resources into the system to help children – a goal supported by State School Board member, Ella Bell, who was the force behind getting the intervention off the ground – it has done little more than shuffle funds from one set of administrators to another set. And privately, Bell has told those close to her that she has felt let down and unhappy.

Much of her unhappiness – and many of the complaints from those around the city of Montgomery – can be traced back to a belief that Sentance and others had hidden objectives for the intervention. Those goals, put in place by Sentance, business leaders and lawmakers, see Montgomery as an opportunity to implement business-friendly ideas, such as expanded tech programs and “school choice.”

According to sources familiar with the plans, the school choice effort would include charter schools and more “community schools” – schools that offer a variety of services, such as health care, adult training, etc., in addition to academics.

While those ideas have their positive and negative attributes, what’s unclear is why either the city or ALSDE need such major upheaval to do any of them. And what makes no sense is the idea of moving to a city-run system – which would exclude just four schools from the new city system.

Strange has said numerous times that his primary reason for switching to a city system would be to eliminate the board-operated setup of the county system, which he believes is inefficient. Instead, he wants it to be run like a city, where the mayor operates the city day to day, makes personnel decisions and sets policy, and the city council handles larger policy matters.

But that’s only a solution to problems if the Montgomery County School Board is your biggest problem.

It’s not.

Sure, the board has screwed up plenty, and it has allowed race and pettiness to overshadow teaching and learning a number of times, but it is not the cause of MPS’s struggles.

Simple math is.

First and foremost, Montgomery has a large number of citizens, and school-age children, living at or below the poverty line. Poverty, no matter where you go or what race of people that poverty affects, is the one constant in under-performing school districts.

But Montgomery makes things even worse.

Starting just after the Brown v. Board of Ed. Decision in 1954, private schools started popping up all over Montgomery. At one point in the 1970s, Montgomery had more private schools than any other city in the country.

The white, wealthy people of Montgomery will tell you that these exist for some other reason than race. It’s an outright lie. Those private schools, in a city with a population that is better than 40 percent white, are 90-plus-percent white. The public high schools, except for one traditional and the magnets, are 98-plus-percent black.

There are thousands of white Montgomerians who, between the ages of 1 and 18, interacted regularly with no other black kids, and vice versa. Many of those people are in leadership roles in this city now, which helps explain how they can’t see the real problems in the school system.

With so many Montgomery families sending their kids to private schools, the economic demographics of the public school system take a nosedive.

And it doesn’t stop there.

On top of all of the private school students, the system also loses 7,000-plus of its best overall students to its magnet program. That’s one-quarter of the MPS student body – it’s brightest and most dedicated students – removed from the general student body. Additionally, the parents of those children – parents so involved they offered to donate land to build a new magnet high school and have raised enough to build an amphitheater – are also out of the traditional public schools.

And still, it gets worse for Montgomery.

Because Alabama’s Legislature is run by men and women who value wealth over providing education, we have the country’s worst education policy: the Accountability Act.

The AAA, as it’s known, essentially diverts money away from “underperforming” schools, such as the ones in Montgomery, by handing out tax breaks – tax breaks that are deducted from the allocations to the local schools – to parents who have moved their kids from an “underperforming” school to a private school.

In reality, very few people actually moved. Instead, the majority of the tax breaks went to people whose kids were already enrolled in private schools.

Which means that overnight, in Montgomery, thousands of tax dollars left the public schools and went into the pockets of people who didn’t have their kids in the system anyway.

This is the reality facing MPS and the Montgomery County School Board, which have both been cast as the villains of public education. Because it is easier for people to believe that a few ignorant decisions or odd meetings are more responsible for the ills of the MPS system than two generations of racism, white flight and indifference.

If you doubt this, consider that when the mayor and other Montgomery leaders speak of the “public education problem” in the city, it is most often within the context of how badly the poor schools are preventing economic development. Translated: having poorly educated black kids is messing with white people’s ability to make money.

And so, the school board and central office are cast as villains in this show, because it helps to sell patchwork, easy “fixes” that appease the businesses for a bit. Like a city-run system.

The problem is no one, including the man pitching it, believes a city system will solve any of the real problems.

Just a few years back, when a city councilman in Montgomery brought up the idea of exploring a city-run system, Strange was adamantly opposed, and he was opposed for exactly the same reason – it won’t solve the root causes of problems.

And what no one wants to hear is that solving those root problems will take bunches of time, money and dedication.

Here’s the roadmap:

  1. Hire a lot more teachers and counselors and put them in the schools where they’re most needed.
  2. Move the most experienced, highest qualified teachers to the schools struggling the most, and give them raises to go.
  3. Move the magnet programs inside the traditional high schools so the best students can be an influence on other students.
  4. Identify at-risk students who lack proper parental support early and provide extended hours and additional, focused instruction for those specific students.
  5. Expand pre-K to all Montgomery children.
  6. Hire more security guards.
  7. Provide the schools with proper supplies and technology.
  8. Fully fund and restore the middle school athletic programs.

If you do all of this, there is little chance that MPS wouldn’t be a turnaround story that would draw national attention.

But little, if any, of what’s on that list will get done. Because it takes money and it takes care and takes tough decisions.

And the reality of Montgomery is this: The “business community” here cares about education to the extent that it can blame the problems in it on anyone with black skin.

That is evidenced by the criminally-low millage rate in Montgomery and by the lack of concern so many city leaders have for any traditional school in the system.

It has left us with this sad reality: Thousands of kids each year graduate from MPS schools and we know – know for an absolute, drop-dead fact – that many of them are completely unprepared for the world.

That is criminal.

But it won’t stop until we no longer offer cheap, quick fixes, like city-run systems, in order to do the bare minimum.

It won’t stop until we actually fix the problems.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Alabama voters, you just don’t care

Joey Kennedy

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Secretary of State John Merrill expected turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican Party primary runoffs to be “extraordinarily low.”

Merrill said he thought, on average, 15 percent to 18 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

Even that was wishful thinking.

Alabama voters: You don’t care. With as much going on in Alabama and American politics at this moment in history, you just don’t give a damn.

Early numbers indicated fewer than 12 percent of Alabama’s registered voters bothered to take a few minutes to be heard in Tuesday’s runoffs.

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True, in some areas, Democrats didn’t really have runoffs. But Republicans had runoffs in key statewide races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the courts.

And even where Democrats had runoffs – Jefferson County is an example – voting numbers were low.

Alabama voters, you just don’t care.
Of course a lot of this is on Merrill and Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, where the goal, truly, is a low voter turnout. Republicans don’t want voters to go to the polls because they’ll have more trouble staying in control if they do.

Strict photo voter ID, a prohibition against crossover voting in taxpayer-funded primaries, purges of voter rolls, keeping former inmates from re-registering to vote, partisan gerrymandering, the lack of early voting or multiple-day voting – all of this is part of the GOP’s efforts to suppress voter turnout.

That hideous, mean-spirited strategy is wildly successful, too.

Consider also that the turnout of “registered” voters does not mean “eligible” voters. Many voters are eligible, but for whatever reason, don’t register to vote. So Tuesday’s turnout of eligible voters was likely quite a bit below 10 percent.

In that vote, Republicans nominated their candidates for lieutenant governor (the second highest position in Alabama government) and attorney general (the state’s top law enforcement officer).

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a disaster and embarrassment for Alabama in Congress for awhile now, was re-nominated for her fifth term and will likely defeat her Democratic Party opponent in November.

Another career politician, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, was defeated in her primary for lieutenant governor, but this was a free election for political opportunist Cavanaugh. She’ll simply return to her post as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, having lost little, and where she’ll continue to do little. But Cavanaugh will be well-rested for whatever political opportunity she tries to grab in 2020.

Important runoffs in Jefferson County for the five-member County Commission saw two of the most contentious Birmingham City Council members unseat more reasonable incumbents. At least these two are off the City Council now, but they’ll no doubt take their professional dysfunction to the Jefferson County Commission.

Because voter turnout was so low, the results don’t truly reflect what might have happened had voters turned out in the numbers they should have.

But c’mon, Alabama voters: You don’t really care, do you? Oh, you’ll gripe at the results, sure. You’ll moan and roll your eyes when the candidates you didn’t vote for embarrass your county or state. But you really don’t give a damn.

Maybe that’ll change some if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Campaign Legal Center’s Alabama Voting Rights Project is successful.

Secretary of State Merrill won’t like it, but that’s really more of a recommendation for the project than not.

The SPLC and CLC want to make it clear to tens of thousands of Alabamians that a felony conviction doesn’t permanently take away a person’s right to vote. Once an individual has fully paid for his crime, he can get his voting rights reinstated.

According to the SPLC’s July 12 announcement, “Workers will organize and train local leaders in communities across the state, participate in community events and forums, and go door to door to work with formerly incarcerated people who may be eligible to vote under Alabama law. They will also make use of an online tool, www.alabamavotingrights.com, that will guide formerly incarcerated Alabamians through the process of registering or re-establishing their voting status.”

Many of these “criminals” were convicted of nonviolent drug or other nonviolent offenses. They’ve paid their debt. Being eligible to vote again is an important part of their successful return to society.

“So many people fought and died to ensure that all citizens have a voice in our society through the right to vote, yet many men and women – disproportionately people of color and poor people – have been denied the right to vote even after serving their time and completing their sentences,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, in the announcement. “The Alabama Voting Rights Project is dedicated to ensuring that every person who is eligible to vote in Alabama is registered and that each one of them can access the franchise. A healthy democracy depends on full participation by all members of society.”

And that’s what bothers Merrill and his Republican Party minions. “People of color and poor people” are disproportionally going to vote against Republicans. That’s probably why Merrill hasn’t done his duty to make sure these folks know they can regain their voting rights. The SPLC and CLC believe “(t)ens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application for a state Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote.”

So yeah, the dastardly plan worked Tuesday – and it has in many previous elections where our state leaders are happy if even 30 percent of registered voters show up.

As the state’s top election official, Merrill should be working to guarantee all eligible citizens are registered to vote, to make it convenient for them to vote, to get the highest voter turnout possible.

That’s not the strategy, though, and mainly because: 1) Voters don’t care enough to go vote. And, 2) because those in charge simply don’t want them to vote.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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Opinion | Alabama: The confused state

Josh Moon

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Alabama is a confusing state.

A state that prides itself on its hardworking, blue-collar image but somehow turned out overwhelmingly to vote for the (alleged) billionaire, reality TV star for president was just as bi-polar during Tuesday’s primary runoff election.

On one hand, voters seemed to want to rid themselves of long-serving, stagnant politicians, rejecting Democrats Alvin Holmes, John Knight and Johnny Ford and Republicans Twinkle Cavanaugh and Gerald Dial. They seemed to be saying that they wanted ethics and term limits and candidates that were more responsive and energetic.

But on the other hand, still standing at the end of the night were Steve Marshall, Martha Roby and Larry Stutts. So, voters were also saying they were cool with a complete lack of ethics, a complete disregard for constituents and a completely awful human.

Maybe this is why pre-election polling in Alabama is always so screwed up. How can a pollster figure out what you people want when even you don’t know?

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So, let’s try to dissect this a bit and come up with a few answers. 

Let’s start with the Democrats, because they’re easier to understand.

Holmes and Knight, with a combined 70 years of experience serving in the Alabama House, lost to two dudes who have combined to serve for exactly zero years in any state office. David Burkette, who beat Knight for what seemed like the 50th time in the past year, has served as a city councilman in Montgomery, but that’s the extent of their political experience. Kirk Hatcher, who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles, has zero political experience.

All of this fits with a recent trend in the Democratic Party to push for candidates who relate better to real, everyday people. They believe the old-school guys, particularly the multi-term lawmakers, are out of touch with the real people they serve and are selling them out.

And those voters are right.

For example, while I’ll happily vote for Chuck Schumer over pretty much any dollar-seeking, Bible-thumping Republican, I’d sure like to have an option that isn’t sitting right in the middle of the big banks’ pockets.

And so, the Dems have decided to clean house wherever it’s possible.

It was possible in Montgomery.

Republicans, however, are a different story, which is usually the case. Because while certain factions of the GOP love to play up this alleged independent streak they claim to have, at the end of the day, it’s hard for them to turn their backs on the guy they came in with.

They get trapped by the lights and sparkle of the incumbent’s deep pockets.

Or at least they used to.

Before Twinkle turned dull and Dial time ran out.

In those races, Republicans voted against the lifelong politicians, putting Will Ainsworth and Rick Pate, respectively, into office.

Ainsworth’s win was particularly satisfying, yet also so confusing. He’s a pro-ethics, pro-term limits guy who once stood up to Mike Hubbard and told him he needed to go.

How do you vote for a guy like Ainsworth and then also vote for Steve Marshall? Or Larry Stutts?

Marshall, in particular, has governed pretty much the opposite of Ainsworth and former AG candidate Alice Martin, who picked up nearly a third of the votes in the primary. Marshall’s not chasing crime and corruption. His major accomplishments have been weakening the state’s ethics laws  — a move the business community rewarded him for — and pushing back against the law that outlaws political action committee (PAC)-to-PAC transfers.

Marshall is OK with such transfers now that he’s raking in millions from PACs doing exactly what is outlawed.

Speaking of outlaws, I’m not sure how Stutts is even on the ballot, much less still winning GOP elections. He has been nothing but an embarrassment, selling out women and children and selling out everyone else fairly routinely.

And yet, he won.

I just don’t get it. At the end of these elections, there’s supposed to be a pattern. We’re supposed to be able to look at who won and who lost and tell people what it all means. That voters were tired of this, or happy about that, or that they want a certain type of candidate.

Not in Alabama.

We apparently do things a bit different here.

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Potpourri/Notebook from June 5 primary

Steve Flowers

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You have the results of Tuesday’s runoff elections. I had to go to press with my column before the results were known.

There are some fantastic runoff races which should be close and interesting. The four best will be Troy King versus Steve Marshall in the Attorney General’s race. The Lt. Governor runoff between Twinkle Cavanaugh and Will Ainsworth will be interesting. The Agriculture race between Rick Pate and Gerald Dial will be good. It will be interesting to see if Bobby Bright ousted Martha Roby from Congress in the 2nd district.

Let me share some thoughts and analyses from the first primary on June 5th. Kay Ivey and Walt Maddox won their party’s nominations very impressively. Governor Ivey used the mantle of incumbency to win a decisive victory with 56 percent of the vote against three thought to be viable, well financed opponents. Her campaign was brilliantly run. Her television ads were excellent.

The mastermind of her campaign was Brent Buchanan. He is now the master of political campaigns in Alabama. His polling arm, Cygnal, is the most accurate on the scene. He uses his polling adroitly to design brilliant ads. Buchanan runs many campaigns out of state. He only ran two in the state, Ivey’s gubernatorial contest and Gerald Dials’ race for Agriculture Commissioner. In fact, Buchanan came up with the best ad of the campaign season. The jingle ad for Dial in the Ag race was spectacular.

Walt Maddox’s waltz to victory over five opponents without a runoff was impressive. It became apparent in the closing days that he was going to win without a runoff. He ran the table on all of the important endorsements. He got the Alabama Democratic Conference, New South Coalition, but even more importantly the endorsement of and use of the young Birmingham Mayor, Randall Woodfin’s organization. This was a recipe for a big win.

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Maddox is the best candidate that the Democrats have fielded for governor in two decades. He is young, vibrant, and has a proven track record as a Chief Executive/Mayor of one of Alabama’s largest and most important cities, Tuscaloosa.

However, we are still a very red state. All 29 of our statewide elected offices are held by Republicans. Kay Ivey is not only the Republican nominee, she is the sitting Republican governor who can continue to cut ribbons and claim credit for every industrial announcement as well as the outstanding national economy and job growth. She will refuse to debate or go unscripted. In addition, as the incumbent she can raise substantial campaign funds.

In the June 5th primary, there were twice as many votes cast in the GOP Primary as there was in the Democratic Primary. There were 340,000 votes cast for Kay Ivey, whereas there were only 284,000 votes cast for all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates combined. Therefore, 174,000 more people voted for Governor Kay Ivey than Mayor Walt Maddox.

I would handicap this race 56 to 44 in favor of Ivey going into the Fall. The only way that Maddox can win is for Kay to falter. Her handlers should keep her close to home and limit her appearances. They should continue to not discuss the issues that face the state or take any positions or offer any plans for the state woes. Under no circumstance should they allow her to debate. The young articulate mayor would eat her lunch. The contrast in appearance itself would be dramatic.

Maddox, if not elected, will live to run another day. The divide between the two political parties is narrowing in the state. Younger voters are trending Democratic, even in the Heart of Dixie.

Tommy Battle ran a very successful get acquainted race for governor. He will be the favorite in 2022. You could see a Walt Maddox vs. Tommy Battle contest in four years.

Battle built name ID and got 25 percent of the vote against a popular incumbent governor. He goes back to being Mayor of Alabama’s most prosperous and fastest growing city. If you think Huntsville has prospered and boomed the last 10 years, you ain’t seen nothing yet! It could very easily be the boom town of America in the next five to ten years.

Maddox’s city of Tuscaloosa is growing right behind Huntsville. Quite frankly, Battle and Maddox have much better jobs as mayors of Huntsville and Tuscaloosa than if they were Governor of Alabama.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Analysis: Why a city-run school system is a bad idea for Montgomery

by Josh Moon Read Time: 8 min
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