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Bradley Byrne, Part 1: On Reform Alabama, Education Blueprint

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Since running for the Governor’s Office in 2010 Bradley Byrne has remained focused on the ideas he promoted during his campaign. Instead of giving up on his vision for Alabama Byrne along with others founded “Reform Alabama.” Byrne describes Reform Alabama as “Do Thank.” not a think tank. One of the areas that they group has been hard at work on is education.

Recently we spoke with Byrne about education and the ideas, methods and programs Reform Alabama has created. The following is part one of a two part series our interview with Mr. Byrne.

APR: OK, let’s talk about your motivation. Why spend most of your free time and your energy on education?  

bradley-byrneBB: The most important thing state government does is provide public education for people in K-12 through two-year colleges and four year colleges. That one thing the state government does is far more important than just about anything else in state government is called upon to do. Because education has such a tremendous impact, not just on your ability to develop the state economically, but also developing a good quality of life. It’s pretty easy to say, ‘Education, it needs to be a bond when you talk about state government.’ Of course for years, there were things that many of us talked about and wanted to do in education that just weren’t possible because the legislature just wouldn’t bring them up. For years it would take some of it talked about, but they couldn’t get to first base. Now with the (Republican, sic) new majority in the legislature, we have an opportunity to start looking at some reforms that have been bottled up for years; reforms that I think will have a pretty big impact throughout the state of Alabama. The motivation is both because we think education is the most important thing state government does, but also because we think have a new opportunity to work with the legislature with some things that have been battling in the state for a long time.

APR: Normally when we see candidates run for office and they’re not elected, they tend to go back in sort of hiding mode unless they have another office that they’re in. You have not taken to that track at all. Can you share a little bit about what your thinking was?

BB: Sure. Not long after the runoff was over, I got a very nice phone call from Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida. He encouraged me to stay involved and how he lost his first election for governor in Florida. He had put together a foundation after he lost and to push the policy goals that he had been pushing as a candidate, and he encouraged me to consider that. The more I considered it, and talked about it with friends, the board made sense. Because in my race, the important thing was not whether I got elected or not, the important thing was whether the policy objectives we were pushing whether they were instituted. If you approach things that way, that’s the way I approach them, the fact that I was defeated doesn’t mean the effort to try to get those policy objectives put into law. That goal is still there. So this, in one sense, is a continuation of things we were talking about during the campaign, mainly education reform.

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APR: I think that everyone is looking at education reform. When your group, which I think you call a ‘do-tank’ and not a ‘think-tank’…

BYRNE: ‘Do-tank’, that’s right.

APR: When you put together this program what are the primary goals?

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BYRNE: Well there are some things about children we cannot control in education. We cannot control who their parents are; what the parents do or don’t do for them; we can’t control what’s going on in their households. But what we can do is control the quality of what happens in the classroom. For quality instruction, which very quickly goes in to teachers and teaching methodology, etc., that is the big thing that we can have some control over. In fact we know what happens in other places, if you focus on that you can get amazing results even under difficult circumstances. What we’re focused on and all the things we’re talking about, is raising the overall quality of what we can do in the classroom.

APR: One of the things you mentioned in the blueprint is accountability. Can you give us some ideas, how are we to hold schools and teachers more accountable? What your thinking is on that.

BYRNE: For so long, the way we measured academic success was with regard to inputs: how much were we spending, how many books in the school library, do we have internet hook-up in the school, how many computers we had in school, etc. What we have not done, as we should have, is ‘OK the inputs are fine, but where are the results?’ Are we actually making sure that we are giving children a quality education? Are they getting it? Are they graduating from school, or graduating from school with high standards? Accountability in its truest sense is holding everyone responsible and accountable for the results, not just the inputs. Accountability is at its best is, are we graduating high percentage of our young people from high school and are we graduating them under high standards.

APR: One of the things that we often hear is, we are not putting enough money in education. What comes to my mind, by some of the studies that I’ve read, is there a correlation between the amount of dollars spent and actual success in educating? There are obviously other factors, but is there any correlation?

BYRNE: Money by itself doesn’t do anything, so if we throw money at any problem government gets involved in, particularly in education, if you just throw money at it you’re not going to get anything in return. If you’re going to spend money on something, you have to spend it on targeting things that work. A great example of that in Alabama is the Alabama Reading Initiative; we know it works. But if we spend that same amount of money on a different type of program or not as rigorous of a reading program, we wouldn’t have the same results. Sometimes we spend way too much time talking about money and not nearly enough time on where the money is going to be used for. In Alabama, even despite the recession, if you go back and look at how much money we spend on education in the state today versus what we spent 10 years ago, it is twice as much. There is some inflation during that time but not enough to say it’s been 100 percent. We’re spending more money today on education than we were 10 years ago. I think with improvement with the economy you will start to see funding climbing again for education, and increases in education budgets start again. People will say ‘Well this money is going to be used doing better things for education.’ But if they’re not targeted to things we know work, then it’s just more money we’re not getting anything from. Now the education system in Alabama has been hit very hard over the last four years, no question about that. You can’t keep suffering those kinds of cuts without some kind of effect.  So I took account of the negative effects of education, the lack of funding, but if we’re only focused on the money we’re going to miss the things that really matter. Which is what is what really works in terms of education.

APR: Are you working with other groups, that have helped shape the blueprint for education reform in Alabama.

BYRNE: We have worked with Governor Bush’s foundation down in Florida; we actually were able to take, with the generosity of Governor Bush’s foundation, the legislative leadership to the National Education Reform Conference that Governor Bush’s foundation sponsored back in October. We had the Speaker, the President Pro Tem, their staff, some other legislative leaders on education at that conference with us. We have worked very closely with legislative leaders, the Speaker and the Pro Tem and their staff in putting this together. This is largely their view about things; we’re trying to reflect what they think in addition to what we all heard at the conference. We have also worked very closely with the Alabama Policy Institute, A+ Education Reform Organization and with the State’s Superintendent Organization. It’s been a lot of people, there’s no original idea in this thing. You’re exactly right when you said earlier it’s a ‘do-tank’ for Alabama; none of these are our ideas, we picked up on what the people have said and what the legislative leadership thinks, and what they think they can accomplish. We put together a plan that we think can pass and will work for the state of Alabama.

APR: We know that charter schools are going to be a big push with this Session. It’s on the Governor’s mind and the Speaker’s and the President Pro Tem and a host of other folks. Of course it goes back to the old question: why don’t we have school choice in Alabama. Those who oppose school choice argue that the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged children will be left behind in the poor performing public schools and charter schools will make education worse for the poorest. Is there an answer to the critics?

BYRNE: It’s ridiculous. What happens with school choice, children who are presently locked away in schools that are not performing; those kids don’t have any chance right now. When you have school choice, you give them and their parents the opportunity to go find a better place for them to go to school and get a better education. We know charter schools work; they work in a lot of places around the country. If you want to see it, you really want to see it, go rent the movie “Waiting for Superman.” At the very end of that movie, it follows several families that are poor, I believe all are minorities, and are desperately trying to get their children into charter schools in various places around the country. The very end the camera shows those families when they find out whether they did or didn’t make it in the lottery to get the child to get into a charter school. You see the joy on the faces of the families who won the lottery and got their children into charter schools, and then you see the almost disconsolate view of the ones that don’t get in. It just rips your heart out, because they know those charter schools are the only hope for their child to get a quality education. Far from hurting poor children, charter schools and school choice help them. And that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to give the children that don’t have opportunity that so many have in Alabama.

In part two we talk about digital learning and Byrne’s vision for education in Alabama.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases continue rise

Average daily hospitalizations continue an ongoing increase as cases nationwide surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Alabama hit 863 on Wednesday, the highest daily count since Sept 4, as average daily hospitalizations continue a steady increase and cases nationwide surge.

UAB Hospital in Birmingham on Wednesday was caring for 72 COVID-19 inpatients — the highest number the hospital has cared for since Aug. 21. 

In the last two weeks, Alabama has reported an increase of 15,089 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and APR‘s calculations.

That number is the largest increase over a 14-day period since the two weeks ending Sept. 9. On average, the state has reported 1,078 new cases per day over the last two weeks, the highest 14-day average since Sept. 9.

The state reported 1,390 new confirmed and probable cases Thursday. Over the last week, the state has reported 7,902 cases, the most in a seven-day period since the week ending Sept. 5. That’s an average of 1,129 cases per day over the last seven days.

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Alabama’s positivity rate, based on 14-day case and test increases, was nearly 16 percent Thursday, the highest that rate has been since mid-September.

Public health experts say the positivity rate, which measures the number of positive cases as a percentage of total tests, needs to be at or below 5 percent. Any higher, and experts say there’s not enough testing and cases are likely to be going undetected. 

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“I really won’t feel comfortable until we’re down to about 3 percent,” said Dr. Karen Landers, the state’s assistant health officer, speaking to APR last week

While new daily cases are beginning an upward trajectory, the number of tests administered statewide is not, contributing to the increasing positivity rate. The 14-day average of tests per day on Thursday was 6,856 — a nearly 10 percent decrease from two weeks prior. 

Over the last two weeks, ADPH reported 206 new COVID-19 deaths statewide, amounting to an average of 15 deaths per day over the last 14 days.

So far during the month of October, ADPH has reported 303 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. In September, the total was 373. Since March, at least 2,843 people have died from the coronavirus.

The number of new cases nationwide appear to be headed toward a new high, according to data gathered by the COVID Tracking Project. The United States is now reporting nearly 60,000 cases per day based on a seven-day average. At least 213,672 Americans have died, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Courts

U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

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“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Education

SPLC files complaints in Pike County over suspension of two Black students

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement. 

“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued. 

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints. 

Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.

“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release. 

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The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings. 

“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint. 

“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.” 

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After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state. 

Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints. 

“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release. 

“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.” 

“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”  

“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”

Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals.  On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.

Both complaints can be read here and here.

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News

Biden urges Democrats to support Doug Jones

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

Brandon Moseley

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Former Vice President Joe Biden appears at a campaign rally in Birmingham with then-candidate Doug Jones in 2017. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Wednesday asked Democratic donors to support the re-election of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

“I wanted to reach out to you about an old friend of mine: Doug Jones,” Biden said. “You might not believe this, but I met Doug more than 40 years ago, when I was a newly-minted junior senator, and he was in his early 20s, just beginning what would become one of the most impressive and dedicated careers of public service I’ve had the privilege of watching.”

“Doug has devoted his entire career to fighting for justice,” Biden said. “He’s the man who would not rest until the Klansmen who killed four young Black girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing were finally brought to justice. Doug has shown us, even in our darkest moments, that hope for the American promise is never lost — and what we can do when we stand united.”

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

“I need Doug’s help in the Senate,” Biden said. “He’s running neck-and-neck in his race in Alabama right now, and he needs our help to win.”

Biden said this election is “a battle for the soul of our country” and “few places are those stakes as clear as in Alabama.”

“I remember in 2017 when everyone counted Doug out,” Biden said. “When they thought that a message of unity would lose in a state where a long history of division still runs deep. But when I visited Alabama to help Doug, I saw what he saw – Alabama was ready to come together.”

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Biden was an early endorser of Jones in the 2017 special election, when Jones defeated former Chief Justice Roy Moore in that election. Jones returned the favor in the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsing Biden when the former vice president was having difficulty raising money and was polling well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Jones campaigned hard with Biden in Selma and other campaign stops across Alabama prior to Super Tuesday on March 3.

“His win gave me hope,” Biden said. “I was both honored and proud to have escorted him onto the floor of the Senate and stood behind him when he was sworn in as a United States Senator. And his record has been extraordinary – passing 22 bipartisan bills helping farmers, military families, and those devastated by natural disasters. And in perhaps the most crucial fight of all – our health care – Doug has been there again and again standing up for all of us, especially those with pre-existing conditions. Every time we needed him to stand up for us, Doug Jones was there. I’m going to need Doug’s voice in the Senate. Alabama and America will need Doug’s voice in the Senate.”

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“Doug and I share a vision for a united country – one that puts faith over fear, fairness over privilege, and love over hate. And Doug, his campaign, and his career remind us that it’s a vision we can only realize if we come together,” Biden said.

In an Auburn University Montgomery poll, Biden trails Trump in Alabama by 17 points. Jones trailed former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville by 12 points. The Jones campaign claims that there has been a tightening of the race since then and it is a statistical tie. The Tuberville campaign disputes that claim.

Republican insider Perry Hooper Jr. said, “Whether it is the AUM poll, the Al.com poll, or internal polls by the (Tuberville) campaign, the margin is between 12 and 18 points in favor of Tuberville.”

The Jones campaign has been inundating the state airwaves with TV and radio ads due to the vast advantage that Jones has had fundraising. More than 82 percent of Jones’ money raised in the third quarter reporting cycle came from outside the state of Alabama.

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