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Education Options Act: A plan for school choice and flexibility

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY – Late Wednesday afternoon, The “Education Options Act of 2012” was filed in the Alabama House of Representatives. The bill is part of the long-awaited plan to revitalize Alabama schools and bring choice and flexibility to the system. The legislation, House Bill 541 sponsored by State Rep. Phil Williams (R-Huntsville), is a first step toward establishing public charter schools and removing some of the burdensome state laws and regulations that have kept Alabama’s parents and children form having educational options.

According to the Speaker’s Office, the legislation is not meant to be a “Silver Bullet” that will fix all problems but a tool that wiill allow for better education where needed.

Alabama’s school system has been vexed with failing schools for years. According to many experts, there is generational failings that have left entire communities crippled by ignorance and poverty.

Earlier in the day Speaker Hubbard and Rep. Williams joined Governor Robert Bentley, Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, State Senator Dick Brewbaker and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange held a news conference announcing the bill and calling for its passage.

As an honored guest Rev. David Craig, pastor of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Fairfield, joined the others saying his community needs more education options for parents and children.

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“We’ve seen too many failures. I visit the county jail too often and see young people who have no hope,” Rev. Craig said. “I believe we have to give our parents and students a choice so they can choose education over drugs, over violence, and become productive citizens. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. This is an Alabama issue.”

Studies by PARCA, the states premiere policy institute has studies showing the clear linkage between education, failing schools, crime and incarceration.

To the dismay of many the AEA, Alabama’s largest union has stated that it will do anything within its power to defeat the Legislation.

At the resent Celebration of the Selma to Montgomery March, AEA union boss Henry Mabry accused Gov. Robert Bentley of wanting to take “existing education money and give it to big businesses without the creation of one job.”

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“Lawmakers want charter schools that will resegregate our school systems by race and disability,” Mabry said. “Creating charter schools would cripple our local school systems.”

Many have noted Mabry’s willingness to divide the state with race-charged rhetoric in order to retain control over the state’s education system.

Mabry has been ineffective to in imposing his will upon the State Legislature so far in this session. But he has vowed a fight to the better end to keep school choice or accountability from becoming a part of Alabama’s educational landscape.

Below is a fact sheet that outlines The Education Options Act.

Facts about the proposed “Education Options Act of 2012”

There isn’t one “silver bullet” reform that all schools can implement to solve all problems. That’s because one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to improving schools. Every area has different problems. And different problems require customized solutions.

One community may have a lack of options, offering parents only one choice: perpetually failing schools that continue to operate despite a clear record of failure.
Another community may find its school system burdened with unnecessary state regulations that hold it back from turning good schools into great schools.

The Education Options Act seeks to offer a diverse menu of improvement options from which different communities may choose based on what their particular needs are. This bill:

Provides a pathway for school systems to obtain flexibility from state statutes or state board regulations in order to make improvements in their system.

A school system could craft an “innovation plan” that seeks flexibility from specific state mandates and outlines performance goals. The State Superintendent of Education would have the authority to grant the waiver on the condition that the stated goals are met.
All flexibility waivers would be conditional for five years to ensure accountability.

Allows local school systems in Alabama to authorize innovative public charter schools.

School boards could only approve charter school applications from non-profit, non-religious organizations, and all charters must meet strict accountability requirements.
Charter school applications denied in systems with persistently low performing schools (bottom five percent) may be appealed to the Charter School Application Review Council created under this bill. If that council determines that the charter application was unfairly rejected and the proposed charter school should be allowed to proceed, the council could overturn the board’s decision and grant the charter itself. The charter school would then be accountable to the state council.
“Persistently lowest performing” schools are those that have ranked in the bottom five percent in Reading and Math proficiency for three straight years according to the U.S. and State Departments of Education.

Authorizes communities to convert existing schools into innovative public charter schools.

Conversion proposals would be submitted by the local school superintendent and approved by the school board, but could only move forward if a majority of parents of the existing school’s enrollees approved.
Proposed “conversions” of existing traditional schools into public charter schools are not appealable if denied by local boards, even in those systems with persistently low performing schools.

The Education Options Act doesn’t require the creation of even one charter school, nor does it mandate that a board request a waiver from any state statute. The legislation merely provides the framework for an innovative school board to change the status quo.

Important questions and answers about how public charter schools would operate under this bill:

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are public schools that combine the equal opportunity and tuition-free nature of traditional public schools with the flexibility and quality instruction of non-public schools.
The major difference between a traditional public school and a charter school is that, unlike traditional public schools, if a charter school fails to meet its required performance benchmark, it is closed down.
Teachers and principals are held accountable for their performance. Parents and guardians are held accountable for their involvement. Instead of spending valuable classroom time marking off a checklist of state rules and regulations, teachers are allowed to do what they do best: teach children.

Why charter schools?

Given the proper support and accountability requirements, charter schools are a proven tool to help close that achievement gap and curb dropout problems. Charter schools aren’t the panacea that will cure all education ills, but they would be a valuable tool to raise performance in areas where we are dreadfully behind.
Some school systems in Alabama probably aren’t candidates for charter schools, but that can’t be the reason we keep other districts from utilizing a reform that could make a real difference. Plus, those school systems that probably aren’t candidates for charter schools could easily benefit from the flexibility components of this legislation.

How do we ensure quality?

Public charter schools operate under the oversight of their governing board based on a contract (charter) with the school’s authorizer (local board or state council).
Authorizers may revoke a charter and close a school that is not meeting its responsibilities under the contract.
Public charter schools must submit to annual audits by the Examiners of Public Accounts as well as comply with all financial accountability regulations of the Department of Education.
Authorizers not providing proper oversight can see their authorizing powers taken away.

Funding: how is the money distributed?

The same as always: the money follows the student. If a student enrolls in a charter school, federal, state and local funds allotted for that student would flow to the charter school.
Some may argue that this funding mechanism strips current schools of needed funds. However, just as if the child moved away, the school no longer has the expense of educating that student. Better yet, under this scenario, the funds can at least stay within the system, rather than going to the system to which the child relocated.
Excluded from this will be funds reserved for capital outlay and debt service, as well as up to 3 percent retained by an authorizer.

What students would be allowed to enroll in charter schools?

Any and all that apply up to the number of seats available. Public charter schools must be open to all students who wish to attend, including at-risk or special needs students.
If more students enroll than there are seats available, schools must conduct lotteries to fill seats. There can be no admission requirements other than the enrollee must live in the district where the school is located.

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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Jones says Senate race a choice between “substance and leadership, and nothing”

“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Incumbent Sen. Doug Jones speaks at a rally in Anniston. (EDDIE BURKHALTER/APR)

Speaking outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters in Anniston on Friday, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, told a group of supporters that Alabamians haven’t gotten a look at what his Republican opponent might do if he wins the Nov. 3 election. 

“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said. “They’re getting a choice between substance and leadership, and nothing — nothing. We have not heard anything from Tommy Tuberville about what he really wants to do.” 

While Jones has held numerous interviews with the media, and regular web briefings over the summer and in recent weeks, Tuberville’s campaign seems to prefer the safety of keeping Tuberville from making possible gaffs or damaging statements in interviews. 

Tuberville hasn’t agreed to interviews with traditional media outlets, or to debate Jones, and instead has focused on conservative talk radio spots, speaking to smaller Republican groups and at private parties.

Tuberville’s campaign has ignored or denied our numerous attempts to interview Tuberville, including another request on Friday. He also declined to attend a student forum held at Auburn University on Wednesday, which Jones attended. The forum was sponsored by the Auburn College Republicans and College Democrats.

“If you ever hear something Tommy Tuberville says, it is just simply this: ‘Build a wall. No amnesty. Drain the swamp.’ That ain’t him. That’s Donald Trump,” Jones said. “He cannot think for himself. He doesn’t think for himself.” 

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Jones spoke of his record of working to help veterans through legislation. And he referred to Tuberville’s nonprofit for veterans and reporting that indicates, through tax records, that less than a third of the money raised for Tuberville’s charity went to help veterans. 

“I don’t just create charities and send only pennies on the dollar. I do things for the veterans of this state and this country,” Jones said. 

Jones also made a case for Alabamians to remember the contributions past Democrats made in the state. Jones said it was Democratic Sen. John Sparkman who helped build Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal. 

“It was a Democrat, Lester Hill, who built the rural hospitals around here that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Tommy Tuberville are trying to destroy,” Jones said. “It was Howell Heflin who built up agriculture in this state. Those are the Democrats. It was Franklin Rosevelt that put electricity in this state. We’re going to do the same thing for broadband. People forget those things. They forget those things because we’ve let other people define us with lies.”

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Jones plans to visit Jefferson County on Saturday, then on to the Black Belt and Mobile on Sunday with another stop in Birmingham on Monday afternoon. 

“The goal is to get everybody out. That’s the thing if we want to continue to ensure Alabama moves forward — moves forward and not backwards, to continue to have somebody, if I do say so myself, somebody that’s just not going to damn embarrass us,” Jones said.

Supporters of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones rally in Anniston on Oct. 30, 2020. (EDDIE BURKHALTER/APR)

“We’ve had too much of that in Alabama,” Jones said, “and I bet you it won’t be a year that Tommy Tuberville would be an embarrassment to this state because he doesn’t know the issues. He doesn’t know what to do, and he’s dang sure not going to know what to do when Donald Trump is not president of the United States.” 

Jones encouraged supporters to be skeptical of recent polling. One such recent poll, by Auburn University at Montgomery, puts Tuberville ahead of Jones by 12 percentage points, 54 to 42.1. An internal poll by Tuberville’s campaign puts Tuberville ahead by 15 percentage points, while an internal poll from the Jones camp put Jones ahead by one percentage point. 

“Don’t listen to these polling folks that come in, and they don’t know Alabama, and they don’t know what they’re doing. We’re tracking this race, and I can tell you, everything has been moving in our direction the last two months,” Jones said. 

People standing along roadsides holding his signs and showing support, Jones said, is “the energy we’ve got out there. That’s what you can’t poll.”

Ellen Bass of Anniston, standing outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters just after Jones spoke, told APR that she has numerous Republican friends who are voting for Jones.

“My hat’s off to them because they’re coming out,” Bass said. “They recognize that he is a better candidate.”

Ciara Smith, 21, newly elected to the Anniston City Council, told APR outside the headquarters building that Jones is the better candidate.

“I think that he’s educated. I think that he speaks with passion and heart,” Smith said. “And he knows what he’s talking about, which is important, and which is more than we can say about the other candidate.”

Speaking to APR after his speech to supporters, Jones said that he feels very good about the state of his campaign.

“Everything we’re seeing is moving in our direction,” Jones said. “And the more he stays hidden, the better it is for us.”

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Crime

Inmate assault injures two St. Clair prison correctional officers

The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Two correctional officers at St. Clair Correctional Facility were injured in an inmate-on-officer assault on Monday, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR.

Among the two officers who sustained non-life-threatening injuries was a basic correctional officer (BCO), a position created in May 2019, who are not Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOST) certified and who cannot transport inmates, work perimeter fencing or in towers.

The other officer injured was a full correctional officer, Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose told APR in a message Friday. The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries and subsequently released, according to Rose.

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the actions taken by the inmate against ADOC staff are being thoroughly investigated,” Rose said. “As the investigation into this incident is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation.”

The ADOC created the new basic correctional officer position to bolster the state’s woefully understaffed prisons. The creation of the position was also at the suggestion of experts ordered by a federal court to study the department’s staffing problems, ADOC attorneys wrote to the court in a filing in 2019.

The ongoing lawsuit is over the state’s handling of mental health in prisons.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in June argued that ADOC was far behind on the court-ordered hiring new additional officers. It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a previous opinion wrote that prison understaffing “has been a persistent, systemic problem that leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control.”

“Taken together, ADOC’s low correctional-staffing level, in the context of its severely overcrowded prisons, creates a substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners, including continued pain and suffering, decompensation, self-injury, and suicide,” Thompson’s previous opinion continued.

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The SPLC in court filings late last year expressed concern over the use of basic correctional officers in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons. ADOC attorneys have argued to the court, however, that BCO’s are adequately trained to do their jobs and are needed for the department to hire the necessary number of officers per the court’s timeline.

In a court filing on Thursday, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the court not to again delay site visits to Alabama prisons by two experts who are tasked by the court to determine which positions should be filled by correctional officers and which by BCO’s and which by another new position, called cubical correctional officers, who are to have no direct interaction with inmates.

Those visits were to begin in May, but both parties in the suit agree to wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat it posed to the experts, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to “age and other factors,” according to court records.

Both parties again agreed to postpone those visits in June for those same reasons, those records show. ADOC seeks a third extension but attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the experts can visit the prisons while keeping themselves, prison staff and inmates safe from harm of COVID-19 and that thousands of employees and contractors enter Alabama prisons daily.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argue in the court filing that the expert guidance is needed because ADOC wishes to use BCO’s and cubical correctional officers to comply with the court-ordered hiring of additional staff by Feb. 20, 2022.

“Ensuring adequate staffing is of upmost importance to address the constitutional violations underlying mental health care within ADOC,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court Thursday.

ADOC in May was employing 494 BCO’s, a 57 percent increase in the number of BCO’s employed in Oct. 2019, according to ADOC’s staffing numbers. The number of correctional officers working in Alabama prisons fell by two percent during that time, dropping from 1,319 to 1,287.

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Elections

Slow absentee voting in Tuscaloosa sparks outrage, possible legal action

Among the issues were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Long lines and slow absentee ballot processing in Tuscaloosa County have left voters outraged and incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’s campaign threatening legal action. 

On Wednesday, Jones’s campaign attorney, Adam Plant, sent a letter to Tuscaloosa County Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo, outlining a number of issues with ongoing absentee voting and promising to take legal action if Bobo doesn’t improve the process on the final day, Friday. Among the issues documented by Plant were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Additionally, Plant noted that Bobo has hired her family members to help process absentee ballots and at least one family member had made disparaging remarks on social media about voters. 

“You and those acting on your behalf are suppressing the vote of qualified Alabama voters,” Plant wrote in the letter. “If you are unable or unwilling to execute your duties competently, and allow Tuscaloosa voters to exercise their voting rights without undue burdens, we will take further action.”

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser on Wednesday, Bobo noted that her office had received more than 13,000 requests for absentee ballots — a remarkable uptick from the 3,000 or so her office usually receives — and there had been problems in managing that number of ballots while also adhering to social distancing guidelines within the office. 

However, as Plant’s letter notes, the massive increase in absentee ballots for this election shouldn’t have been a surprise. Also, Secretary of State John Merrill had made additional funds available to absentee managers to facilitate hiring extra staff, purchasing additional computers and staying open for longer hours to accommodate the anticipated increase. 

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In a press release on Wednesday, the Alabama Democratic Party criticized Bobo and her family members, and the release included screenshots of Facebook posts from Bobo’s daughter lashing out at voters who complained about the long wait times. 

“No voter should have to wait in line for hours to exercise their rights,” said ADP executive director Wade Perry. “We should leverage every tool we have to make voting easier, not harder. Also, it should go without saying that election workers should not insult the very people they are employed to serve. If Ms. Bobo is incapable of processing voters quickly, someone else needs to do the job.”

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Elections

Jones campaign calls Tuberville a “coward” after no-show at Auburn forum

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” Jones’s campaign said.

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

There are only four days left before election day, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign is slamming Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, accusing him of “hiding” and calling him a “coward.”

On Wednesday, Jones addressed an Auburn University forum. Tuberville did not attend.

“Tonight, the College Democrats and College Republicans at Auburn University co-hosted a debate between Doug Jones and Tommy Tuberville, offering students a chance to ask the candidates about the issues that matter most to Alabama,” the Jones campaign said in an email to supporters. “But Tuberville never showed up – he’s too scared to face Doug… even on his own home turf. Tuberville has repeatedly refused to debate Doug Jones. He’s consistently refused to be interviewed by the press. He’s refused to tell Alabama the truth about who and what they’re voting for – and it’s clear why.”

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” the campaign continued. “If he won’t tell the truth, we will. Tuberville expects to win this race off of his blind allegiance to the President and his party affiliation. But Alabamians know better.”

“People deserve to know who they’re really voting for if they vote for Tuberville: someone who … won’t protect our health care, doesn’t believe in science, has no idea what the Voting Rights Act is, and doesn’t care about the lives and livelihoods of Alabamians,” the Jones campaign concluded. “Alabama will never elect a coward. Pitch in now and help us spread the truth about the man hiding behind the ballot.”

“I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here,” Jones said. “I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”

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Tuberville meanwhile is canvassing the state, speaking to rallies and Republican groups to turn out the Republican vote for himself and President Donald Trump. Tuberville spoke at Freedom Fest in Madison County on Thursday and at the Trump Truck Parade rally in Phenix City.

“It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who represents our conservative beliefs and traditional values,” Tuberville said in Phenix City. “It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who supports the Second Amendment, the right to life, and putting God back in the classroom.”

Polling consistently shows Tuberville with a commanding lead over Jones. Real Clear Politics lists the race on their current board as a likely Republican win. FiveThirtyEight’s election model gives Tuberville a 79 percent chance of defeating Jones.

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