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AEA, Legislators Disagree on What School Flexibility Act Really Means

By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Public hearings in both House and Senate committees were held about the Local Control School Flexibility Act of 2013 on Wednesday. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, announced at the beginning of the meeting that a committee vote would not take place immediately after the hearing.

However, the bill passed out of the House Education Policy Committee with two amendments related to the tenure portion of the bill that has been in question.

The the state school board and the Alabama Education Association (AEA) are taking opposing positions on these bills. While the superintendent of the state board of education, Dr. Tommy Bice, is a proponent of these bills, the AEA’e executive secretary, Dr. Henry Mabry is opposed.

“I look at this legislation as completing and complimenting the innovation school systems work that our board of education put in place over a year ago,” said Bice.

Bice continued saying that he believes that the best innovation and creativity for schools occurs at the local level where “not only educators but business and industry, parents and other community members, sitting county government leaders, students and all others come together to create a vision for their school system that looks vastly different from the one they currently experience.”

Mabry’s understanding is quite different. He said that while the AEA is in favor of flexibility for school systems that this legislation is not what the education community agreed upon last year.

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“The legislation that has been proposed in the House and the Senate is a pig in a poke. What do I mean? What I mean is, this legislation says it will do one thing, but in fact will do exactly another,” said Mabry.

According to the sponsors of the bill, it is designed to give local schools more flexibility to alter their curriculum, budgetary items and be allowed to customize their school systems to better accommodate their students. Proponents insist that a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work for all systems.

The sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison) said, “Look at what this bill has the possibility of bringing for our children, for our schools and for our teachers, enabling us the flexibility that we need to take Alabama school systems to the next level and away from the status quo.” Representative Chad Fincher (R-Mobile) is the sponsor of the House’s version.

The controversy comes down to the wording in some sections of the bill, particularly where the bill would allow school systems to apply for permission to be exempt from some of the state laws regarding education. Another concern is language that references teacher salaries and tenure. Another concern is that this is a “back door approach” to allowing charter schools. The bills regarding charter schools were defeated last session.

Bice said, “I know that there are concerns about the bill and what it might imply in terms of governance and other sorts of issues. But I have full confidence in our local teachers and leaders in their boards of education and their communities to develop plans that are respectful of those.”

The AEA deems this as a possible opportunity to circumvent years of education standards. Mabry said, “This legislation takes decades and decades of educational standards and potentially throws those standards out the window….We have laws on the books that protect our teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and nurses. We have protections in place because of political abuses in the past, and this legislation is working to take those protections away.”

During the House committee meeting, Representative Phil Williams (R-Huntsville) proposed two amendments that were passed addressing some of the issues.

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Williams said, “I thought [the meeting] was great. There was a lot of discussion. We had probably six proponents and five or six opponents talking about the merits of the bill. We took up the bill. We amended the bill to incorporate desires we had heard about in there to make sure that future teachers were covered. I think it was a great outcome.”

Mabry disagreed saying, “The amendments made a couple of marginal improvements. However, the overriding goal of trying to gut tenure is still in this legislation. There are countless other problems with this legislation regarding hurting standards, allowing for the competitive bid law to be waived and a whole host of other things.”

Holtzclaw said that he thought the amendments addressed the concerns that had been put forth.

Both bills now move to the rules committees in their respective houses for assignment to the floor calendars.

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