By Beth Clayton
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) releases long-awaited list of schools who are classified as “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act.
The list was scheduled to be released last week, however, the release was postponed due to a “legal inquiry.”
Dr. Tommy Bice, state superintendent, explained that the legal inquiry concerned his ability to modify the parameters set forth in the Alabama Accountability Act and SB658. His intention was to craft a list that could reflect schools that had shown significant progress and would still be labeled “failing” under the law.
Bice explained that school choice has been in place since the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal education law that went into effect in 2002. Under No Child Left Behind, school choice was limited to within the district, with a few exceptions.
“This new law expands this school choice option to non-public schools,” Bice said. “It provides tax credits to parents and scholarships to those families should finances be an issue,” he said.
One of the most debated aspects of this legislation concerned which schools would be labeled “failing” and which students would be eligible to receive the vouchers. Under the Accountability Act, the ALSDE would be responsible for compiling the list of schools, using the parameters set forth in the legislation.
Melinda Maddox, assistant state superintendent of education, explained the metrics behind the creation of the list and Bice commented on the details.
“We’ll be releasing today two separate lists, one that meets the law,” Maddox said.
“The first list we’ll be releasing has 72 schools on the list, and it is…the one that has been the most talked about.” Maddox said that the list does not take into account schools that serve special populations or changes that may be made over the summer, but compiled the list based on data from last March since the law is retroactive.
The list took the state assessments in reading and math for the most recent six years of current data and calculated a proficiency score based on those results. Each year for the past six years, the ALSDE determined the bottom six percent of schools based on the calculated proficiency scores, Maddox said.
“Some schools might have been in the bottom six percent in 2007 but not in any other years. They would not show up on the list because the law then says that they have to be in the bottom six percent three of the last six years,” Maddox explained. “Any three of the last six years would then allow them to be on the list.”
“If we don’t use improvement and growth as part of the formula that we could end up with schools on the list that, in most cases, would not be considered failing,” Bice said. “Regretfully, we were not able to add that to the list.”
The list contains the percentages calculated of proficient students for each year and then whether or not that school was in the bottom six percent for that year or not.
“Legally I am unable to remove a school from the list whether they have shown improvement or not,” Bice said.
Bice called the list “a continuum of schools,” based on their proficiency calculations. He explained that the list contains schools that have shown “a negative trajectory” over the past six years, schools that have remained constant, schools that have “shown a steady improvement trajectory, but still have room for growth,” and schools that have shown “unbelievable growth and are actually models for what we can do.”
Although Bice explained that all schools on the list would normally not be considered failing, some school boards have already seen negative impacts from the list.
Casey Wardynski, the Huntsville superintendent, held a press conference yesterday after the list was released to urge parents to keep their kids in the public schools. The list contains nine Huntsville schools.
Wardynski’s cited concerns similar to those of Bice, that the list includes many schools that have shown growth and improvement in recent years.
Three of the Huntsville schools listed were elementary schools that have improved in the past years. Dawson and MLK elementary schools were moved from the failing list in 201l due to improvements in their proficiency scores. Dawson improved proficiency 24 percent in 2012. MLK improved 27 percent.
ALSDE executive board member Mary Scott Hunter weighed in on the list at the Huntsville press conference, saying “We have a list that does meet the black letter of the law, but I’m not sure it meets the intent of the law.”
In addition to the release of the list, the Alabama Department of Revenue decided today that students currently enrolled in private schools cannot take advantage of the vouchers.
“The language of the AAA, when read in its entirety, clearly supports concluding that parents of current private school students are not eligible for the credit,” says Department of Revenue guidance released today.
Many notable Republicans have divided on this issue. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that he was unhappy with the department’s decision.
“I think if you are already making the sacrifice … you should get a tax credit as well,” Marsh said.
Governor Bentley, on the other hand, has said that he didn’t believe the vouchers should go to students currently in private schools.
“I’ve read the bill at least 10 times. The way I read it is the tax credits are used to transfer out of failing schools. But we will let the legal folks at the Revenue Department make the final decision,” he said in an interview last week.
In the press conference, Bice also addressed the original intent of the legislation, to provide flexibility for public schools. Bice explained that ALSDE had opened up requirements to allow schools provide more “innovative” opportunities.
Bice said that the legislature has now joined ALSDE in their efforts to offer flexibility by providing “statutory and budgetary flexibility” as well.
“We see this as an opportunity to really do some innovative things,” Bice said. Three school systems are already working to take advantage of those opportunities, he said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.