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Florida’s SGO Program Expanded Through “Procedural Trick”

Lee Hedgepeth

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By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

Those involved in Florida’s “school choice,” Accountability Act-style program are sure to be celebrating this week – including John Kirtley, the venture capitalist who partnered with former Governor Bob Riley to form Alabama’s most prominent SGO, or scholarship granting organization.

SGOs, in both Florida and Alabama, provide scholarships to fund private school tuition for public school students, particularly those whose families are low income, and those zoned for what are labeled “failing” schools.

The beginning of this month marked the end of the Florida legislative session, and with it, the surprise passage of an expansion of the Sunshine State’s private school voucher program. While it is much larger than Alabama’s system, Florida’s SGO scholarship program works in a very similar manner.

The expansion that passed the Florida Legislature and is now headed to the desk of GOP Governor Rick Scott removes various barriers to entry into the program, including expanding scholarship programs to include those in higher-income homes.

The bill, which was literally stuck into the text of another as a last minute procedural move, passed along mostly party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

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Florida Senator Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said of the controversy surrounding the bill, “Let parents decide. Parents are the first and best educators.”

Ironically, the Florida Parent Teachers’ Association, has taken a stance against the law, as have various teachers’ and educational organizations. The groups have expressed concerns that continued expansion of voucher programs for private schools will undermine public school education across the state, specifically citing that some of the private schools accepting the scholarships receive more money from the state-sponsored program than from private funding, resulting in a quasi-private school situation. Others say that 80 percent of the schools receiving the funds could become an issue.

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down one version of a school voucher program, saying it undermined the public school system, which is protected by the state constitution, though a workaround was developed, leading to today’s program.

The effort in Florida to pass an expansion gained regional attention when proponents of the bill began spewing different numbers in reference to the number of students “waiting” on scholarships under the program. Though claims ranged from ten thousand kids to a hundred thousand kids including claims form Step up for Students executives, the Florida Department of Education confirmed that no such list exists in their possession, and a spokesman for Step up for Students told CBS Miami that no waiting list was actually kept for this year. Below is a list of the number of students on a waiting list different proponents of the expansion have claimed, as compiled by a blogger at Huffington Post, sorted the date each claim was made:

  • Feb 14 – Step Up for Students President- 50K -“to completely eliminate those on the wait list..need to fund 50K more students.”
  • Feb 20 – Step Up For Students, VP, Jon East- 34K – “we have 34K who started the application process” waiting for funding.
  • Feb 27 – House Speaker Weatherford -30K “30K on wait list but only 6K students will benefit in near term if this bill passes.”
  • Mar 4 – House Speaker Weatherford’s opening speech – “tens of thousands longing to send their children” to voucher schools.

Mar 4 – Senate President Gaetz’ opening speech- 10K – “10K students waiting in line for vouchers.”
  • Mar 5 – Rep. Manny Diaz- 50K -Diaz must not have heard opening speeches because he told Miami Herald – “50K students are waiting”
  • Mar 6 – Jon East, VP, Step Up For Students – 25K – lowered his figure from two weeks priot to now “25K students waiting”
  • Mar 7 – Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr. -25K “25K were not able to receive vouchers this year because we ran out of money.”
  • Mar 28 – Rep. Erik Fresen – 100K at House Education Appropriations Hearing- “We have 100K students on the wait list for vouchers.”
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Lawmakers in Alabama have tried to expand the Accountability Act in ways which parallel that of Florida.

During this year’s legislative session, which ended last month, HB558, sponsored by Representative Chad Fincher, would have made several significant changes to the law.

The tax credit cap for donating to so-called SGOs, which is currently set at $7,500 per individual taxpayer in Alabama, would be removed under the bill’s revisions to the AAA, but it would not affect the total cap of twenty five million dollars set aside for use in matching creditable donations to so-called Scholarship Granting Organizations, whose purported aim is providing scholarships to students to attend non-“failing” institutions.

The Alabama Department of Education determines the list of “failing” schools annually.

In addition to removing the individual cap on tax credits, Fincher’s proposed legislation would have expanded the definition of the eligible “individual taxpayer” to include S-corporations and LLCs, in effect allowing these entities an unlimited shot at the $25 million in tax credits in a manner reminiscent of Citizens United.

Many viewed Representative Fincher’s bill as a move to incrementally push Alabama towards more drastic changes like eliminating or increasing the overall cap for donations that can be tax credited.

A representative for the Riley-Kirtley SGO testified at the public hearing for the bill during the session, saying that the committee should “consider whatever it takes, whatever that means” to ensure the financial stability of scholarship granting organizations throughout the Yellowhammer State.

Notably, John Kirtley and his Florida SGO operate under a system where only 3 percent of total SGO donations can be taken by the organization as an “administrative” fees, which has lead to tens of millions to Kitley’s Florida SGO operation, as opposed to Alabama, with a cap of 5 percent, under which the Riley-Kirtley SGO now operates.

 

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Health

Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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Corruption

Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence

The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations in September. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two. 

Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on one counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another five counts.

Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”   

Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 

“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.

Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his sentence should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months. 

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.

“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law.  Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”

Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, more than four years after his conviction. On Nov. 5 he was taken into custody by the Department of Corrections.

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News

Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, has “mild symptoms”

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.

Eddie Burkhalter

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iron Bowl and has mild symptoms, according to a statement from the university on Wednesday. 

“This morning we received notification that Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson and Jeff Allan, associate athletic director, in the statement. “He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a false positive. He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.” 

Saban had previously tested positive before Alabama’s game against Georgia but was asymptomatic and subsequently tested negative three times, a sign that the positive test could have been a false positive. He returned to coach that game. 

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for quarantining after testing positive and with symptoms. Neither Saban nor the university had spoken about that possibility as of Wednesday morning.

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National

Civil rights leader Bruce Boynton dies at 83

The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

Brandon Moseley

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Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton

Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton died from cancer in a Montgomery hospital on Monday. He was 83. The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

“We’ve lost a giant of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama. “Son of Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bruce Boynton was a Selma native whose refusal to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant led to the landmark SCOTUS decision in Boynton v. Virginia overturning racial segregation in public transportation, sparking the Freedom Rides and end of Jim Crow. Let us be inspired by his commitment to keep striving and working toward a more perfect union.”

Boynton attended Howard University Law School in Washington D.C. He was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, in his senior year of law school for refusing to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant. That arrest and conviction would be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Boynton and civil rights advocates prevailed in the landmark case 1060 Boynton vs. Virginia.

Boynton’s case was handled by famed civil rights era attorney Thurgood Marshal, who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1960 7-to-2 decision ruled that federal prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also applied to bus stations and other interstate travel facilities.

The decision inspired the “Freedom Rides” movement. Some Freedom Riders were attacked when they came to Alabama.

While Boynton received a high score on the Alabama Bar exam, the Alabama Bar prevented him from working in the state for years due to that 1958 trespassing conviction. Undeterred, Boynton worked in Tennessee during the years, bringing school desegregation lawsuits.

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Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said on social media: “NAACP LDF represented Bruce Boynton, who was an unplanned Freedom Rider (he simply wanted to buy a sandwich in a Va bus station stop & when denied was willing to sue & his case went to the SCOTUS) and later Bruce’s mother Amelia Boynton (in Selma after Bloody Sunday).”

His mother, Amelia Boynton, was an early organizer of the voting rights movement. During the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965, she was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She later co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. His father S.W. Boynton was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bruce Boynton worked for several years at a Washington D.C. law firm but spent most of his long, illustrious legal career in Selma, Alabama, with a focus on civil rights cases. He was the first Black special prosecutor in Alabama history and at one point he represented Stokely Carmichael.

This year has seen the passing of a number of prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Troy native Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

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