By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The 2013 Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) which gave parents whose children are zoned to Alabama’s worst performing schools unprecedented choices in where they go to school was the most talked about (and litigated) legislation passed in the last two years.
The AAA gave the parents of students trapped in failing schools can apply for a scholarship to go to either another public school or a private school and the state pays for it. The Republican Super Majority passed the AAA in the face of vocal opposition from public school teachers, administrators, and school boards.
In 2014, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) spent $millions to defeat the legislators who championed the AAA. The Educators’ group also fought the act all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court. Both efforts failed. Voters gave the Republican Super-Majority even more seats in both houses of the legislature and the Alabama Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that ruled against the AAA.
This is 2015 and the Accountability Act is back and it’s champion. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R from Anniston) wants it to get bigger and better.
On Wednesday, March 11, the merits of the bill to expand the Accountability Act was debated in a public hearing in the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.
First the Committee adopted a substitute bill offered by Senator Jim McClendon (R from Springville). Senator Marsh said that the new version of the AAA would increase the cap on scholarships from just $25 million to $35 million (a 40 percent increase.)
A number of witnesses spoke in the public hearing:
Father Bry Shields is the principal at Mobile’s McGill Toolen Catholic High School. Father Shields said that the Catholic High School was one of the first to sign up for the Alabama Accountability Act’s scholarships. Our core belief is every child is a child of God. Over 90 percent of our students go to college. Over 90 percent are involved in a club or sport. Two thirds get a scholarship to go to college.
Father Shields said that many parents prefer that their child transfer into a school where their children they will be secure and safe and will have education opportunities that they would not otherwise have. 620 students across the Mobile Diocese have taken advantage of the Accountability Act.
Shields called the AAA a very good program. Father Shields said that we are in good shape. We have been operating for 120 years. This program allows us to be of service to the greater community. Father Shields did ask that the deadline be moved to May 15 rather than September 15 when they have been in school for a month.
Father Shields said, “We are participating to be of service to the community.” “God does not give his gifts based on socioeconomic benefit or the neighborhood they live in.”
Senator Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) asked, “Do you check to see if they come from a qualifying school?”
Father Shields said, “No we leave that up to the Scholarship Granting Organization.” The scholarship covers almost everything. Out of the $8000 scholarship, $7000 covers the tuition, $600 pays for fees, and they apply the rest to books. Shields said that families pay for their student’s uniforms…..about $150.
Senator Quinton Ross (D-Montgomery) asked, “In terms of your curriculum what standards are used in your program?”
Father Shields said, “We take their transcript and match their program individually.”
Sen. Roger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) asked about the criteria in deciding whether or not to take a student.
Father Shields said, “We would look at any kind of discipline record.” Applicants with a drug problem or a criminal problem would not be accepted. Academically the school would try to place them according to our ability. We have an admission committee and the principal makes the decision. We have not had to turn anybody down.
A spokesperson for Alabama Arise said, “Many of our members would like to see the AAA repealed. The group recommended a cap on scholarships at 185% of the poverty line instead of 200% in the proposed bill because that is the accepted standard for public school lunches. “Given the condition of state budgets this is not the time to increase the cap for SGOs.”
Sen. Marsh thanked the spokesman for acknowledging that this is an improvement over the original AAA.
Kim Mashburn said that her son, Derrick, struggled every day that he was trapped in his public school. They had meetings; but nothing was ever done so she met with the Alabama Scholarship fund and was awarded a scholarship to attend Churchill Academy. “He was really behind.” In just a few weeks he had an enormous difference in attitude. “He has learned much more than he learned in the public school.”
Ms. Mashburn said, “My older son went to public school and went to college. It worked for him. It didn’t work for Derrick.”
Sally Howe, who was speaking for the Alabama Association of School Boards, said that she would like to acknowledge the improvements this bill would bring to the AAA. I am here on a conceptual matter. This is not particularly accountable. The majority of our students still go to public schools I ask that the cap not be raised from $25 million to $35 million. “The money should go where our students are and that is in the public schools.”
Christopher Caldwell said that he was not reaching his academic potential at Selma High School. The Accountability Act allowed him to go to Elmwood Christian Academy. They provided me smaller classes now I earn straight As. The school has also awarded him an opportunity to participate in a number of sports.
Caldwell said, “Because of the scholarship I received, I will attend college studying criminal justice.” “The experience has been life changing.”
Jim Chestnut spoke next representing the Alabama School administrators. Chestnut was upset that more money will be diverted from the Education Trust Fund.
Ms. Allison said she was not satisfied with her children’s pubic school experience. Her daughter spent an entire year without a science book and got an F because of it. She complained the school did nothing. Then she got an opportunity to apply for a scholarship and her daughter got approved. “Thank God. Churchill Academy has been a blessing. The public school failed me in addressing my child’s needs.”
The Superintendent of the Lowndes County School System Dr. Daniel Boyd said, “Public schools need more money not less money.” Dr. Boyd complained that they did not get enough money for Books, toilet paper, professional development, etc. “It hampers the instructional process. We don’t have the adequate tools.”
Dr. Boyd complained that the bill increases the definition of failing schools from the bottom 6 percent now to the bottom 10 percent and it is based on a bell curve so there is a constantly changing criteria. “There will always be a bottom 10 percent.”
Dr. John M. Mehaffey, who is the headmaster at Chambers Academy in LaFayette, said that they have 50 students enrolled on AAA scholarships.
Sen. Dial said, “I know the work you do at Chambers Academy and appreciate you being here.”
Mehaffey said that the school has two academic tracks: standard and advanced.
Susan Kennedy, who is representing the AEA, said that her organization oppose any changes that increases the money going to scholarship. Kennedy said that; “Now more than 50% of the money is going to children that are not zoned to a failing school.”
Kennedy said that the legislature should limit scholarships to children zoned for or are attending a failing school. She also warned of the retroactive tax provision. “It adds another $10 million onto fiscal year $2015 the year we are already on.” Kennedy also wanted arbitrary audits of the private schools and the SGOs.
Lisa Schroeder, the director at Churchill Academy, said, “We serve kids only with special needs.” They have been open since 1996 and get a lot of phone calls from families with low incomes who can not afford our services. Schroeder called the scholarships, “A huge blessing.” Over 40 families in our school right now are on scholarships. The AAA has been, “Nothing but good for us and for our students.” “My only concern is that Sept 15 thing which has made it incredibly difficult to plan for. We don’t know who is or is not going to attend until Sept 15 so I would ask you to look at that.”
Sen. Marsh asked that the vote be delayed. He will continue to negotiate with the various stakeholders and will likely introduce another substitute next week for the Committee vote on.
USDA is seeking rural energy grant applications
The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.
United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Bette Brand on Wednesday invited applications for loan guarantees and grants for renewable energy systems, and to make energy efficiency improvements, conduct energy audits and provide development assistance.
The funding is being provided through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which was created under the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized under the 2018 Farm Bill. This notice seeks applications for Fiscal Year 2021 funding.
The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.
REAP helps agricultural producers and rural small businesses reduce energy costs and consumption by purchasing and installing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements in their operations.
Eligible systems may derive energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, ocean, hydrogen, geothermal or renewable biomass (including anaerobic digesters).
USDA encourages applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to help improve life in rural America.
Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments.
Key strategies include achieving e-Connectivity for rural America, developing the rural economy, harnessing technological innovation, supporting a rural workforce and improving quality of life. For additional information, see the notice in the Federal Register.
Trump says that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin within two weeks
Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin as early as next week.
“The whole world is suffering, and we are rounding the curve,” Trump said. “And the vaccines are being delivered next week or the week after.”
Trump made the announcement during a special Thanksgiving holiday message to U.S. troops overseas via teleconference. Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients. He also argued that his election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, should not be given credit for the vaccines, which were developed during the Trump administration.
Trump referred to the vaccines, which were developed and tested in less than ten months as a “medical miracle.”
Regulators at the FDA will review Pfizer’s request for an emergency use authorization for its vaccine developed with BioNTech during a meeting on Dec. 10. The director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research says a decision is expected within weeks, possibly days after that key meeting.
The latest trial data for Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine showed that it was 90 percent effective.
The CDC plans to vote next week on where the distribution of approved vaccines will begin and who will be allowed to get the first vaccines when they become available.
Dr. Celene Gounder, a member of Biden’s COVID Advisory Board, warned against rushing a vaccine to market.
“The single biggest risk of rushing an approval would be Americans’ distrust the vaccine,” Grounder said. “It’s essential people feel confident this is a safe and effective vaccine.”
Moderna said that its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
AstraZeneca says its preliminary results showed its vaccine ranged from 62 percent to 90 percent effective depending on the dosage amount given to participants. AstraZeneca is having to launch a second round of global trials to clear up the discrepancies.
Many Americans appear to have ignored CDC warnings to scale back Thanksgiving holiday plans. More than six million Americans flew over the holiday week, raising fears by public health officials that the surge in coronavirus cases we are experiencing now will be followed by a bigger surge in the next three weeks.
As of press time, there have been 62 million diagnosed cases of coronavirus cases in the world, including nearly 13.5 million in the United States, but many cases are mild and go undiagnosed.
A CDC researcher estimates that the real number of infections in the U.S. has topped 53 million since February. More than 1.4 million people have died around the world since the virus first appeared in China late last year. The death toll includes 271,029 Americans and 3,572 Alabamians.
The Iron Bowl is Saturday
Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Auburn University college football team will play the University of Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday with the game kicking off at 2:30 p.m. Attendance is strictly limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. The game will be televised on CBS stations.
Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing mild symptoms. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will coach the Crimson Tide in Saban’s absence. He has a 46-35 record as a head coach at USC and Washington.
Auburn will be coached by Gus Malzahn, who has a 67-33 record as a head coach. He is the fifth winningest coach in Auburn history, trailing only Shug Jordan, Mike Donahue, Pat Dye and now-Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville.
Alabama has a 7-0 record and is currently the No. 1 team in the country in the college football rankings. Auburn is 5-2 but with a win could still win the SEC West with wins in its remaining two games, and if Alabama were to lose another game down the stretch. Alabama is just one game ahead of Texas A&M for first place in the SEC West, but the Tide has the tiebreaker by virtue of having defeated the Aggies in head-to-head competition.
In addition to team honors, there is a lot riding for individual players in today’s game. Alabama redshirt junior quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for 2,426 yards and 18 touchdowns in Alabama’s first seven games. Jones’s strong performance has made him a Heisman contender and has earned him consideration as a possible first-round or high second-round draft pick by the NFL if he were to leave Alabama early.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has thrown for 1,627 yards and ten touchdowns over seven games.
Alabama and Auburn played their first football game against each other in Lakeview Park in Birmingham on Feb. 22, 1893. The game is called the Iron Bowl because historically the game was played on a neutral site: Birmingham’s historic Legion Field. Birmingham at the time was best known for the iron that was mined there and then made into steel and other metal products.
The game is now played as a home and home series, but the Iron Bowl name has stuck with the rivalry.
Alabama leads the series with 46 wins to Auburn’s 37. There has been one tie. Auburn defeated Alabama 48 to 45 in last year’s high scoring contest.
Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus
Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.
Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine.
Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said.
“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response.
The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval.
“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations, we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines.
In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain.
“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily.
While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.
“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.