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Fact Checking State School Board Member

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

“Hyperbole” should be the middle name of most all politicians. They are masters of embellishment, of overstatement, of stretching the truth and tall tales both big and small.

As we’ve all be told from birth, “take it with a grain of salt” is super advice when listening to a politician pontificate. I was reminded of this a couple days ago when I read an article in the Gadsden Times titled: “State board member addresses superintendent hire, other issues.”

The article pertained to a recent speech given by state school board member Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville to the Etowah County Republicans. You can read it here. Ms. Hunter was trying to explain her justification for voting to hire non-educator Mike Sentance from Massachusetts to run the Alabama Department of Education.

Having written extensively on this topic, talked to many educators and done a lot of research, I read the article carefully. She said when the board was searching for a new state superintendent, Sentance was in impressive candidate. She talked to him on the phone and liked what she heard. “He knocked it out of the park in his interview,” she said.

Of course, since beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, “knocking it out of the park,” is certainly open for speculation. But I will say that Mr. Sentance was more impressive in his interview than the board members who conducted the interview. Six candidates were interviewed and NONE were asked questions germane to only their background and experiences. Instead, each board member asked all six a pre-selected “canned” question.

For instance, Sentance applied for the Alabama State Superintendent’s job in 2011 and did not get an interview. Yet no one asked him why he is more qualified now than he was five years ago. And five of the board members, plus the governor, were on the 2011 search committee. Did they even know he was a former applicant? Was the vetting process thorough enough to turn up this fact?
Sentance also withdrew in writing on June 27 (the deadline for applications was June 7.) Why did no one on the State Board ask him about this? Why did he withdraw? Why did he change his mind by June 28?

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Back to the article in question.

Looking at Sentance’s tenure in education in Massachusetts, Hunter said, the board found that Alabama spends about 72 percent of what Massachusetts does on education.

“We don’t get 72 percent of their results,” she explained.

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Really?

According to the Census Bureau, in 2014 Massachusetts spent $15,087 per pupil in public schools, Alabama spent $9,028. So these numbers show Alabama only spent 59.8 percent per pupil as Massachusetts did in 2014.

What was the return on investment? The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores shows on 8th grade reading for all students, the Bay State scored 274, while Alabama was 259.

Divide these scores into how much was spent per pupil and you discover Massachusetts spent $55.06 for every NAEP point, while Alabama spent $34.87. In other words, we got a lot more for our money than they did.

As to the 72 percent of Massachusetts results Ms. Hunter says we don’t get. She is right as 259 is 94.5 percent of 274. So we are doing much better than 72 percent.

She also said in her remarks, “Professionals in the classroom always have to be part of the solution.” This is a fascinating statement considering that the voices of educators at all levels were completely ignored during this search process. If a single Alabama educator endorsed Mike Sentence, I haven’t found him/her. And to claim we should include educators when in reality they are ignored, is dumbfounding.

Articles such as this make it easy to understand why 64 percent of the 1,286 respondents to this survey give the state school board a failing score of D or F.

 

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Opinion | Comprehensive sex-ed for all can improve people’s health

Annerieke Smaak Daniel

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Last July, I spoke with Sky H., a 20-yearold who identifies as non-binary and grew up in a very conservative rural town in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In school, Sky received abstinence-only education. Sky told me there was little instruction about sexual and reproductive health besides the basics of reproduction.

After years of pain, Sky was diagnosed at age 18 with endometriosis, a painful disorder that can lead to fertility complications. The condition might have been diagnosed much earlier if they had learned more about their own bodies and reproductive health in school, Sky believed.

Unfortunately, Sky’s experience isn’t unique. Over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken to more than 40 young people from 16 counties throughout Alabama who also didn’t learn about their sexual and reproductive health in school. Like Sky, they missed out on critical information and described the negative impact this had on the choices they made and their health as they grew older.

Schools in Alabama are not required to teach about sexual health but if they do, the State Code mandates a focus on abstinence. The State Code also contains stigmatizing language around same-sex activity and prohibits schools from teaching about sexual health in ways that affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. This makes it even harder for young people like Sky to get information.

But Alabama is not alone. Sixteen other states in the U.S. also do not mandate sex education in schools. And at least five others have laws stigmatizing samesex activity.

Comprehensive sexuality education can improve health outcomes for young people. It can help them learn about their bodies and how to recognize abnormal gynecological symptoms, steps they can take to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other dangers to their health, and where they can go for reproductive health services.

Sex ed can also educate young people about the human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. — and how to lower their risk of HPV-related cancers through the HPV vaccine.

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This information can improve young peoples health and save lives. Yet so few young people in schools throughout Alabama and the U.S. receive it. Instead, like Sky and other Alabama students, many young people receive abstinence-focused education.

These programs withhold critical, science-based information young people need to make safer decisions on their sexual health. They also shame adolescents about their sexuality, often leaving young people uncertain about who they can talk to or where they can go for accurate information about sexual behavior and health.

The problem is both a lack of political will and of adequate funding. Discriminatory property taxes and an inequitable education system leave many school districts in rural and less wealthy regions of Alabama without adequate funding. This means that programs considered optional, like sex ed, often aren’t offered.

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Alabama, a state with high rates of sexually transmitted infections and cancers related to HPV needs to do more to address historic inequalities and state neglect that have left Black people at a higher risk of poor health outcomes. Mandating comprehensive sexuality education for all of the states schools — and allocating state funding for these programs — would be an important step forward.

Students in underfunded and neglected school districts many of whom are Black and living in poverty — often lose out on access to critical and lifesaving information. It keeps them from being able to make informed and safe decisions and can harm their health. This unequal access to information can create lifelong disadvantages and may contribute to racial disparities in health as young people age into adulthood.

The Black Belt region of Alabama, where Sky is from, has high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes. The Black Belt region also has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and the highest rates of HIV in the state. Yet schools in this rural and marginalized region of the state are persistently underfunded.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought glaring attention to systemic inequalities and racial disparities in health, including in Alabama, where Black people are significantly more likely to die from the virus than white people. Within the United States, we continue to see the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black people, who are more likely to live in poverty, lack access to health insurance, and suffer from chronic health conditions that put them at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes from the virus.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that everyone has the information, tools, and resources they need to make informed decisions to protect their health. Schools in Alabama — and across the country — should help do that for all young people.

The pandemic is also showing us what happens when discrimination and neglect leave certain people out.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | The “United” States of America. Really?

Larry Lee

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We’ve all had it pounded in our heads virtually from birth that we live in a united country of 50 different states. Truth is, few things could be farther from the truth. If it were, we would all be pulling in the same direction at the same time, striving for common goals. This has seldom been the case. Even the original 13 colonies had great differences and some were much more interested in pulling away from England than others.

The reason for much of this is pointed out to us in American Nations by Colin Woodard as he paints graphic pictures of the 11 nations that actually comprise the U.S .and how they were settled at different times by different people from different backgrounds.

Certainly, there is no greater indicator of our lack of unity than the current highly fractured and divided response to COVID-19.  Unfortunately, there is no coordinated, 50-state effort to get this pandemic under control. Instead, our national leaders have sent one mixed message after another and left states to individually flop and flounder.

The result?

One thousand deaths a day across this land.

Imagine we were presently losing 1,000 people a day in some foreign war. That each day we were shipping 1,000 caskets back to this country from some distant land.

Would we be as tolerant of ineptitude in such a crisis as we are right now?

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Vanity Fair has just reported on how the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, inserted himself into the war against COVID-19. It is not a pretty picture. Nor a useful one.

Back in March Kushner set out to solve the on-going disaster of lack of diagnostic testing. So he brought together a group of largely bankers and billionaires — not public health experts. In spite of their lack of knowledge and willingness to work with others, the group developed a fairly comprehensive plan, that got good reviews from health professionals who saw it. But then the plan, according to someone involved with it, “just went poof into thin air.”

What happened? Politics.

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According to Vanity Fair, “Most troubling ….was a sentiment ….a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically.  The political folks believed that because it (the virus) was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

“United” States of America? Don’t kid yourself.

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Opinion | Alabama’s teachers are standing tall with return to classroom instruction

Nathaniel Ledbetter

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All of the personality traits, values, and life lessons that we carry with us as adults were shaped and instilled in us by the people we encountered in childhood. For many, the strongest influences can from our schoolteachers, who opened new worlds of knowledge and taught us skills that remain with us today.

Consider for a moment the music teacher who taught you to play an instrument, the math teacher who led you to a love of numbers, the history teacher who brought to life the stories of our nation’s past, or the English teacher who inspired you to love great literature.

Teaching is one of the few professions whose impact continues to last for decades after the individual who does the job retires.

As many children across Alabama are preparing to return to school even while the Coronavirus pandemic continues, teachers have never been more important or vital or deserving of our deepest appreciation.

Returning to brick-and-mortar school instruction will, hopefully, restore a sense of normalcy to our children’s lives in these decidedly abnormal times.

A return to the classroom and even resuming the online instruction that some are adopting will also help our students maintain their education progress and continue the important social and emotional development that interaction with their peers and instructors allows.

Our English second language learners will receive the communication skills they need in order to better assimilate, and many low-income students will receive the healthy nourishment from the school lunch program that might be denied them at home.

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Given the current circumstances and environment, I recognize that some of our public school employees may have a sense of trepidation about returning to school, and that is certainly understandable. Wearing a face mask to do something as simple as shopping for groceries, paying for gas, or walking into a restaurant offers all of us a constant reminder that COVID-19 is a very contagious virus.

But our teachers and educators are setting their concerns aside and answering the call to duty.

I know that Gov. Kay Ivey, State Superintendent Eric Mackey, and the staff of the Alabama Department of Education took great care in developing the “Roadmap to Reopening Alabama Schools,” and local school boards are being equally diligent in creating and implementing their own safety guidelines.

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The importance of sanitization will be stressed more than ever before, and billions of dollars made available to Alabama through the federal CARES Act will help ensure that any resources that are needed to reopen schools safely will be readily available.

As the majority leader of the Alabama House, I can also offer assurances that the Legislature stands ready to pass legislation or make appropriations that are necessary to ease the return to classroom instruction once we are in session.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an even deeper appreciation of the frontline heroes who have remained on the job and provided the most essential services throughout the crisis.

Doctors and nurses in our hospitals and health clinics; grocery store and other retail employees; law enforcement officers, emergency workers and firefighters; postal workers; sanitation workers; restaurant personnel; and those in dozens of other professions are among those who continued working even when times were their toughest.

I am proud to say that the teachers, school nurses, administrators, and support personnel in Alabama’s schools also rank high upon the list of those who have stood tall, and their already invaluable service to our state is even more important to students and parents in each of our cities, towns, and crossroads today.

Helen Keller, one of Alabama’s most inspirational figures, once said, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

As I close by wishing everyone a safe, happy, and healthy school year, we would all do well to keep Helen Keller’s words in mind.

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Opinion | There’s still work to be done

Chris Elliott

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Last weekend should have been a shining moment for the state of Alabama, a celebration of the life and efforts of Congressman John Lewis — a true freedom fighter and hero for civil rights and equality in our nation.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on our past and be proud of how far we Alabamians have come. Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites — all came together to honor and remember the life of Alabama’s courageous and remarkable son.

Well, not all, apparently.

What possible reason could a public official have to attend a 199th birthday party for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan while you’re in the same city as the funeral procession of a venerated civil rights hero who was literally beaten by that same Klan?

It almost seems absurd that we should have to have these conversations here in 2020, but here we are.

It is especially disconcerting to see behavior like this coming from someone so young. Perhaps one could expect this sort of thing from a grandparent or great-grandparent, as they were products of an era that may still hold those problematic, antiquated views — but from a 30-year-old, someone who should exemplify how far we have come as a state? It is worrying, to say the least.

To lack the basic knowledge of history to know that the 199-year-old birthday boy at your party was the founder of the KKK seems incongruent with the career of this young House member, who continues to claim to be a student of Confederate history. Perhaps it’s willful ignorance — it’s tough to tell.

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For all the progress our state has made in moving forward from our history of racial divisiveness and strife, incidents like the one involving this young State representative are an important lesson that while it is important for us to remember our past, our priority must be our continued journey to the better, brighter future that awaits us all and that, thanks to Will Dismukes, that journey is clearly not over yet.

Rep. Dismukes has, however, shone a bright light for those of us that thought racism was something we could put behind us. In the words of Congressman John Lewis from our own Edmund Pettus Bridge, “We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work. There’s still work left to be done.”

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