The Alabama Charter School Commission is a mess.
And that might be an insult to messes.
Friday morning, the 10-member Commission, which has, apparently, full authority to approve or deny charter schools that suck millions of dollars from our already underfunded Alabama public schools, will meet with just four members in good standing.
The chairman of the Commission, Mac Buttram, and three more members had their terms expire last week. No one bothered to either re-appoint them or to select replacements for them. Those duties fall to the governor, the Speaker of the House and the Senate president to nominate members and for the state school board to approve them. Between that group, one person has been nominated and approved in the last three months.
At the meeting on Friday morning, this Commission will rule on a matter related to a charter school in Washington County, Woodland Prep. If you’ve forgotten, Woodland Prep is the charter school very few people in Washington County want and one that failed at almost every step in the approval process. But the Commission approved it anyway, because that’s what the Commission is there to do — approve charter schools, rules and laws be damned.
The approval of Woodland was so drastically flawed that even state superintendent Eric Mackey, who has up to this point in his tenure as the public schools chief displayed the courage of a field mouse in political matters, penned a letter raising serious concerns about Woodland Prep. (Every single concern was raised by APR in multiple columns written two months ago.)
The school is also facing opposition from Washington County residents, teachers and public employees. The AEA and the Southern Poverty Law Center have each written letters condemning the charter school’s approval. And last month, on the floor of the Alabama House, Republican state reps ripped to absolute shreds the approval process.
And while, yeah, Woodland Prep has all the makings of a future cautionary tale for states considering charter schools — particularly those that are operated by out-of-state, for-profit entities — it’s also important to remember one thing: It never should have been approved.
In that regard, there is but one entity to blame: The Alabama Legislature.
Because the Alabama Legislature cares far more about flash than about substance when it comes to passing laws, Alabama is stuck with one of the worst charter school laws in America. It’s so bad that officials from Mississippi are laughing at us.
No, for real. In reporting on the Woodland Prep mess, longtime education reporter and APR contributor Larry Lee reached out to public school officials in Mississippi to compare the laws. They chuckled when they heard Alabama didn’t forbid for-profit companies from serving as management companies for the charters.
And it’s actually much worse.
The charter school law in Alabama doesn’t specifically assign any state entity with the authority to oversee the Commission. It places the Alabama State Department of Education in charge of ensuring that all authorizers in the state (local school boards can be authorizers too) follow the law, but it doesn’t specify that it is in charge of the Commission.
That’s why Mackey wrote a letter asking the Commission not to approve Woodland, instead of demanding that it revoke its earlier approval. No one is quite sure if the superintendent or state board has such authority.
And if it does, it’s not a given that any of them want it.
Because the Charter School Commission has been quite busy violating the charter school laws, primarily by ignoring the biggest guarantee that state lawmakers made when the law was passed: That the Commission would approve only charters that met national standards.
To ensure that was the case, state lawmakers approved a contract with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which is one of the top entities in America for reviewing charter school applications.
But the NACSA kept turning down applications because they failed to meet their standards. And with pressure mounting on the Commission to approve more charters and get that public education money flowing into private hands, the Commission took a different approach.
It hired the Auburn Center for Evaluation — a group that had zero experience reviewing charter contracts prior to being hired by the Commission. Which was the point.
The Commission sent the Auburn Center a rubric with several areas of evaluation spelled out. The folks at the Center then just had to read through the applications and make sure they addressed each specification. Which, by all accounts, is exactly what the Auburn Center did.
The problem, though, is that such a review doesn’t live up to ensuring that the charters are meeting national standards. Or any standards.
That’s because, according to two experts who reviewed reports from both NACSA and the Auburn Center, where the NACSA was diving into the various aspects of an application, and using its experience in the field to determine, for example, that an applicant’s financial plan was actually workable, the Auburn Center was mostly just ensuring that a financial plan was in place.
That’s not a knock on the Center. It did what it was hired to do, and it performed exactly as expected.
At least three applications that were rejected by the NACSA were later approved by the Auburn Center. It’s unclear if those applications were amended between the two reviews.
The Commission has now approved more charter schools that failed to meet national standards than ones that did.
That’s a problem. And one that should be addressed by a group of lawmakers who promised the public that the horror stories from other states’ charter schools wouldn’t become realities in Alabama.
Instead, it’s all become a giant mess.
Opinion | The clumsier, dumber George Wallace: Donald Trump
Be afraid, white people. The Blacks and Hispanics are coming for you. Coming for your children. Coming for your wives. And now, the police are being prevented from protecting you. They’re going to take your statues. They’re going to take your jobs. They’re going to take your rights.
This is the message that the Trump re-election campaign will push.
It is the only message they have left, as their candidate has so royally screwed up everything else he has touched.
His precious economy is in shambles — a result of his botching the response to the coronavirus pandemic so spectacularly. There is unprecedented civil unrest — a result, in part, of his overbearing and callous attempts at “law and order” while ignoring the pleas of Black Americans seeking equal treatment. And there is a seemingly endless barrage of embarrassing news, mostly stemming from Trump’s Twitter feed and the bumbling group of imbeciles and racists that make up his cabinet and closest advisors.
So, a culture war is all they have left. And dammit, they plan to play it like a fiddle at a bluegrass festival.
Trump began his march down this pathway in earnest on Saturday, delivering a disgusting and divisive speech aimed at stoking fear and playing up the Black-v-white culture war.
On Monday, after a day of golf on Sunday — because even racists rest on the sabbath — he was back at it, attacking, of all people, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. Reviving an old story for no apparent reason, Trump called the noose left in Wallace’s garage stall a “hoax” — an outright lie, since there was, in fact, a noose in the garage stall — and asked if Wallace had apologized. Of course, Wallace has nothing to apologize for, since he didn’t report the noose, didn’t investigate it, didn’t ask the FBI to look into it and generally handled himself with grace and dignity throughout the ordeal.
Unlike the president. On any given day.
But we weren’t finished. By late Monday, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was on the channel your grandparents claim tells them the truth about stuff, and was sending the scared whites into full-on panic. Meadows, without an ounce of shame or the intelligence to know he should have some, exclaimed that Trump is “the only thing that stands between a mob and the American people.”
(And by “American people,” he means white people.)
“First, it’s the statues. Then, it’s the businesses. Then, it’s their homes,” Meadows said.
It’s like a dumber, clumsier, less articulate George Wallace campaign.
But then, the entirety of Trump’s presidential run and presidency has essentially been a slightly updated, less polished George Wallace campaign. Leaning on thinly-veiled racism, stoking racial anger, massaging the fear that so many white people have of anyone who looks slightly different.
Now, they’re going full-Wallace. Because it’s all they have.
Trump has proven that he doesn’t care about anything or anyone, and will put his interests above the American people and the security of the country. Hell, he sold out American soldiers without batting an eye.
So, he will burn this place to the ground, if he must. And 30 percent of the country, at least, will follow along. Happily holding tiki torches and chanting that the Jews won’t replace them, like the very fine people they are.
That hateful rhetoric and the regression it represents — after all this country has gone through, after all the growth and all the progress — is what we should all fear the most.
Opinion | Has Alabama lost its independent streak?
What if I told you that Sen. Richard Shelby, outraged by the stories of laid off Alabama workers forced to camp out overnight to get unemployment compensation, was pushing his fellow senators to pump more money into states to rectify the situation?
What if I told you that Shelby had fought to get more funding for Alabama to expand Medicaid and provide 300,000-plus Alabamians with medical coverage during the ongoing pandemic?
What if I told you that Shelby recently condemned the Tennessee Valley Authority for shipping jobs overseas, as Americans, including many Alabamians, suffer through a recession?
What if I told you that Shelby pushed a bipartisan bill through the Senate that would strengthen and enhance telemedicine programs?
What if I told you that at least once a week, Shelby hosts a livestreamed press conference, in which he and guests — usually medical professionals or local leaders — discuss the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and provide the public with critical updates and behind-the-scenes details on upcoming plans to address the most pressing matters?
What if I told you that Shelby had been honored in the Senate as one of the most bipartisan lawmakers, co-sponsoring dozens of bills with senators across the aisle?
Would all of that impress you? Make you think more highly of Sen. Shelby?
Well, what if I told you that I was actually talking about Doug Jones?
Because it’s Jones who did all the above over the last month.
That’s right — month!
But it doesn’t matter to a good number of people in this state. Jones’ record while in the Senate, and his work ethic and his good bills that have done good things for the working people of this state, just don’t matter at all unless there’s an “R” beside his name.
It’s a real shame that a man who has done all that in a month is running neck-and-neck, according to polling, with both of his potential opponents — Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions.
Quick: Name one bill Sessions passed in 20 years in the Senate.
Take your time.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. His biggest accomplishments were fighting against the Violence Against Women Act and not saying anything racist out loud.
Tuberville, in the meantime, is quite possibly the most policy-ignorant candidate in recent history. The man knows nothing about anything, and he hasn’t even pretended to have a plan for anything. He just keeps showing up at barbecue joints, muttering stuff about football and Trump, and pretending that not knowing anything is the same as being “an outsider.”
That — along with the little R — is apparently enough for half the state.
And it’s a shame.
Because if Alabamians were even a sliver as independent or stubborn as they like to pretend, this thing wouldn’t even be a contest.
On one side, there’s a guy who’s actually working, who cares about good public policy, bipartisanship and right and wrong — a guy who locked up the clowns who killed four little black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
On the other side, two guys hoping to skate by on party affiliation.
But Jones doesn’t whine about it, even when I gave him an opportunity to do so on Thursday. He refused to take shots at anyone, and instead said it was time to get to work. His only pointed frustration was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly blocked efforts by Democrats to get more relief funds out to the American people.
McConnell has sat on a bill sent over by the Democratic-led House, and now, Jones said, McConnell plans to draft his own relief bill.
“That’s crazy to me,” Jones said. “We’ve had that bill for weeks now. It’s not a perfect bill by any means, but it sets up the framework. We could have worked within that and got something out to the people who need it most before the Fourth of July holiday. Now, it’s going to be after this two-week break. That’s too long.”
Jones said a big concern for him was getting money to state and local governments, which employ about 20 percent of the American workforce and have been devastated by the coronavirus shutdowns. Those issues often manifest in terrible ways, such as forcing people to sit in a parking lot to receive basic help because your state department of labor is overworked and understaffed.
“It’s not a matter of someone being lazy or not doing their job,” Jones said, speaking specifically of the situation that has left thousands of Alabamians waiting in long lines to get routine unemployment questions answered. “It’s a matter of giving these folks the resources they need to get the job done. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”
Jones is trying. And really, I’m not sure what else you can ask for at this point.
Well, except for one petty, and utterly meaningless, thing: An R beside his name.
Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it
Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures.
The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month.
State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan.
In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”
The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)
In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000.
In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.
To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months.
The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots.
It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned.
But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half.
Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse.
To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction.
In every school in Alabama. For two full school years.
“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”
The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state.
The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents.
The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas.
There is no better plan.
Opinion | Alabama leaders’ plan to reopen schools really isn’t a plan at all
There is no plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools.
That much was clear after state superintendent Eric Mackey’s hour-long press conference on Friday — the one in which he presented the state’s plan to reopen schools.
It was, to put it kindly, underwhelming.
To put it not so kindly: It was the State Department of Education running from a hard decision.
Because what Mackey presented on Friday was 50 pages of ALSDE, the governor and the Alabama Department of Public Health essentially telling local superintendents and principals: “Y’all figure it out.”
There was no guidance on testing, quarantining and tracing.
There was no guidance on how to deal with older employees and faculty who decide, reasonably, that the risk is too high.
There was no guidance for parents.
There wasn’t even a requirement that local districts create a plan by a specific date so parents could determine whether to send their kids to school or to opt for the online system.
Basically, Mackey spent 30 minutes or so telling all public school employees to wash up real good and try to stay six feet apart if you can.
Oh, and that there’s no extra money for any of the extra stuff they’re going to have to do.
Look, I get that this is an insanely difficult situation, and that it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. But damn, you’re about to send Alabama’s children back to enclosed spaces in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, that calls for an idea or two from the state’s top leaders on how we might do that at least a tad bit more safely.
It sure is strange how the people in Montgomery want in on every decision made at the local level when there’s political pandering or money involved, but they can’t get away fast enough when there are actual hard decisions to be made?
The vanishing act on Friday wasn’t lost on teachers and principals and local superintendents. A spokesperson with the Alabama Education Association said their office had been flooded with calls from confused and concerned educators following Mackey’s presentation. I spoke with numerous principals and a couple of superintendents, and they were baffled by the “roadmap,” which they said was essentially the same guidance they received last year.
Their biggest question: How are they going to meet even the basic, simple goals laid out in the “roadmap” without extra funding or resources?
For example, Mackey mentioned “school nurses” on a couple of occasions in his presentation, and the roadmap also mentions them, saying they’ll be dealing with symptomatic students.
That’s great. Except approximately 300 schools don’t have a nurse.
Oh, they have a district nurse that covers all the schools in the district, but not one on their campus every day. Not one that can be there within 45 minutes or so.
So, who’s going to deal with that symptomatic child? Who’s going to make sure he or she stays quarantined? Who’s going to discuss with the students’ parents the requirements, or provide options for testing?
All of these things, including the extra cleaning that emphasized throughout the roadmap, are new responsibilities that will have to fall on employees and faculty, and be absorbed by the budgets of cash-strapped local districts.
I can’t, for the life of me, understand what happened here.
Because there were good plans offered up to ALSDE and the committee that compiled the roadmap. There were comprehensive and innovative ideas for dealing with this virus and best protecting students. There were bipartisan plans that would have diverted millions to Alabama’s schools and made the state a model for others to follow, while at the same time drastically improving Alabama’s testing and data reporting.
Instead of those plans, ALSDE punted.
If I had to guess, the reason for that is likely money. Mackey, in his plan, asks for a miniscule amount of it — only enough to equip buses with WiFi and purchase tablets and hotspots — and hopes for grants and other federal dollars to possibly cover other expenses.
The only possible reason for that is that he was told there would be no additional money — not even from the $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds the state is doling out. Which, honestly, seems impossible.
This state’s children are about to return to school. In some counties, Mackey noted, 97 percent of the students plan to be in those buildings. Statewide, roughly 80 percent of kids will be back in the buildings.
The state has a duty to provide the safest environment possible for those kids, and to do everything it can to keep those kids from spreading the coronavirus to family members and at-risk people outside of the schools.
The roadmap presented on Friday does none of that.