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 | A gruesome murder should point Montgomery in a new direction
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either.
The facts of 17-year-old Luna Pantaleon’s death are hard to stomach. The Montgomery teen was beaten with a metal pole and left to drown in a ditch. Her face was so badly beaten, with so many facial fractures, that the exact cause of her death couldn’t immediately be identified.
Her alleged killers are three 16-year-old girls. They reportedly went to McDonald’s after the murder and had smoothies.
Those details were provided during a court hearing on Wednesday as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser. They are enough to cause you to pause while reading to take a deep breath. But these details are not the only ones that should get attention.
The testimony of a Montgomery police detective who investigated the crime, and who interviewed the three girls who have essentially admitted to the crime, provided other disturbing details that paint a picture of the lives of Montgomery’s underprivileged youth — lives filled with violence and firearms, with late-night fights and “hits” put out on houses by 10th graders.
This reality for many young people in Montgomery isn’t exactly a hidden secret.
I can’t tell you the number of homeless teenagers I spoke with or tried to help while in Montgomery. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with middle schoolers who were in gangs, and who spoke openly about carrying handguns and other semi-automatic weapons.
Don’t get me wrong. Montgomery is not the wild west, and every poor, Black person in the city isn’t part of a gang or spending their nights shooting at each other.
But there is a level of violence and bad behavior that is growing and taking root in many communities. And it is happening because too many young people in those communities see no other viable alternatives.
A never ending cycle of poverty and despair — a cycle that has lasted, in some cases, for multiple generations — has left them turning to other means of getting by, of finding love and acceptance, of finding guidance no matter how misguided that guidance might be.
And every bit of it can be traced back to one problem: education. Or, in Montgomery’s case, the lack of it.
Segregation was common in all of Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, but few cities in America clung to it as tightly as Montgomery did. When the Brown v. Board decision came down, private schools in Montgomery started to pop up — at one point a record number of them. And as the population grew, so too did the cities and the school systems surrounding Montgomery.
In 2020, Montgomery’s private schools are more than 90 percent white. Montgomery’s public schools are more than 95 percent Black. Those numbers have not changed much over the years.
But even more problematic is that Montgomery’s public schools are also serving a disproportionate amount of low-income students. That most of the poor people in Montgomery happen to be Black is a simple byproduct of the racism that saw Black citizens denied work, denied decent business loans, denied home loans for certain areas and denied acceptance into most state universities.
And having a high number of low-income students means fewer resources, fewer involved parents and more students who struggle through no fault of their own, because working parents weren’t home to help with homework, or they don’t have internet service. It goes on and on and on.
Now, repeat those problems for a few generations. And, well, you get the idea.
Exacerbating the problem for Montgomery, though, is a screwed up funding structure that has left its schools funded at the state’s lowest allowable levels. There will be an opportunity for Montgomery residents to fix that during Tuesday’s election by voting to increase property tax rates in the county.
It is money that is desperately needed. But that money alone will not solve the issues. Because we’re way too far down the line at this point for a few dollars to fix what’s broken in Montgomery.
It’s going to take the entire community putting aside their differences and their finger-pointing and their hate and actually working towards solving the problems, instead of just constantly pointing them out. It’s going to require a bunch of people to stop believing that skin color somehow makes a child less worthy of a quality education or more likely to be a criminal.
Mayor Steven Reed and several others have done a remarkable job to this point bringing together groups of people who have historically opposed any tax increases for the schools. He’s going to have to build on that goodwill going forward.
Because while more money will certainly make a difference, it won’t put a parent in place. It won’t assure kids are getting quality medical care and mental health care. It won’t put food on the table at night or turn the broadband on.
There will need to be more education options opened up for adults. There will need to be more comprehensive options available in some communities. This will take time and money, and it won’t be easy.
But here’s the one thing I know: the overwhelming majority of people in this world, and in Montgomery, want to succeed. They want to take care of themselves and their children. They want their kids to receive a decent education. They want a good job and to pay their bills and sleep easy at night.
If you show them a pathway to such a life, they will take it.
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either. But passing this tax increase, and the community-wide dedication to this cause that it represents, is a damn fine start.
Opinion | Want to reduce abortions? Vote for Democrats
As Republicans scream about abortions, the thing they always fail to mention is that an abortion ban in America will not reduce the number of abortions performed. But better health care can.
With polls last week showing the race between incumbent Sen. Doug Jones and Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville tightening a bit, and with continued long lines outside voting precincts in heavily Democratic areas, the Alabama GOP, and its paid mouthpieces, have turned to their favorite talking point: abortion.
By the end of last week, to hear them tell it, Jones would be sacrificing live babies on Nancy Pelosi’s gold-plated kitchen table as Chuck Schumer looked on and AOC sharpened the knives.
In ad after ad and planted story after planted story and social media post after social media post, they went on and on about “live birth abortions” — as if there is such a thing — and accusations that Jones supports abortion “up to the point of birth.”
It’s so silly and childish that it’s hard to envision such gibberish actually affecting the way any sane adult would vote, but then, that’s the beauty of the abortion issue — sanity, reason and facts took a hike a long, long time ago, and we’re now left with only raw emotion.
The fact is the Alabama GOP — and the national Republican Party — has been responsible for millions more abortions and baby deaths than any Democrat or any Democratic policy.
Jones, and his policies, would prevent hundreds of thousands of abortions in this state going forward.
No, that’s not an opinion. That’s a fact that I can support with actual data.
As Republicans scream about abortions, the thing they always fail to mention is that an abortion ban in America will not reduce the number of abortions performed. This has been proven over and over again in country after country, where full bans have been implemented.
Instead, when bans are implemented, desperate women turn to unsafe, back-alley abortions that often lead to the deaths of both mother and fetus. Findings from a 30-year Guttmacher Institute, released in July, show that abortion rates remain steady in countries where the procedures are legal and in the countries where they are banned or partially banned.
In fact, the rates were often higher in countries with a ban in place.
But you know where the rates aren’t steady? America.
You know why? Obamacare.
Over the last 10 years, abortion rates have dipped to historic lows. That decline can be traced directly to Obamacare, which allows women to receive covered contraceptive care, which prevent pregnancies in the first place.
A study from the University of Michigan in 2017 found that abortion rates dropped more than 10 percent among college-aged women following the passage of Obamacare, which, in addition to the contraceptive coverage, also allowed young people to remain on their parents’ health insurance longer.
Overall, across the county, abortions decreased by more than 200,000 between 2010 and 2017. The abortion rate plummeted to its lowest level since the procedure was legalized in 1973.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. They decreased across the country except for four states — North Carolina, Mississippi, Wyoming and Georgia. Care to guess what happened in those states? They each implemented some level of an abortion ban during that time period.
But Obamacare isn’t the only Democratic policy that has reduced abortions.
In Colorado, where state officials began a push to market free contraceptive care and also allowed pharmacists in the state to write prescriptions for birth control, abortion rate declines have exceeded the national average.
Teen birth rates in Colorado are down a whopping 59 percent over the last 10 years. And teen abortion rates are down more than 60 percent in that span.
Know where else they’re not down? Alabama.
We’re top five in teen pregnancy and teen birth rates in the country. We’re also top five for births by unwed mothers, low birth weights, pre-term births and infant mortality.
Yet, these same Republicans who line up to talk about the sanctity of life have resisted both Obamacare implementation — refusing to participate in the marketplace and make care more affordable for citizens — and Medicaid expansion, which would provide coverage for about 200,000 poor, working Alabamians.
They have resisted better sex education programs in schools — we still require abstinence-only programs — and refused to fund programs that would make contraceptives free and widely available.
These programs and policies have proven to reduce abortions and save lives. They’ve proven to provide women with decent care and support, instead of shame and ridicule.
These are the policies that Jones and Alabama Democrats support. They’re the policies that the GOP have tried repeatedly to kill or block. Which means, if it’s the reduction of abortions and saving human lives that you care about, there’s one obvious choice to make. Vote for Democrats.
Opinion | Voter suppression is the only hope for Republicans
Their tactic today is the same tactic of yesterday. Fight democracy.
The writing is on the wall for Republicans, and it has been for some time now. Across the nation, year after year, they see the numbers steadily move away from them. They already represent tens of millions fewer Americans in Congress, and if recent polling is even close to accurate, they are on the verge of a bloodbath in less than two weeks that could tip the power to Democrats for generations to come.
Facing such a bleak reality, it might be reasonable forjm to the party platform, discouraging the archaic fights over thinly-veiled racism and bigotry. To stop the never-ending coddling of racists and America’s worst humans.
But no, that is not their tactic. Their tactic today is the same tactic of yesterday.
Because the enemy that Republicans can beat is not the better ideas, better leadership, better governance or better humanity of today’s Democratic Party, it is access to the voting booth.
And they are fighting like hell.
Gone are the slick talking points and the insistence that every shady hurdle placed between a voter and a ballot is a matter of fraud prevention. Now, they’re not even hiding what they’re doing, nor offering half-baked excuses for doing it.
Whether it be limiting polling locations or providing fewer voting machines to predominantly minority neighborhoods or removing polling locations from college campuses or allowing for only one ballot drop-off location or faking drop-off locations, there is an all-out, last-ditch, shameless, desperate attempt to stave off the coming defeat by Republicans.
And there is no bottom to what they will pull.
As is usually the case, it was in Alabama where they tested just how low they’re willing to sink. In Alabama, in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed nearly 220,000 Americans and nearly 3,000 Alabamians, they fought everything.
Even when they knew that doing so would likely — very likely — cost voters their lives.
And they had a Republican-packed U.S. Supreme Court to go along with them.
On Wednesday evening, that court ruled, 5-3, that Alabama officials could ban curbside voting, even though there’s no law in the state preventing it and several counties have used it successfully in the past.
Curbside voting is utilized to aid people with disabilities. In the time of COVID, it was going to be used by several counties in Alabama to make it easier for the most at-risk individuals to safely cast a ballot. They would pull up to the curb, sign the poll book without exiting their car, fill out a ballot, hand it to an official poll worker who feeds it into a voting machine, and, tah-dah, a safe vote has been cast.
A number of at-risk Alabamians filed a lawsuit against the state saying the ban on curbside voting, coupled with the requirements for absentee voting in Alabama — which state officials also went to court to keep in place — would very much force them to risk their lives in order to cast a ballot.
It will come as no surprise to you that the majority of those who planned to utilize curbside voting, it was projected, were Black Alabamians. COVID-19 has proven to be particularly lethal for Blacks, and the counties of Jefferson and Montgomery — both with high minority populations — had already planned to implement curbside voting.
Secretary of State John Merrill and Attorney General Steve Marshall smelled something fishy, which is oddly common among white Republicans in Alabama whenever large numbers of Black people are planning to vote.
But don’t worry, if you were expecting their reasoning for opposing curbside voting to be either absurd or callous.
In a brief filed in the case, Merrill argued that “some level of risk is inherent in life and in voting.” Merrill also went into a lengthy speculation on how curbside voting could possibly be conducted safely and securely in these counties.
Again, curbside voting has been done in Alabama numerous times. And figuring out the logistics certainly would have taken less time and money than fighting this ridiculous case all the way to the Supreme Court.
But, again, fairness, security and safety weren’t the objective.
Because right now, that’s the only hope Republicans have left.
Opinion | Electing Tuberville could cost Alabama billions
If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.
Money matters in Alabama. Oh, I know that we’re not supposed to say that out loud. That we’re supposed to promote our image of southern grace and hospitality, of churchiness and care, of rich people never getting into heaven.
But the truth is greed is our biggest character flaw in this state.
Every problem we have can be traced back to our unending thirst for dollars. Our ancestors didn’t keep slaves because they hated black people. They did it because they loved money and the difference in skin color gave them an excuse — a really, really stupid excuse — to mistreat other humans to take advantage of the free labor.
Our rivers and lakes and dirt aren’t filled with poisons from factories because we’re too dumb to understand how this works. They’re that way because our politicians are paid off to turn a blind eye to the dumping of toxic waste.
Our schools aren’t terrible because we have dumb kids or bad teachers. It’s because we’re too cheap to pay for them.
You see what I mean? It’s our lust for the almighty dollar. Every time.
We love money.
Which makes me seriously wonder why so many people in this state are going to vote for a man who will cost us all — and especially our biggest businesses — so much of it.
Tommy Tuberville will be like a money vacuum for Alabama. Billions of dollars will vanish for this welfare state that relies so much on federal contracts, federal programs and federal dollars.
If you doubt this, don’t simply take my word for it. Just Google up the press releases from Sen. Richard Shelby’s office from the last, say, six years — the most recent span in which Republicans have controlled the Senate.
Almost every single release is about Shelby securing millions or billions of dollars in federal funding for this project or that project, getting the state’s share of dollars from a variety of different programs and initiatives implemented by Congress.
Shelby and I obviously have different political viewpoints, but it’s hard to argue that the man has been successful in securing money for Alabama. Lots and lots of money.
Money for airports and roads. Money for defense contractors in Huntsville. Money for the port in Mobile. Money for car manufacturers. Money for farmers.
Money. Money. Money.
Shelby can do that because of three things: He’s on the right committees, he’s a member of the party in power and he’s liked by the right people.
Tuberville will be none of those things.
Most pundits are predicting that Democrats will take over the Senate, tipping the balance of power and giving the party control of both houses and the White House.
That automatically means that a first-time senator in the opposition party will have little to no say in any decisions.
But what’s worse for Tuberville, and for Alabama, is that other Republicans don’t like him either.
Establishment Republicans essentially openly campaigned against Tuberville in the primary, tossing tens of millions of dollars behind his opponent, Jeff Sessions. They even favored third-place finisher Bradley Byrne over Tuberville.
It’s not hard to understand why — he’s clueless.
I know that’s a Doug Jones talking point, but this one happens to be true. Let me give you an example: On Thursday, Tuberville tweeted out what was meant to be a shot at Jones, claiming that Alabama’s current senator wouldn’t meet with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee because Jones knows “he won’t have much time in the Senate to work with her.”
If you’re unaware, the Senate doesn’t “work with” the Supreme Court. They’re separate entities.
Combine that with his other nonsensical answers on COVID relief, school reopenings, the Voting Rights Act, senate committee assignments, education, foreign affairs — really, the list is almost endless — and it shows how little work he’s put in over the last two years to understand this job he’s applying for.
Now, that might be just fine with Alabama voters who care more about the party affiliation and owning the libs, but it’s not OK with grownups who take the job of running the country seriously.
And those people — both Rs and Ds — don’t like Tuberville or his here-for-an-easy-check-like-always approach to one of the most serious jobs in the world.
He will be frozen out of the most sought after committee assignments. His voice will carry zero weight. His presence will be all but forgotten.
And in the process, so will Alabama. Especially in two years, when Shelby retires and his senior status is lost.
In the meantime, Jones is highly respected by senators on both sides of the aisle. He already has a presence on top committees, and is so well liked within the Democratic Party that he’s on the short list to be Joe Biden’s AG, should he not be re-elected.
The choice seems pretty simple. On the one hand is a competent, prepared and serious statesman who knows how to maneuver his colleagues to get the most for the state. On the other hand is an unprepared, uncaring, lazy carpetbagger who doesn’t understand any process.
If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.