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Josh Moon

The failures of the Alabama Charter School Commission

Josh Moon

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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.

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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.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Amid the coronavirus crisis, don’t forget the good people

Josh Moon

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Late last month, firefighters from Reece City — a small town on the outskirts of Gadsden — started knocking on every door in town, and handing those who answered a free meal. 

Every house got a good meal, purchased from one of Reece City’s restaurants, and the firefighters got a chance to ask everyone how they were doing and see if anyone needed help. Then, a few days later, everyone in town found out that they were getting a $28.20 break on their water bill — that’s the base rate for water service, which meant several town residents received a bill for zero dollars. 

The man behind the ideas for the food giveaway and water breaks, according to the Gadsden Times, which first reported the story, was Mayor Phil Colegrove. He was frustrated with the bickering in Congress over legislation to aid people dealing with COVID-19, and he was worried about his constituents, many of which were recently laid off from the Goodyear plant in nearby Gadsden. 

“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Colegrove told the Times. 

That seems to be the prevailing thought behind a whole bunch of recent actions. 

In neighborhoods all around Alabama, there are teddy bears in windows and chalk drawings on driveways offering messages of hope. 

Those with a little spare time and some know-how are sewing face masks for nurses and healthcare workers, and for their friends and family members. My wife’s friend made three for us. Mine has Spiderman on it. My daughter’s has the “Toy Story” characters. 

Various groups have delivered more than 10,000 masks to healthcare workers around Alabama. 

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People are calling local restaurants and paying to have meals delivered to hospitals for the workers. Anonymously. 

In Muscle Shoals, “Operation Drumstick” is providing meals to out-of-work musicians. 

All across Alabama, locally-owned restaurants are partnering with local farmers to offer fresh produce, and in some cases, are even letting the farmers set up and sell their products in the restaurants’ parking lots. The same thing is happening in north Florida. 

In several towns across the state, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies are delivering meals to elderly shut-ins. 

In some towns, people have set up impromptu delivery services for the elderly and those more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

All across the state, anonymous food deliveries are showing up at hospitals and fire stations and police departments and sheriff’s offices. 

Several nurses from Alabama have dropped everything and traveled to New York to help with the country’s most severe — and most heartbreaking — outbreak of coronavirus. Others have traveled to the hardest hit areas of Alabama to lend a hand. 

Local news stations in the state have reported on at least five drive-by birthday parties for kids whose normal parties were cancelled because of the outbreak. And there was a 50-car parade in Foley for the 100th birthday of Charlene Anderson. 

I say all of this because it seems like maybe we all could use a reminder of just how good most people really are. Despite our differences and our preferences, at the end of the day, given the opportunity, most folks in this state — and around the country — will help each other. 

Doesn’t matter about your race. Doesn’t matter where you live. Doesn’t matter which god you worship. Doesn’t matter how you vote. 

And it hasn’t been just individuals, either. 

We can be cynics and look for the self-serving reasons behind them, but there are a whole bunch of major companies out there that have voluntarily gone above and beyond to help their customers. From cell phone carriers to car manufacturers to banks, it seems every company out there has a payment forgiveness program and a variety of other options to make life a tad less stressful during this time. 

I don’t know of a single public service company — gas, water, electricity — in this state that isn’t guaranteeing they won’t turn off service for late payments, and then work with customers in the future on payment plans that are manageable.

The state’s car manufacturers, including Hyundai, Toyota/Mazda and Honda, all guaranteed the pay for workers during recent work-stoppages.  

The Poarch Creek Indians and other casino owners in the state have guaranteed the pay of all salaried workers, even as the casinos sit empty and idle. 

Ashley Home Stores have pledged to provide 10,000 meals, purchased from local restaurants, and given to local community organizations. 

Even the politicians got something done, and a lot of it was directed at people who rarely get noticed in legislation — the working poor. 

The acts of selflessness and sacrifice — and I’m certain I have failed to mention many, many more — have been, if you actually stop and seek them out, overwhelming and reassuring. They bring hope and smiles in a time when both are in short supply. And they run counter to the notion that Americans are either selfish or indifferent to the suffering of their fellow man. 

Maybe no example better illustrates that than GianMarco’s Restaurant in Birmingham. Long considered one of the best restaurants in the state, GianMarco’s popularity hasn’t made it immune to the struggles of coronavirus. 

It has bills like all the other restaurants. It has staff to pay. And a couple of weeks ago, like with every other restaurant out there, the flow of cash basically stopped. 

And yet, earlier this week, GianMarco’s still managed to serve 150 of Birmingham’s homeless community. 

Just for a moment, sit and think about that — the kindness, the compassion, the sacrifice. Just to give another struggling human a few minutes of peace and a decent meal. 

It is very easy right now to get down, to allow the awfulness of this pandemic to overtake you, and to feel trapped by one terrible story after another. 

But it’s worth remembering two things: 1. This will end and life will return to normal at some point, and 2. There are a whole lot of good people out there who make life a little brighter and a little better, even in the worst of times. 

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Opinion | Groupthink voting is now literally killing us

Josh Moon

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I have many friends who can tell you the names of the offensive linemen who started last year for their favorite college football team. And most of them can also tell you who their backups are. 

Very few of these people can name off their state senator, their state representative, the city councilmen or their county commissioners. I’d bet an embarrassing percentage couldn’t tell you who their U.S. senators and congressmen are. 

And today, that disparity in knowledge is killing us. 

As the coronavirus rips through this country, and as it rips through this mostly hospital-less state, it is exposing the absolute buffoons who have been elected to public office. Folks who few of us would allow to walk our dogs are being forced to confront an unprecedented national crisis, and they are failing miserably. 

Nowhere is that more true than in the state of Alabama. 

Where our governor hasn’t taken a live question from media or scared-to-death voters in going on a month now. Where our House leader and Senate president have apparently been sheltering in place in a bunker in the hills. Where the only people with plans and ideas and straight talk are the powerless lieutenant governor and the super-minority party. 

And where we still — STILL! — are left without a shelter-in-place order. 

From one end of this state to the other, the people on the frontlines of this crisis are screaming for help. They’ve been sounding alarms for weeks now, and they’ve caught the attention of no one in state leadership, it seems. 

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If not for this state’s proactive mayors, God only knows what shape we’d be in right now. Behind the scenes, those mayors — Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Walt Maddox in Tuscaloosa, Steven Reed in Montgomery, Tommy Battle in Huntsville and Sandy Stimpson in Mobile, along with others — have been communicating with each other, bouncing ideas of one another and sharing plans. 

We will never know how many lives they’ve saved by taking proactive measures before their state government did — and in a couple of cases, in defiance of state leaders — but it will be many. 

As for our state leaders, hopefully this catastrophic failure will be a wake-up call for Alabama voters. But I have my doubts. 

And the reason I have my doubts is what I mentioned above — too many people simply don’t place a value on educated voting. 

Don’t get me wrong. These are not dumb people. It’s not that they’re too stupid to understand the issues that affect their lives and select a person who would best represent their interests. They’re absolutely smart enough to do that. 

But they don’t want to. 

They go to work. They take care of their kids and their house. They try to get some exercise in. And then they’d like to watch a ballgame and have a decent time. 

And so, voting — if they vote at all — becomes a group-think exercise in which most of these people just vote like their friends. They follow their lead and vote for the popular candidate, who is only popular for superficial reasons. 

They’re swayed by cheesy pandering using religious issues or guns or racism or some phony patriotism. Simple pitches work best, because they’re not really paying attention anyway. 

That’s why the guy who offers up a detailed explanation for how taking slightly more from you in tax dollars will actually put considerably more money in your pocket on the back side always loses out to the “conservative” who just says, “No new taxes; I’mma let you keep yo money.” 

This dumb pitch works on even people who aren’t dumb simply because they’re not interested enough to appropriately weigh the two arguments. 

The growth of social media has made things worse. Now, in a matter of 15 minutes, the average person in Alabama can scroll through 100 political memes about libtards and MAGA from their friends, and they’re not going to be on the outside of the circle looking in. They want to laugh too. They want to be part of the group. 

But very few are laughing now. 

Because inevitably, what that group-think voting does is remove the requirement that a candidate actually try. That a candidate present an understanding of the complicated issues and then present solutions to solve them. That a candidate demonstrate an ability to think on his/her feet. That a candidate demonstrate any aptitude for problem solving. 

You’ll do things like elect a woman governor who refused to debate any challenger.

When you know you’ve got the election in the bag simply because you’re running for the right party, who needs to try? 

And when you’re voting without demanding that effort — and Alabamians have been doing so for decades now — you’re assuring that incompetent, unprepared, useless politicians are going to be put into positions of power. 

On a good day, those sorts of politicians are a burden on all of us. On really bad days, like we’re experiencing now, they’re basically grim reapers. 

It would be nice if on the other side of this crisis we placed a higher premium on educated voting that produces better, more qualified public officials. 

But given our history, I have my doubts.

 

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Opinion | The “mainstream media” has been right all along

Josh Moon

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The mainstream media is just blowing this whole coronavirus thing out of proportion!

Have you heard that one? Possibly from a guy standing behind a podium that has the presidential seal attached to it? Or from one of your friends or family members? Or maybe you believe it yourself. 

It’s all “the mainstream media,” the story goes. 

They’re the ones sensationalizing this virus that kills less people than car wrecks and seasonal flu. “The mainstream media” is whipping everyone into a frenzy, causing people to go buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water — all over a virus that has a 99-percent recovery rate. It’s the mainstream media’s fault that businesses are being closed and shelter-in-place orders are being needlessly issued by knee-jerk politicians. 

Pfft. Stupid mainstream media. 

Except, one small thing: “The mainstream media” — whatever faceless, unidentifiable group of journalists to which you have assigned that designation — have been right. 

The mainstream folks who work for your local newspapers and TV stations and online news outlets, and for the major national outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post and others, have provided the public with incredibly accurate information about this virus. 

I don’t want to spend too much time singing our praises here, but APR is a perfect example of this. The collection of information compiled by our reporters has been better, more informative and far more accurate than even the information supplied by the Alabama Department of Public Health. I’ve heard personally from several lawmakers who check what they’re being told by the governor’s office and ADPH against what we’re reporting. 

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Other outlets in this state are doing similar work and providing their local communities with relevant, specific information and tells the story of this crisis in the places they live. 

The reason mainstream outlets have been so successful and accurate in telling this story is mostly because we’ve done nothing but quote and cite the comments and work of reputable, respected doctors and scientists. We have presented you with their projections, their analyses, their breakdowns and their advice. 

Back in early February, when President Pompous was telling everyone not to worry, that all is well and that soon we’d be “down to zero cases,” the mainstream media, citing doctors and health experts, told you that was crazy talk and that a real crisis was approaching this country. That soon we should expect a new normal. 

I think we know who was right about that one.  

As President My Uncle Was A Super-Genius was telling you that one day this will just disappear, the mainstream media was telling you to wash your hands, stay inside and avoid crowds. Because doing so could prevent a scenario in which American hospitals were overrun with patients, depleting our limited supply of ventilators. (The first ventilator story I can find came way back in January.)

And it was the mainstream media that first told you to expect a death toll that reaches into the six figures, and possibly beyond. 

Of course, like all things, the reality of the crisis — and the facts and verifiable information — was lost in the political fight, and in the disinformation campaign required to prop up the dumbest presidential administration in history. 

Because the president took, per usual, such an anti-science, anti-facts position from the outset, any confirmation of the facts that were long ago predicted by the doctors and scientists, and adopted by the mainstream media and most progressive politicians, had to be debunked or reframed in a manner that undercut the severity of the virus or the potential for death. 

And so, on everyone’s favorite phony news network, there came an endless stream of false equivalencies and partial information — all of which were adopted by most Republicans and spread throughout their social media worlds — to the point that those who live within the conservative news bubble have been left believing that the entire country has been shut down by a simple, flu-like virus that is less deadly than seasonal flu and could probably be treated with aquarium cleaner. 

And that the shutdown is being carried out, of course, to tear down the economy (that Obama built and Trump takes credit for) in the hopes of defeating an incumbent president (that had the worst approval ratings in history and trailed by double digits in the polls — including in swing states — to the presumptive Democratic nominee). 

It’s so stupid it hurts. And that’s actually true this time. 

The love that half of America has for being told what they want to hear instead of the actual news is now literally causing death and illness. And it’s going to get worse. 

Even ol’ President Open By Easter is now conceding that this virus will likely kill upwards of 100,000 Americans in the short term, and maybe many more. Somehow, in his mind, that is a victory for him. 

In reality, there are no victories. Not for the people of this country. Not for the mainstream media. And certainly not for the buffoons who have again discounted science and doctors to adopt and espouse a viewpoint built around political advantage and personal ignorance.  

In the coming months, as the reality of this unprecedented disaster unfolds, it should not be lost that so much of it could have been avoided if the American president had relied on facts and science and if many in the American public hadn’t been so quick to choose political preference over hard news.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Ivey gets serious about coronavirus. Finally

Josh Moon

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photo via Governors Office

Finally.

For the first time since the COVID-19 crisis began in Alabama a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Kay Ivey finally, on Friday, seemed to grasp both the gravity of the situation and her role in it. 

Finally. 

Up until Friday, Ivey had resisted calls for more restrictive guidelines barring Alabamians from moving about the state to shop and carry on as usual. While she had taken a handful of steps, she had been hesitant to do more.

Famously, or infamously maybe, she excused away not doing more by telling people that Alabama isn’t New York, California or “even Louisiana.” 

I have never understood what that meant, exactly, and no one I’ve asked has been able to explain it to me. Was she saying the virus, which has infected nearly 600 people in Alabama and almost 100,000 across America, was less likely to infect the human bodies positioned within the state borders?

Did she mean that Alabama air was different? Or maybe all of those chemicals we’ve been consuming from our polluted waters made us uniquely resistant to coronavirus? 

But on Friday, it seemed, a contrite and pleading Ivey told the state that more had to be done. Her tone, her words and her actions conveyed a much different message than her previous press events. 

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While she still refused to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, she issued one without calling it that. It’s being called a “safer at home” policy.

Ivey ordered closed a long list of non-essential businesses and facilities around the state, including department stores, clothing stores, most parks and athletic venues and pretty much all forms of entertainment venues. They will all be closed by 3 p.m. on Saturday. And they will remain closed until April 17. 

Finally. 

As she made this announcement, Ivey talked of the difficulty of the decision, and how you can’t bring a dead business back to life — of how people who work at these temporarily closed businesses are losing vitally important pay and are suddenly at risk of losing everything they’ve worked for. 

And that’s all true. But don’t think that hasn’t also weighed on the people who have called for such closures long ago. 

In fact, in many cases, we had these businesses and employees and their futures in mind when we called for everyone to take things more seriously sooner. Because doing so would have lessened the impact of the virus and allowed life to return to normal — or some form that resembled the old normal — a lot sooner. 

My family operated a small business for years. We operate one now. I make a living working for several small businesses. I know the work and worry that goes into them. I know the risk and sacrifice it takes to make a successful one. And I know the unique, caring relationships that are developed in a small business between owners and employees. 

The last thing I want is to see them fold, or be forced to lay off employees who are like family. 

But I also know that while reviving a dead business is almost impossible, reviving a dead person is actually impossible. 

And the health and safety of people have to be the first priority — not the businesses. 

Friday’s press conference — or, actually, it wasn’t a press conference, but more of a speech followed by responses to submitted questions — was the first real indication that Ivey understood that businesses might have to temporarily suffer in order to save hundreds of lives in this state. 

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall a single mention of Trump or his insane plan to open things up next month and get the economy rolling again or Ivey’s insistence that the economy was just as important as people. 

It was an important pivot for her. And one that could save lives and lessen the impact of COVID-19 in this state. 

However, as my APR coworker Chip Brownlee has pointed out in stories and graphs, Alabama’s current trajectory in terms of how fast the virus is spreading looks more like Louisiana than Georgia or Florida. That’s a problem, because Louisiana is widely regarded as one of the states with the worst outbreaks. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and basically America’s most trusted doctor right now, discussed new, very restrictive measures being taken by Louisiana officials to slow the spread of the virus. Fauci said it’s likely that Louisiana officials will look back and realize that those measures should have “come a little bit sooner.” 

Let’s hope Ivey and Alabama officials don’t find themselves in a similar situation.

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