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Opinion | Did the Legislature paint themselves into a corner?

Larry Lee

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There were hosannas and smiles all over Goat Hill when the Legislature recently passed a bill calling for a vote on a constitutional amendment next March as to whether Alabama should have an elected state school board or one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

The fact it passed the senate 30-0 and the house, 78-21, sent a loud and clear message that the Legislature has little confidence in the present state school board and the leadership of state school superintendent Eric Mackey, who the board hired on a 5-4 vote just over a year ago.

However, it’s unlikely that legislative leadership stopped and considered that this vote will, in effect, be a referendum on what the public thinks about them.  A YES vote will mean that people agree with the Legislature and trust the governor and the Senate to do what is right for our 720,000 public school students. But a NO vote will mean that they simply do not trust our politicians.

My guess is that this was never given any thought in legislative chambers. Results of the survey we recently did that had 1,170 responses, indicate that many of the 140 house and senate members may have made a serious miscalculation.

Granted that 44 percent of respondents are teachers and that many more work in public education, but their responses are so overwhelmingly against an appointed state board that they cannot be discounted. How overwhelming? Try 89 percent against and only 11 percent in favor of the constitutional amendment.

But what makes the numbers so intriguing is that these are not people enamored with education in Alabama as we now know it. Anything but. In fact, 60 percent think education is headed in the wrong direction and 45 percent give the state superintendent a letter grade of C, D or F.   In fact, slightly more give him an F than they do an A.

So one can not claim that respondents are happy with what we are doing and don’t want change.

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Rather, they don’t believe the change we need means giving final say on who sits on the state school board to the Alabama state senate who must sign off on any names a governor sends them. Only 18 percent have confidence in the senate to approve competent people.

This is easy to understand.  Since 2010 when today’s super majority came to power, education has been hit with A-F school reports cards that serve no useful purpose for educators, the Alabama Accountability Act that has diverted $145 million from class rooms and the charter school act, that is governed by an appointed board, and has caused chaos in tiny Washington County by approving a charter that is unwanted and unneeded.

All of these have a collective impact and weigh heavily on the minds of educators now being asked to ignore the track record of those running the legislative process and entrust them with even more power.  Respondents, 49 percent who identify as Republicans, see senate majority leader Del Marsh as the primary architect of this attack on public schools.

We have heard legislator after legislator lament that education needs to get better and somehow, turning even more control over to them, will be a step in the right direction.  That’s an argument that 1,039 (89 percent) survey respondents just ain’t buying.
And the day after the vote, legislative leadership may well find themselves way over in the corner of the room looking at the fresh paint that just put them there.

Larry Lee is co-author of the study, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools and blogs about Alabama education at larryeducation.com

 

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