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Analysis | Alabama’s charter school law has a number of problems

Josh Moon

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The Alabama charter school law is an absolute mess, filled with loopholes and nonexistent instructions that make it possible, if not likely, that the state will endure countless bad charter schools that rob taxpayers and leave Alabama school children worse off. 

Those were not the words of Alabama superintendent Eric Mackey. 

But you could draw those conclusions from the words Mackey did use in an interview with APR about the state’s charter school law and the various problems exposed by the approval of a Washington County charter school. 

Mackey’s actual words were much more subdued and measured, and far more diplomatic. 

But he still drew the same conclusions: that the charter school law didn’t envision a scenario in which an authorizer would approve a charter school that failed to meet the requirements; that the law provides the Alabama State Department of Education with limited oversight of the authorizers; that the law provides ALSDE with zero oversight of applicants; that the law never spelled out a grievance procedure for the public or others to report issues with charters and charter approvals; and that there is no action that he or the state school board can take to stop an authorizer from approving a charter. 

“Because this law is so new, and because we have so few charters approved at this point, we haven’t tried to answer those questions,” Mackey said. “What is our role in this process? We haven’t been forced to answer that until now.”

The Washington County Problem

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The reason Mackey and the rest of ALSDE are now faced with that self-examination is due to the Commission’s approval of Woodland Prep — a charter school located in Washington County. 

Woodland Prep has drawn national attention and community outrage, and the fire shows no signs of fading out after the Commission recently granted the school a 1-year extension to open. 

That extension is the latest of a number of issues that opponents of the charter have highlighted. They also have drawn attention to the management company — a private company named Unity School Services, which is owned by Soner Tarim, a controversial figure in the charter school world. 

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Opponents maintain that the charter violates two essential tenets of the charter school law — that a charter must be needed (i.e. it must deliver some educational curriculum or fill some void that is not currently offered) and it must be supported by the local community. 

Town hall meetings more than a year ago about the charter made it clear that there is little community support. And opponents contend that an uptick in state scores — going from a D to a B in overall grades — is proof that the charter isn’t necessary. 

Supporters have claimed that the opponents have bullied others in town into not supporting Woodland Prep. And they tried to tie the criticisms of Tarim and his company to simple religious bigotry. 

In the midst of this, as you could probably imagine, Mackey and the state department have received countless complaints, both in emails and letters and in the form of phone calls. They have come from the average citizen, school employees and from lawmakers. 

As the complaints started to increase — and media coverage of the situation started to grow, as well — Mackey and the ALSDE legal team began trying to determine what, exactly, the role of ALSDE is in such a situation. 

ALSDE’s Limited Role

Turns out, the law didn’t really spell one out. At least, not for this situation. 

“When you read the law, it’s pretty clear that the anticipation was that an authorizer would refuse to give a fair shot to a qualified applicant,” Mackey said. “There doesn’t seem to be an anticipation that an undeserving applicant could be approved. That’s a piece that is missing, in my opinion.”

There is oversight responsibility for ALSDE in the law, however. 

Sen. Del Marsh, who was a major proponent of the charter school bill, said the law clearly places oversight responsibility in the hands of ALSDE, and his office forwarded a section of the law to APR. 

“The law is clear that the ALSDE and State Board of Education have oversight of the commission,” Marsh wrote in a statement. He then went on to try and tie the situation to his push for an appointed state school board, but that is in no way relative to this situation. 

The portion of law is, however. It reads: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act. Persistently unsatisfactory performance of the portfolio of public charter schools of an authorizer, a pattern of well-founded complaints about the authorizer or its public charter schools, or other objective circumstances may trigger a special review by the department.”

It goes on to say that if ALSDE finds an authorizer isn’t in compliance, the department “shall notify the authorizer in writing of any identified problem, and the authorizer shall have reasonable opportunity to respond and remedy the problem.”

And that’s all well and good, but it stops short of the real problem: the charter school law, as passed by the Legislature, establishes the Commission as a separate state entity. 

And it never provides ALSDE with oversight responsibilities. 

In fact, in the law itself, just a few paragraphs under what Marsh’s office sent, is this: 

“If the Commission violates a material provision of a charter contract or fails to remedy any other authorizing problems after due notice from (ALSDE), (ALSDE) shall notify the Commission, within 60 days, that it plans to notify the governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate of the actions of the Commission, unless the Commission demonstrates a timely and satisfactory remedy for the violation of the deficiencies.” 

So, to put that in English, if Mackey and his staff have a documented problem with the Commission, they can tell the Commission and the governor and speaker and Senate president about it. 

And then … what? 

No one knows. 

Crazy Loopholes

Let’s say the Commission starts approving woefully bad charters because various business arrangements and backroom deals are going down. Even if the Commission repeatedly violated the charter law, there is no means within the law for ALSDE, the governor, the speaker or Marsh to punish the Commission. 

Sound insane? 

Hold on a second. It gets crazier. 

If that’s the case and charters that don’t meet the standards are being approved illegally, there’s virtually no chance of stopping it under the current setup. Because right now, as ALSDE and Mackey are experiencing, the complaints from the public that would expose such deficiencies can’t be investigated by ALSDE.

Because ALSDE only has oversight over an authorizer, not the applicant. 

So, if Woodland Prep is violating the state’s Open Meetings Act or doesn’t have local support — allegations which have been made numerous times — ALSDE has no authority over those. 

The authorizer does. 

“The overwhelming majority of complaints that we’ve received about (Woodland Prep) are things we can’t do anything about,” Mackey said. “They are things that should be directed to the authorizer, in this case the Commission. All we can look at is if the Commission is following the law.” 

Mackey said he plans to have conversations with lawmakers leading up to the next legislative session about possible changes to the law, but he didn’t seem optimistic. For now, he and the ALSDE legal staff are talking about possibilities and things that might be done. 

And the bad law carries on.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

 

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State releases plans for expected school reopenings in the fall

Micah Danney

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Schools are expected to reopen at the start of the school year but rules will vary by district and by school, with guidelines and recommendations from the Alabama State Department of Education instead of a mandated statewide plan.

Remote learning will be key, said State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey on Friday. Many parents around the state want it, especially for children with medical conditions, he said.

The Department of Education plans to build out a statewide remote learning system that includes WiFi hotspots and a learning management system that makes lessons, tests and teacher correspondence accessible on smartphones.

As many as 80 percent of parents polled in some counties said they want to keep their kids at home when school starts, Mackey said, so fully remote learning will be an option for those who want it.

There is no deadline for districts to report their individual plans to the state.

Contact-tracing will be an important tool to prevent outbreaks and keep students and staff safe, said State Health Officer Scott Harris. Measures taken seasonally to prevent the spread of flu will become routine procedure, with stricter cleaning regimens and quick response to possible symptoms of illness.

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The most important screening begins at home, the officials said. Parents will need to check temperatures and watch for early symptoms.

Mackey said that some things will need to change more than others. Athletic competitions can go on with social distancing measures in place, like spacing out students on the sidelines and spectators in the bleachers. 

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Activities like choir practice will need to adjust more creatively due to the higher risk of contagion that comes with packing students together to sing for long periods of time.

Small groups will be preferable to large gatherings. Outdoor activities are better than indoors. Shorter events are safer than longer ones. Congestion in hallways and at choke points like school entrances should be mitigated. Such will be the guidelines and recommendations that individual facilities will consider.

Harris said he was confident that the department’s approach is a good one, but said that decisions are being made according to present circumstances. Cases are increasing daily, he said. He stressed that the public’s behavior moving forward is critical.

“The decisions we make every day will determine how this turns out,” Harris said.

The Alabama Education Association issued a statement that approved of the state’s deference to local decision-making.

“With AEA’s strong presence in every school district in the state, AEA will be there when those plans are drafted and make sure student and educator voices are heard in the process,” said AEA President Sherry Tucker. “The health, safety, and success of students and educators are top priorities for AEA. We welcome parents and other community leaders to join with us as we move forward.”

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AlabamaWorks Governor’s Survey deadline extended one week

Staff

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AlabamaWorks and the Alabama Workforce Council announced on Thursday the deadline for responses to the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies — a new tool to survey business owners in different sectors and regions and identify current, in-demand occupations and the credentials of value aligned to those occupations — has been extended one week and will now close on Friday, July 3.

“This survey is vitally important as we continue in our ‘Strong Start, Strong Finish’ education and workforce initiative,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “We remain committed to our post-secondary attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled employees to the workforce by 2025, and this survey will help us clearly identify the in-demand careers and associated skills that will help us develop the necessary competency models needed to reach that goal and provide quality opportunities for Alabama’s citizens.”

The majority of jobs lack specification regarding the necessary skills required to perform the job and, as a result, the bachelor’s degree has become the default certification for most jobs that require a postsecondary education. Identifying the skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes needed to succeed at in-demand jobs will prepare Alabama’s workforce for the future. 

The Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies will be conducted annually to assist the 16 Technical Advisory Committees of the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways with their work of linking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies and then sequencing competencies to build the DNA for a career.

“The AWC has consistently engaged in and supported efforts regarding credentialing,” noted AWC Chairman Tim McCartney. “The future of workforce in Alabama will be highly impacted by these efforts to establish clear career pathways that are built upon the skills and knowledge shown to be in the most need and provide the highest value for employees and employers across the state.”

 

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Jacksonville State considers renaming Bibb Graves Hall

Eddie Burkhalter

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As municipalities and schools across the South grapple with monuments devoted to the Confederacy post-George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, Jacksonville State University looks toward its own Bibb Graves Hall, named for the former governor and Klu Klux Klan member. 

Matthew Reeves, a 2020  graduate of JSU, started an online petition Saturday calling on the university to rename the building, built in 1930, and which houses the school’s administrative offices. 

Reeves told APR on Wednesday that after talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama about that school’s own Bibb Graves Hall, he decided to do something himself to enact change locally. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,072 people had signed his petition, including one person who in a comment on the petition welcomed the change. 

“From a  person of color considering this college in the future, it would make me feel more included,” the person wrote. 

Reeves suggests the school consider renaming the building after Barbara Curry-Storey, JSU’s first black student and a 1969 graduate of the university. 

In a post Monday to the university’s Facebook page, acting JSU President Don Killingsworth Jr. wrote about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, and about the possibility of changing the name of campus buildings. 

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Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family,” Killingsworth wrote. “What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.” 

Killingsworth said JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center to address racism and to work to help the campus community “broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.” 

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you,” Killingsworth said. “The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.” 

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Reeves said Killingsworth has been good about listening to students’ concerns, and that he believes Killingsworth is headed in the right direction, but that it’s important to continue to hold the administration accountable. 

“We’re gonna stay on top of it and make sure that it really happens,” Reeves said, adding that there’s a JSU Board of Trustees meeting in July that he’s certain himself and a group of former and current JSU students will attend. 

The University of Alabama System’s Board of Trustees recently approved the removal of three plaques honoring Confederates, and appointed a group of trustees to review and study the names of buildings on all UA System campuses. 

Similar petitions urging building name changes have been signed by current and former students at the University of Alabama and at Auburn University. 

“I think it’s a great first step. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and changing the name of a building or taking a statue is not going to end racism,” Reeves said. 

But perhaps doing so will open doors and lead to more substantive change, he said. 

JSU acting President Don Killingsworth’s full statement: 

“Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

“Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family. What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.

“Members of the JSU family have shared the pain they are feeling because of Mr. Floyd’s death. Let us be clear: Jacksonville State University values Black lives. We stand firmly against the harm and injustice people of color continue to face, and we are committed to addressing systemic racism through actions we take individually and as an institution.

“A timely opportunity for JSU to continue to address social injustices is upon us. In February, a group of faculty, students, and community partners applied to the Association of American Colleges and Universities to participate in a summer institute on “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.” JSU was notified in March that we were approved to participate, and we will be moving forward with this opportunity. As a part of this initiative, JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center and will collaborate with the community to work to dismantle racism. This center will work to help the campus community broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you. The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.

“While there is no way to erase the harm our faculty, staff, and students of color are experiencing, please know that JSU offers resources to help you seek care and support. Faculty, staff, and peers, please encourage your students, colleagues, and friends to seek resources and help from these university services and staff:

“Students may seek assistance through the JSU Counseling Center by requesting counseling services or by calling 256-782-5475. The center is staffed by individuals steeped in knowledge of counseling those who have experienced racial trauma, and they are glad to offer assistance to anyone affected by the recent events.

“The Associate Dean of Students, Josh Robinson, can help with student advising and referral, and he will inform students about options and resources for getting the help they may need. Contact the Dean of Students Office at 256-782-5491.

“Employees who are interested in talking to someone should reach out to the JSU Human Resources Office at 256-782-5007.

“Several individuals have asked about giving a gift in memory of George Floyd. JSU has created a new scholarship with management by JSU’s Black Alumni Chapter, which will select recipients. If you are interested in making a donation to this scholarship, please click here, scroll down in the Fund Designation section, and choose Black Alumni Chapter Endowed Scholarship. Choose the In-Memory option and fill out that section.

“JSU is beginning the recruitment process for a Diversity and Inclusion administrator. The person in this position will be another resource for the campus community and will assist the institution in fostering a sense of belonging for all students, faculty, and staff.

“Finally, please know that we are here for you and will work tirelessly to ensure an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment for the entire JSU family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Don C. Killingsworth, Jr.

Acting President”

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