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Jones’s attempt to fund minority colleges blocked by Tennessee senator

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama,  on Thursday asked for unanimous consent on the floor of the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that would continue funding to minority-serving colleges and universities, but a Tennessee senator objected, putting a halt to its passage, at least for now. 

The FUTURE Act would continue for two more years the $225 million annual payment to minority-serving colleges and universities. That funding, which advocates and those school administrators say is desperately needed to help serve minority students, is set to expire Sept. 30. 

Sen. Jones and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced the bipartisan legislation, which was unanimously approved in the House and which pays for the $225 million by cutting subsidies to guaranty agencies that exist largely to collect student loan debts from the shuttered Federal Family Education Loan program. 

Jones on Tuesday called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the act up for a vote in the Senate. 

After Jones called for unanimous consent Thursday Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Education Committee, objected, saying that he’d prefer a more long-term fix that included a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. 

Prior to the objection, Jones made his case for continuing the funding and said that Alabama is home to 14 historically black colleges and universities.  

“More than any other state in the country.  They are part of the fabric of our economy in Alabama, part of the fabric of our society and they are a pride of their communities…” Jones said. “They serve an incredibly important function. They educate those from underserved communities more than any college or university, and it is important that we continue to fund them because their challenges with funding are great.” 

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Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) don’t have the sort of endowments that other universities rely on, Jones said, so they rely on Congress to provide the needed funding. 

“Ensuring that historically black colleges and universities have continued funding is something we all want to do,” said Sen. Alexander after making his objection. “However, instead of a short term patch, I favor a long term solution.” 

Alexander read a list of several changes he’d like to see approved and included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, including a $255 million permanent mandatory funding for HBCUs, a streamlined FAFSA application and Pell grants for prisoners. He said he plans to bring those recommendations back up next week with Education Committee members. 

“We have the time to do it, because while the language expires at the end of this month the money does it for several more months,” Alexander said. 

Ben Miller, vice president of postsecondary education at the liberal think-tank the Center for American Progress, told APR before Jones spoke on the Senate floor Thursday that he’s heard from some in Washington who said the problem passing the legislation centers around cuts to those guaranty agencies, while others say they’d rather see a long-term solution than the two year fix provided through the act. 

“Some people said they just don’t think these schools should get mandatory money.” Miller said. “So I don’t exactly know what the objection is.” 

Miller also suspected that opposition to the act’s passage centers around Sen. Alexander’s desire reauthorize the Higher Education Act before Alexander  retires in 2021. 

“The time pressure here is real, and this fix from Senator Jones is bipartisan, bicameral, and it’s taken an administrative fee to a loan program that’s dead and dying, and giving it to the schools that we’ve historically underinvested in the most,” Miller said.  “I can’t imagine a better trade than that.” 

Opposition to the FUTURE Act has also come from those guaranty agencies and the trade groups that represent them, such as the National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER). 

In a letter to the House Education Committee on June 18, James P. Bergen, president of NCHER, urged lawmakers to continue those subsidies.  

If the revenue is eliminated through the FUTURE Act, Bergen wrote that “fewer families will receive important information that helps open the doors to college, fewer schools will receive basic administrative support, federal taxpayers will receive fewer protections, and guaranty agencies will be unable to perform critical functions that assist borrowers in avoiding default and protect federal taxpayers as the federal legacy program continues to wind‐down its operations.”

Miller described put the role of those guaranty agencies in a different light, however. 

“They’re not servicing the loans. Private banks that issue the loans are servicing them. Their key function is debt collection,” Miller said, adding that many charge students exorbitant collection fees while paying large, mid-six figure salaries to their CEOs. 

Speaking on the floor of the Senate after Sen Alexander’s objection Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA. expressed support of the FUTURE Act. 

“What we’re seeing today really disappoints me. We have today a straightforward opportunity to prevent a critical part of our higher education system, [historically black colleges and universities] tribal colleges and other minority serving institutions from having to deal with a lapse in funding, and we should take it. This is bipartisan legislation, it has passed the House, there’s no reason at all to delay it a minute longer here in the Senate, so I want to thank Senator from Alabama for his leadership on this.”

Murray said that while she also wants to see a reauthorized Higher Education Act she believes it should encompass more than Alexander’s slimmed-down proposal. 

“As I said before, I believe any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act needs to have real answers to the challenges students are facing today on affordability and access and accountability and campus safety,” Murray said. 

In a message to APR  on Thursday afternoon Sen. Jones office wrote that Sen Murray’s disappointment reflected his own. 

“I’m glad that Senator Alexander, who I have great respect for and a great working relationship with, is open to doing something more long term on this as a part of a bigger package,’ Jones said. “But it’s still disappointing that this bipartisan bill, which passed unanimously in the House this week, can’t get done this month on its own merit. These schools just want to be able to focus on their mission and we need to give them the certainty they need to be able to do so.”

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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. 

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. 

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.” 

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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