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Opinion | Montgomery’s first charter school is failing because the laws weren’t followed

Josh Moon

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Charter schools are not all bad. 

Let’s get that out of the way right at the top. There are charter schools out there that do a wonderful job educating children and filling a need that isn’t being met by the local public school system. 

That was sort of the goal of charter schools when they were created — to a fill a void and help a community better educate its children. 

That’s why the most successful, and most talked about, charter schools always have a niche — some take on at-risk youth, others focus on students who excel at math or science, others focus on the arts. 

They work in conjunction with public schools and public school boards to provide specific options for students or provide an educational life preserver to students with special needs or special circumstances. 

But one thing good charter schools are not are merely another public school. Most often, that’s what bad charter schools are. The ones that you read news stories about, the ones that suck resources out of a state’s school funds and then crash and burn, the operators making out like bandits and leaving the communities high and dry when it all goes belly-up. 

When the Alabama Legislature began pushing charter schools a few years ago, lawmakers promised that they wouldn’t allow such charters. And to their credit, they put a few measures in place to guard against this — they required a national board to review charter applications, they required the charters to fill a need within the local community and they required that the local communities support the charters. 

All of these requirements were to be monitored by an appointed commission, who would review applications and review the reviews of applications and make sure that we weeded out the sleazy charter operators who were in it for the money. 

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But that process has failed spectacularly. 

Primarily, it has failed because the Charter Commission, under the leadership of former chairman Mac Buttram, chose politics over duty. It seemed to believe that its responsibility wasn’t to properly vet and scrutinize charter operators who wished to use public dollars to open a school, but instead was to figure out ways to get pretty much any charter applicant pushed through the approval process. 

Along the way, the Commission ignored the advice of the national authorizers, ignored the pleas and outcries from concerned community members and let slide troubling revelations about the histories and financial backing of many applicants. The results have been what you’d expect for many of these hastily approved charters — a dumpster fire. 

There are several examples of this around the state — Birmingham, Washington County, Montgomery — but the Montgomery situation is one I know the best, and it is, in my opinion, the one that provides the best cautionary tale for the rest of the state. 

What makes Montgomery, and its one charter school, LEAD Academy, a truly awful tale is that Montgomery could desperately use a few good charter schools to address specific deficiencies within the county school system. A community charter, for example, that served the poverty-stricken, offering extended hours — possibly even boarding for at-risk youth — free meals, job training and GED prep for parents and health care would be a God-send for several areas of Montgomery. 

And don’t think that’s a silly, liberal dream. Other communities have such schools — propped up by local business support and the contributions of the wealthy — and they have been life-changing. 

But instead of a charter school that addresses those very real needs — or any other specific needs — Montgomery was given LEAD Academy. A charter school that is, in reality, just another school. Except this public school costs three times as much, offers fewer services and has little oversight. 

The lone selling point for LEAD, if you listen to its founders, including board president Charlotte Meadows, is that the school doesn’t have to abide by tenure laws. Which gives the school leadership the power to fire ineffective teachers whenever they wish. 

If this selling point sways you, you don’t understand today’s tenure laws. You also probably have a wholly ignorant understanding of the actual problems that exist within troubled schools systems, like the one in Montgomery. 

For starters, any teacher within any school district in Alabama — no matter how long that teacher has worked in this state — can be fired for pretty much any reason, and the firing can take place immediately. There is due process that must occur if the teacher is fired for cause, and not simply for a reduction in force required by budgetary reasons, but there is almost no teacher that avoids getting the ax once that the termination process has started. 

The other problem with this idea that tenure is what’s causing bad schools is this: it’s stupid. 

And if you give it about a half-second of thought, you’ll agree. Try this: I want you to think of your child’s school. Think of his or her teachers and principals. Think of your interactions with them. Now, answer this: setting aside petty disagreements or differences of opinion, how many of those teachers weren’t busting their tails every single day? How many didn’t care about the kids? How many were lazy? How many were bad influences? 

Maybe one? Two? Maybe that many. But 95 percent of the folks you met and interacted with — the people who influenced your kids every day — they were good people, right? They cared and tried and banged their heads against the wall and cried when things didn’t go well because they gave more than a damn. 

 And that’s why LEAD Academy is a mess right now. Because it has essentially vilified these good people — the teachers — to make people believe that it has a place, instead of actually identifying a real problem and structuring a school to address that problem. 

Mark my words: LEAD will fail, and it will fail soon. Teachers are already bailing out and several have told me that the school is short on its annual projection of students. 

And when it fails, the people who created this dumpster fire will blame the “liberals” and the AEA and naysayers, but the actual culprits will be the ones who forced this on a desperate public, using lies and innuendo, belittling hardworking teachers and casting public school administrators as villains. 

And the victims will still be the children that we’re all failing miserably.

 

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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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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Education

ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding

Josh Moon

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Traditionally underfunded and serving an economically challenged student population, America’s historically black colleges are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of COVID-19 and many are facing bankruptcy, Alabama State University President Quinton Ross told CNN on Monday evening. 

Ross was interviewed by CNN as part of the network’s coverage of how coronavirus shutdowns of college campuses are disproportionately affecting HBCUs. 

“It exposed a number of inequities that were already present prior to this virus,” Ross said during the piece. 

HBCUs typically lack large endowments and hefty budgets, making it harder for them to adjust to shifting courses online. Also, serving a more economically disadvantaged student body often means that the students don’t have the necessary Internet or computers at their homes to participate in online courses. 

Ross said that some HBCUs needed more substantial technological infrastructure to transition to online and other alternative learning methods to ensure the continuity of education for entire student bodies; many of whom were returning to homes without connectivity or computers.

“We had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology, and many of the infrastructures were not prepared,” he said.

Ross has said that federal emphasis on access to technology is not just an HBCU issue, “it is a nationwide issue that must be addressed.”

The underlying inequities Ross mentioned stem, in part, from states, such as Alabama, implementing racist funding practices, leaving HBCUs funded at significantly lower levels than white colleges. That made it impossible for HBCUs to keep pace on matters such as technology infrastructure.  

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Former ASU vice president John Knight, a longtime former state representative, in the 1980s filed a lawsuit on behalf of ASU and other black colleges in the state, challenging the funding policies of the state. The state lost and was forced to pay millions of dollars to at least partially rectify decades of improper funding that denied thousands of black Alabamians a college education.

 

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Education

Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday asked Senate leadership to include money for public schools and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding. 

Jones and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led a group of other senators in drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that urges aid to be directed to education during the coronavirus crisis. 

“We continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools,” the letter reads. “This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”

“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out,” the letter continues. 

Approximately $13.2 billion through the CARES act Education Stabilization Fund has already been disbursed to governors for distribution to K-12 schools. 

Education organizations recommend $175 billion more for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education, according to a press release from Jones’s office. 

 Full letter below: 

 Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

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 We write to urge you to include, in any upcoming legislation designed to provide additional relief to Americans during the COVID 19 pandemic, significant additional support for our nation’s schools. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included an Education Stabilization Fund to provide immediate support, we continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools. This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.

 School districts rely almost entirely on state and local revenue. Low-wealth districts rely the most heavily on state aid and will be most impacted by the economic implications of this crisis. It is our duty to ensure that children receive the education they are rightfully entitled to. Students cannot learn if their schools are forced to downsize operations, eliminate teaching positions in critical subjects, or lay off other critical support staff such as social workers and counselors, due to depleted budgets.

 The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021,[1] changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known. One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession. [2] It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.

 As local communities and school districts see their revenue shrink, they will be forced to look at staffing cuts, as salaries and benefits comprise the majority of school budgets. As a result of this crisis, Learning Policy Institute estimates that if states experience a 20% decline in revenue, without federal intervention, about 460,000 educator positions will be eliminated. [3] Congress must invest now to stabilize the public education sector and fill the current gaps in our education workforce and prevent an even more dire shortage in the years to come.  

 In addition to focusing on our educator workforce in any upcoming economic relief package, we urge you to continue to help schools to address learning loss facing our most disadvantaged students and ensure that all students with disabilities can continue to access the Free Appropriate Public Education to which they are entitled. We therefore urge you to provide substantial, flexible additional investments through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Finally, if the next funding package includes infrastructure provisions, we urge you to explicitly include K-12 schools as eligible recipients for funds.

 Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

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When public schools reopen, nurses could be the key to combating coronavirus

Josh Moon

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When Alabama’s public schools open their doors to students in the fall, there will be one group of people on the front lines, entrusted with the monumental task of identifying and isolating potentially sick students and tracing their contact with other students. 

School nurses. 

The already overworked and underappreciated (and usually under-compensated) nurses that care for thousands of sick and injured school kids every day in this state will become perhaps the most vital cog in a plan to keep Alabama’s public schools from becoming hotspots for COVID-19. 

But there is a hitch: There aren’t enough of them. 

“We know that the school nurses will take the lead this fall in whatever plans are developed to respond to this (COVID-19) virus,” said Diana Collins, the president of the Alabama Association of School Nurses. “We feel like that having a nurse in a school all day, every day during this pandemic would solve a number of issues that will arise and provide the best care for our students. 

“A major concern for us is the lack of nurses in so many schools. It’s something we’ve spoken with legislators about, and I think those talks have been productive. But of course, money is an issue with something like this.”

Determining just how many school nurses that the Alabama State Department of Education is employing at a given time — and the number of nurses that should be serving each district — is a tricky task. Several factors go into determining the number of nurses needed, including the school population and the known health issues of its students. 

By law, each district must employ at least one head nurse, but that still leaves a number of public schools in the state without a nurse stationed on campus. According to figures provided to APR, about 300 schools in the state don’t have a nurse on campus. Many of those are rural schools, which would require extensive travel for the district’s head nurse. 

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That’s an issue that many principals and district superintendents have brought up numerous times over the last several years. The coronavirus outbreak has only heightened their concerns. It might also be the best chance to make a change. 

“Could this be the time that people realize we need a school nurse in every school every day?” asked Jennifer Ventress, the head nurse for ALSDE. “I believe that’s a possibility. But again, it’s about paying for it and where does the money come from. There’s no question that the nurses serve an important function, particularly in the poorer districts. And they will play an important role with the (coronavirus) this fall.”

State officials are examining the possibility of using at least some of Alabama’s allocation of CARES Act money to increase its total number of school nurses for at least the upcoming school year. 

Ventress said ALSDE officials are still formulating a plan for the fall — one that includes using nurses and their extensive training to help identify and isolate students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms — but that nothing, including the available dollars, has been finalized. 

Under the plan currently in the works at ALSDE, school nurses, in addition to identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms, would also assist superintendents and principals in identifying areas in which students suspected of having the virus can be sequestered safely. They also will help ensure that students get medical treatment. 

The finer details of that plan have not yet been worked out, Ventress said, because of a number of fluctuating variables. State superintendent Eric Mackey on Wednesday asked district superintendents to consider pushing the start of the 2020-21 school year back to at least late August, in part, so school leaders would have more time to gather data. 

Ventress said many of Alabama’s school nurses will spend that time working with the Alabama Department of Public Health, helping it to track down and perform contact tracing on patients who test positive for COVID-19. That program will provide nurses with valuable experience for the fall school year, and also provide them with a few extra dollars.

“It is a completely voluntary partnership that we have formed with ADPH to assist them in some much needed tracing,” Ventress said. “We see it as a win-win with no downside. It’s voluntary for our nurses and gives them great training and a little extra money. At the same time, it helps out ADPH, and they could really use the extra assistance right now.”

The primary benefit to ALSDE, obviously, is that by the start of the school year, it should have a small army of school nurses trained to perform proper contact tracing and familiar with the workings of ADPH. 

But not in every school. 

“Right now, school nurses are needed more than ever,” Collins said. “We are a vital bridge between the schools and the health care providers. We have been caring for these kids for a long time, and we know that environment better than anyone. I would just hope that everyone remembers that we’re all in this together and that everything we do should be in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the children.”

 

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