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Josh Moon

Opinion | Only one kind of “school choice” matters

Josh Moon

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Get ready to party, kids. 

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday issued a proclamation that Jan. 26-Feb. 1, would officially be known as “school choice week” in Alabama. The week will feature dozens of events and parties and just a grand ol’ good time, as we all come together and celebrate the decision to allow Alabama’s school children the choice to attend any school they wish. 

That’s right, no more suburban, white-flight schools. No more selective busing. No more tricky zoning laws. No more shifting district lines. No more “neighborhood schools.” 

The poor kids finally will be able to attend the rich kids’ schools. 

Won’t it be grand — to watch the under-educated, impoverished children who attend perpetually under-funded and under-staffed and under-supplied schools in Jefferson County march into Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills and Hoover and all the other just-out-of-reach school systems with massive resources? 

Imagine the looks on the kids’ faces when they realize they’ve gone from a school in Montgomery that couldn’t afford textbooks for all of the students to a school in Pike Road where everyone gets an iPad. 

Imagine the excitement among parents in Huntsville, as their children have an opportunity to leave a system plagued by mismanagement and racism and instead receive an education at one of the best school districts in America a few miles away in Madison City. 

I know people have been up in arms about this whole school choice thing, but I, for one, think it’s great. And exactly what this state has needed for a long, long time. 

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Just the other night, I was reading through a Twitter thread from an al.com reporter about the poverty and inequality issues that are so prevalent within Alabama’s public education system. Did you know that Alabama is one of just six states that doesn’t disperse funding based, at least in part, on the economic status of the student body of a school system? 

Forty-four states out there took a look at the data that showed poverty was THE key indicator in academic successes of students, schools and entire systems and decided that they should allocate more funding to schools with higher percentages of impoverished students. You know, to help level the playing field a little bit. 

Not Alabama, though. 

Nah, our leaders took a look at the struggling schools in high poverty areas and said, “Let’s get the white kids out.”

That’s how we ended up with the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows kids in “failing schools” to transfer out to any non-failing school. But no transportation is provided to that transferring student, because, why can’t those poor kids’ parents drop them off at their new school on the way to pilates like the rich kids’ parents do? 

But this nixes that awful, racist program. And more good news: It will also keep cities like Gardendale from trying to form racist breakaway school systems in an attempt to re-segregate, and then being forced to pay nearly a million dollars in attorneys’ fees. 

Now, instead of just blaming bad schools on the black kids or the Mexican kids or the white trash kids, parents and schools systems will have to work together to create options and alternatives to aid the children who are struggling to learn, regardless of their race or income level. And some of those parents might just learn that they share a common dream for their children, and that while their situations and lives might be vastly different, the hope they have for their children is identical. 

So, this new “school choice” proclamation from the governor is just fantastic, and exactly what we needed to inject a level of equality and fairness into our school systems that has been sorely missing for 200 years. 

I look forward to celebrating this week-long event. Let me read through this announcement and get you a bit more information so you too can celebrate this grand week for Alabama school children. 

Hmmm. You know, the more I read through this, the more I’m getting the impression that “school choice week” isn’t at all what I thought it was. And looking back at rallies and comments made at previous “school choice” events in Alabama, why, I think this whole thing might just be a thinly veiled attempt to push charter schools and the belief that the success or failure of educating all children is determined by “competition.” 

In reality, educational success is determined by resources. Which is why the folks who can afford it dump 30 times as much money into their school systems as the poorest districts that lack the resources. And that’s why the wealthiest districts enjoy schools with the latest technology, plenty of teachers and textbooks and all of the tools that help kids grow and learn. And the poorest schools literally can’t provide enough textbooks. 

The only school choice that will ever matter in Alabama is choosing to drastically shrink the resource gap between the rich and poor schools.

 

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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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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Opinion | In a party without a plan, Ainsworth stands alone

Josh Moon

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I am a practical person. 

I place a lot of value on a practical, sensible approach to problem solving. Which is why I tend to vote for people who also think like me — who have a plan, who can identify problems and offer reasonable, fact-based solutions. 

Those people make the world go around. 

During the 2018 midterm elections, when Alabama was voting for a new governor and replacing dozens of legislative seats, I begged this state’s voters to take such an approach. To identify things that matter to them, to pick out specific issues within their communities and within the state that make the most difference to them, and then to vote for only the candidates who offer reasonable, fact-based, specific plans to address those issues. 

Instead, Alabamians, in overwhelming numbers, gave me the middle finger, donned their “R” jerseys and checked the box for straight-ticket Republican. And they ushered in a governor, and expanded a Legislature, that is filled with men and women who have no plan for anything. 

Not even common, everyday problems. 

They’re still stumped by what to do about pollution and grappling with whether public corruption is truly that bad. 

And when I say that Alabama voters selected these people despite them not offering a single real solution to any problem, well, check this: Gov. Kay Ivey, who defeated Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, refused to debate anyone, including her Republican challengers in the primary. She never offered a realistic plan for doing anything but showing up to ribbon cuttings. 

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The other GOP sheep ushered in by voters were similarly void of ideas for pretty much anything. At one point leading up to the election, I visited the websites of all GOP candidates running for office and pulled their ideas for improving Alabama’s public education system — one of the top issues listed by all voters. 

Not one had a single specific idea, much less a comprehensive plan. 

And if you’re that unable to provide leadership and planning when you’ve got all the time in the world to address common problems known to all, well, it’s hard to imagine how bad you’ll be in a crisis. 

Or, it was until the past couple of weeks. 

Until Wednesday afternoon, the state of Alabama has been without leadership throughout the COVID-19 crisis. 

It has been an embarrassment on a grand scale, as we struggle to do even basic things, such as provide testing for those with symptoms. By late Wednesday, Alabama had tested fewer than 3,000 people. New York tested more than that in a single hour on Wednesday. 

As coronavirus patients start to stack up at our hospitals, there remains no viable plan to accommodate them. No workable plan to get ventilators. No workable plan to test or treat our most rural areas. No workable plan to address the shortage of doctors and nurses. 

And then Will Ainsworth dropped in. 

Alabama’s lieutenant governor has been unusually outspoken in the last few days — cutting a PSA telling people to stay inside and take warnings seriously and offering his views on social media. 

But by Wednesday, Ainsworth had seen enough. He fired off a lengthy letter to Ivey’s COVID-19 Response Team that basically said: What are we even doing out here, man? 

Ainsworth set fire to everything — calling the state’s response to this point unprepared and unrealistic. He talked about his conversations with healthcare providers and how they’re scared to death of the “tsunami of patients” that are about to overtake the state’s hospitals, sucking up every available resource and then some. And he did the math on how awful this virus outbreak could be — or maybe even likely will be — for this state. 

And he offered suggestions for addressing the problems. 

But if I know Republicans like I think I do, Ainsworth’s letter and plans and warnings will be treated not as a wake-up call, but as a traitorous act. He has dared to question the other GOP leaders publicly, and that is what they will take from this. 

Because anything else is outside of their skill set. 

This is a party built on opposing things, not on fixing things. It is a party that has only ever sold two things — Jesus and anti-abortion legislation. Never mind that their bills involving those things have ever once made the state even slightly better. 

Ainsworth made himself a unicorn on Wednesday. He became a planner in a party that has never had one. 

He should be commended for his stand. But he won’t be. 

ALGOP hunts unicorns.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Want to slow the spread of coronavirus? Tell people the truth

Josh Moon

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Alabama hospitals are running out of ICU beds. And ventilators. 

Frontline staff is overworked. Nurses and doctors are running low on personal protective equipment (PPEs) and there is none to be had. 

And we are only in the early stages of COVID-19’s spread through America. We’ve only recently moved up to third in the world in terms of most confirmed cases of the virus, and we’re certain we’ve only counted a small fraction of our actual cases. 

By the end of this, we will almost certainly be No. 1 in total cases, and we could very well be near that rank in terms of deaths. 

Those deaths from coronavirus are starting to mount in the country, moving past 700 on Tuesday night after reaching 600 only around lunchtime on Tuesday. 

Doctors who have spoken out about their experiences working in ERs and clinics around the country, and in Alabama specifically, are scared and angry and exhausted. They see the coming storm, and the almost certain catastrophe — the excruciating decisions that they will be forced to make when those in need outnumber the ability to provide care — and they want to run. But running isn’t in them. 

This is the reality of this moment in American history. 

It’s ugly. It’s frightening. It’s infuriating. 

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But this is what it is. 

And it would help a whole lot if people in positions of power would stop sugarcoating things, stop muzzling doctors and nurses who have firsthand experiences to share and start telling people the cold, hard truth. 

From the president to governors and all the way down to hospital administrators. You’re not helping this by relaying fairytales and treating everyone as if the real truth would be too much for them. 

Let me give you an example. 

Over the weekend, APR published a story about the dire situation facing Jackson Hospital in Montgomery. The story quoted a number of unnamed sources who worked within the hospital and who had firsthand knowledge of its dealings with coronavirus patients. 

Those staffers expressed legitimate concerns about PPE shortages, worker safety, the availability of ICU beds and the coming shortage of ventilators. Not a word of what was said was untrue. And all of it was common concerns at hospitals all over the state. 

But instead of simply confirming the truth and speaking about the hard times that are ahead for Jackson and all hospitals, the Jackson PR team went with a “nothing to see here, all is well” press release that randomly called the allegations false without addressing a single specific. 

At the same time the Jackson PR team was denying APR‘s story, the staff was turning a waiting area into a makeshift ICU unit to accommodate the expected influx. 

To highlight the absurdity of this, on Tuesday, Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, in a scripted teleconference with Gov. Kay Ivey that managed to set telecommunications back at least a decade, told reporters that pretty much every major hospital in every major city in Alabama was facing all the issues that were raised in the APR story. 

Of course they are. 

Alabama had one of the worst healthcare systems in the free world on a good day. It has become painfully obvious that no one had a plan to deal with a large-scale medical disaster such as this. 

How unprepared were we? 

We are three weeks into this mess and not one single test has been administered in most of the Black Belt counties. 

Wrap your head around that. 

Let’s also not forget that while Govs. Andrew Cuomo, Mike DeWine and many others are providing their states with daily updates and setting aside time to speak with media and answer questions, Tuesday’s teleconference was Ivey’s first media availability in a week. And I use the term “availability” very loosely. 

It was actually a 35-minute, scripted performance that allowed Ivey and Harris to dance around important questions and never have to take a follow-up, because all of the questions had to be submitted four hours earlier. 

The overriding message from Ivey was: Alabama is going to get back to business soon. 

That’s a nice thought. It’s a nice thing to tell a child, so they won’t needlessly worry. 

It is not a good message at this time for the state, because it fails to convey the gravity of the situation. It sends a message that this thing is nearly over, wasn’t all that bad and we’re doing OK. Ivey even said at one point that Alabama isn’t California, New York or even Louisiana — implying that we’re somehow different here and less likely to get the virus. 

We’re not less likely. We likely have the same percentage of cases as New York — and we’d know this if we actually decided to test like New York. That state is running more than 16,000 tests per day. Alabama has tested 2,300 people — total, in three weeks. 

But make no mistake: Our numbers here will be just as awful as the numbers from other states. Our hospitals are just starting to experience the coming onslaught of issues. There will be many deaths. 

We will get through it and there will be life on the other side. But right now, the only way to limit these numbers is for people to take this seriously. 

And the only way they’re ever going to take it seriously is if they’re told the truth.

 

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How the coronavirus can upend a life in just a few days

Josh Moon

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The direct message on Twitter came from a familiar name, which made the contents a bit more unsettling. 

My cousin, Payton, was writing to let me know that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had all the symptoms — fever, a cough, achy all over. And he had been in and out of medical facilities where he could have contracted the virus. 

He wanted advice, having read a few of my tweets citing information from medical professionals around the state. What should he do? 

I forwarded him the number to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s helpline, and I told him to let me know what happened. 

What transpired is both an infuriating example of Alabama’s — and the country’s — lack of preparation for this pandemic, and a sad example of how even suspecting that you’ve contracted this virus can have devastating effects on your income, your life and your future. 

The reason Payton contacted me — and the reason I simply forwarded him a phone number — was because he developed his symptoms on a Friday evening, about 10 days ago. His primary physician was shut down for the weekend and he wanted advice on whether to try to go to a hospital ER or just stay at home and away from people. 

The voice on the other end of the helpline asked some questions and ultimately told Payton to just stay home and go see his doc on Monday morning. 

On Monday, March 16, he and his girlfriend were two of several to be tested for coronavirus at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. By that time, the hospital was already out of swabs to collect samples, so they were asked to spit in cups and told the results would be available in the next 3-5 days. 

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They were provided with access to a patient portal and told that they would be contacted if they were positive for the virus. If not, check the website after three days and look for their negative test results. 

However, after discussions with their doctors, there was a general consensus that they likely had a relatively mild case of the virus. 

At that point, they decided the right thing to do was to alert their employers and self-isolate at their home. In a matter of hours, Payton’s girlfriend had lost both of her jobs — a contract teaching position and a part-time waitressing gig — and was, understandably, in a panic. 

In the meantime, Payton was told he couldn’t come in but there would be no paid time off for dealing with the virus. Instead, he’d have to burn through his limited paid-time-off days until they were used up. And then, well, hopefully, Congress will come up with something. 

A couple days later, Payton sent me a message saying he still didn’t know if he was positive for the virus, although he still felt like absolute hell. He’s a pretty smart guy, college grad and all, and he couldn’t manage to access the DCH patient portal. 

After hours of trying, he contacted the facility and was finally told that the portal was down. 

Ah, well, no one had called either Payton or his girlfriend, so they were probably fine — just a bad cold or some sort of upper-respiratory infection. 

And then, Thursday night, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox revealed that more than half of the samples collected by DCH were “spoiled.” Some of samples had become too warm on transport and couldn’t be tested. Others didn’t have enough sputum in the cups to perform the test.

That, of course, included the tests of Payton and his girlfriend. 

So, Friday morning, they loaded up in the car and drove to the Church of the Highlands’ drive-up testing location in Birmingham and waited hours to get a redo. This time they were swabbed and provided more info on where to check their results. 

And by Tuesday morning, the 11th day after he first contacted ADPH and informed someone that he had symptoms of the coronavirus — and eight days after being tested — Payton and his girlfriend still don’t have test results.

He still feels miserable. She has mostly recovered. 

They are still without income because they’ve been treating this as if they have the virus — because that’s the responsible way to behave — and so they cannot go to work. They are hopeful for negative test results someday soon that they can show to their employers and possibly start back to work. (Payton asked that I not use his last name, and his girlfriend asked that I not use her name at all, out of fear that their employers would see their names and not allow them to return to work.)

Their story is just one of many. And there are certainly others who didn’t face such complications or mistakes or dramatic life shifts. 

But many, many Americans — from all walks of life — are facing similar hardships. Overnight, they developed a fever and a cough and their entire worlds turned upside-down. Or they didn’t even develop symptoms and their steady jobs vanished in a profession that lost millions of jobs overnight, leaving them out of work with near-zero short-term options for a new line of work. 

There is a lot of skepticism among many of the comfortable people about the need for dramatic assistance and drastic measures to help bring an end to this pandemic. I guess, maybe, it’s hard to imagine your life crumbling before you — going from steady work and a happy home to sleepless nights and trying to scramble to make sure the kids are fed and the lights stay on — if you’re not the one going through it. 

But it’s happening all around you. To people you love and respect. To people who would rather eat dirt than accept a handout. To people who are good and decent. 

The country was ill-prepared for this pandemic, despite plenty of warning. The state of Alabama didn’t do any better. 

The least we could do now is try to make things a little less catastrophic for our struggling neighbors, family and friends.

 

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