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Opinion | Alabama Charter School Commission finally did its job

Josh Moon

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Finally, the Alabama Charter School Commission is doing its job. 

On Monday, the Commission voted to revoke the charter for Woodland Prep, the beleaguered charter school in Washington County, and it took steps to force LEAD Academy, the steadily failing charter in Montgomery, to provide the Commission with necessary information to assure it is operating appropriately. 

It’s about time. 

The Charter Commission is the state’s lone line of defense ensuring that approved charter schools can and do provide a quality education that compliments the existing public school structure and makes good use of public tax dollars. And up until this point, there were plenty of questions if the Commission ever planned to take that responsibility seriously. 

And then Monday happened, and a little faith was restored. 

Credit where credit is due, this change in competency for the Commission is mostly due to the people who screwed up the board in the first place: Gov. Kay Ivey, Senate President Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon. 

After building an initial Commission that seemed far more interested in pushing through the applications of charter schools than adhering to rules and regulations put in place by the Legislature, Ivey, Marsh, McCutcheon and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth blew it up last year. (It should be noted that Ainsworth didn’t have an original selection, having been elected to office in 2018.)

Facing a growing number of angry lawmakers and thousands of angry constituents, the Commission saw five new members be appointed last year. And there was a distinctly different feel to the appointments — moving away from the politically connected to former educators and nominees with experience in job training programs. 

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That change was brought about by the outrage generated over the Commission’s approval of LEAD and Woodland. 

Those approvals followed the Commission completely disregarding regulations that required charter applicants to meet certain standards and gain the approval of a national certification organization. Neither group did. 

But the Commission circumvented those regulations and ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — a group the state paid handsomely to evaluate the applications of would-be charters. 

The NACSA rejected the applications from both Woodland and LEAD and cited specific issues — mostly dealing with their incomplete plans for operating a functioning school. 

The NACSA questioned LEAD’s financial projections and basically laughed at the proposed personnel figures. For Woodland, the NACSA raised questions about the school’s fundraising potential and was skeptical of the company hired to operate the school. 

You’ll never believe this: Those exact shortcomings led to myriad problems for both schools, which led to Monday’s showdown between the new Commission and the leadership from LEAD and Woodland. 

Honestly, it’s embarrassing that it ever got to this point. And it wouldn’t have if the Commission had simply followed the laws. 

But that wasn’t the goal under former chairman Mac Buttram. Instead, placing politics over principle and forcing through inferior charter applications seemed to be the goal. 

That was definitely the case in Montgomery, where local officials and some influential state leaders went to bat to get LEAD pushed through the process. The city desperately needed a charter — or really any shiny object — to take the eyes off its dreadful public school system, which city leaders and the wealthy whites have spent the last half-century destroying through systemic racism and underfunding. 

It’s to the point that the school system is driving away new families and making it difficult for Montgomery to service its debt. 

Charters were going to be the answer. And it didn’t matter if the charter was a good school. It just needed to be operational, so the folks in charge could point to this new school and proclaim it better simply because it wasn’t under the control of the local school board. 

In reality, LEAD had no business ever opening its doors. It was unprepared and under-staffed, and the NACSA had it nailed. 

Now, with barely more than half the school year gone, the overwhelming majority of LEAD’s staff has quit or been forced out. The new principal was forced out just weeks into the job, and then filed a lawsuit letting the world know that the school is unsafe and its management team shady. And the group managing the school quit, bailing on a five-year contract. 

Things are even worse for Woodland, which couldn’t manage to even get its building constructed. It was back before the Commission on Monday to ask for yet another extension to get off the ground. 

Woodland is not popular in Washington County, and a room full of people traveled to Montgomery to speak against the charter. 

The commissioners did not hold back on officials from either school. After berating those officials for several minutes, the Commission voted to deny Woodland’s request for another extension and revoke its license; the Commission also voted to give LEAD officials 30 days to satisfactorily answer a number of questions about its operations, and to complete a number of basic steps. 

It was a pleasant change.

 

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Education

Alabama treasurer’s office to host annual college savings giveaway

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CollegeCounts, Alabama’s 529 Fund, will celebrate 5/29 day (May 29) with a sixth annual statewide giveaway focused on babies born in Alabama between May 29, 2019, and May 29, 2020.  CollegeCounts will randomly select 29 winners to receive $529 in contributions to an existing or newly opened CollegeCounts account.

Beginning May 29, 2020, parents, grandparents and legal guardians can visit CollegeCounts529.com/giveawayto register by entering their contact information and the child’s name and date of birth.

“It’s never too early – or too late – to start saving for future education expenses,” said Alabama State Treasurer John McMillan. “The 5/29 Day promotion gives us a fun way to remind people of this important message each year. The goal is to ease parents’ minds about this important future expense and educate them on the benefits that CollegeCounts provides.”

CollegeCounts has no minimum contribution requirement, making it simple for families and friends to invest a little at a time. The plan utilizes quality investments from Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, PIMCO, Dodge and Cox, PGIM and DFA.

Funds may be withdrawn and used at colleges, universities, trade schools and graduate schools at one, two and four-year schools in Alabama and across the U.S. – including vocational, technical, community, public and private colleges and universities – for qualified expenses like tuition, fees, room and board (if enrolled at least half-time), books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment, including computers.

“Despite these uncertain times, the Alabama CollegeCounts program remains committed to helping families save in whatever way works best for their budgets and goals,” added McMillan. “Eighteen years will pass by more quickly than most of us expect, so do not let temporary economic turbulence interrupt your college savings plan.”

Under Section 529 of the IRS tax code, special tax benefits are provided to families saving for future college expenses. In addition, Alabama taxpayers may receive a state income tax deduction of up to $10,000 for married couples filing jointly ($5,000 for single filers)1 on contributions to CollegeCounts each year.

To enter an Alabama child born between May 29, 2019, and May 29, 2020, in the 5/29 Day Giveaway, please visit CollegeCounts529.com/giveaway. No purchase is necessary to enter or win a prize. All entries must be submitted by July 13.  The 29 winners will be contacted by July 24. Selected winners must provide a birth certificate or commemorative birth announcement to receive the prize contribution of $529 into the new or existing CollegeCounts account for the newborn they register.

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For information on how to open an account, please visit CollegeCounts529.com. To learn more about CollegeCounts, the investment objectives, risks and costs, read the Program Disclosure Statement available online here.

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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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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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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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