When Alabamians take the to the polls on Super Tuesday, they will either be concerned with the Democratic nominee for President of the United States or the Republican nominee for the United States Senate. More important to the future of Alabama is a constitutional amendment that would end our current model of a popularly elected state school board in favor of one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.
Supporters of Amendment 1 argue that this would be a major step in improving Alabama’s permanent residence at the bottom of the education barrel. As it is currently designed and managed, the state board of education is doing very little to improve the quality of education in the state. Board members are trying, but clearly nothing is working very well. Supporters of the amendment argue a shake up is the best hope for improving education in Alabama. In some respects the argument does not go far enough. That is because the current process creates negative incentives for board members; because they hold their office at the behest of voters, there is every incentive for them to avoid upsetting their constituents.
That is the chief problem with the board as it is currently construed. Board members are not uncaring or ignorant or irresponsible. Instead, they respond to the whims and wishes of voters or other powerful political interests. No matter what politicians say, they are inevitably swayed by the whispers of voters and donors. Not because they are corrupt, but because they are human. All people are prone to this, which is why the framers of the Constitution created a system that checked and balanced one human tendency against another. It’s true that voters can provide a check on board members, but that argument does not account for an additional problem.
The second problem with the current system is that voters have limits to their knowledge about education in our state. Committed parents and citizens can often learn a lot about their own schools and school districts, but rarely does even the most passionate citizen have the time and mental energy to devote beyond that. Should Amendment 1 pass, the state Senate would have a direct responsibility to ensure that the governor appoints quality people to the board, but also to make certain that the Board is making progress in evaluating and improving the quality of education in our state.
Critics argue that an appointed board would lend itself to cronyism.That’s possible, but the executive and legislative branch often have competing interests, even when they share the same partisan and ideological commitments. Those competing concerns would help smooth over concerns about patronage and cronyism. Still, the amendment will not be an easy transition given the natural tendency of politicians towards vanity and self-promotion. The current system is of a worse nature, however, as it leaves the governor and senate almost powerless to impact education policy, which is instead run by another group of politicians with little incentive to do anything that might upset the voters who put them there.
But shouldn’t voters have a say in these matters? No, at least not directly. This is because education policy is a difficult matter, and it is hard for voters to adjudicate the success or failures of these policies beyond the very narrow window of their own experience. It’s fine that we elect local school boards; they are indeed local, and voters often see those board members at church or line at Piggly Wiggly. Only the most politically involved voters are likely to have any encounter with their board members, who are busy juggling very difficult conflicts within their own districts. Each district contains such a variety of constituents that it is almost impossible for board members to adequately address those concerns, instead pandering to the one or two constituencies most likely to keep the member in office.
There is a final reason to support Amendment 1. A central feature of modern politics is the tendency of politicians to see themselves as mouthpieces instead of statesmen. Some of that is natural but other parts of it are due to the incentive structure within our own government. This is as true in Montgomery as it is in Washington D.C., and Alabamians should care far more about the goings-on in our state capital than in our nation’s capital. Since our legislature is stripped of any real influence in state education policy and therefore little accountability to voters, it leaves them free to demagogue and pander on the issue without really having to stand before the voters and take account for their time in office. The same is true for the governor. By making the governor and the state senate responsible for staffing the state school board as part of an ongoing process of appointment and confirmation, these branches of our government would finally have real skin in the game. The success of our schools would be their success, and the failure of our schools would be theirs, also.
Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org
UA staff, faculty and students want on building names review committee
The University of Alabama Systems last month announced the removal of three Confederate memorial plaques and the formation of a group to study the names of all buildings on all UA System campuses.
But that group consists of a group of trustees only, who are tasked with the work and charged with making the final decision which doesn’t sit well with the United Campus Workers of Alabama Local 3965, which on Friday asked that UA faculty, staff and students should be included in the process.
“Though we applaud the UA System’s commitment to removing painful reminders of racism on campus, we believe it can do better and move faster to remedy a situation that is long overdue,” the union chapter said in a press release Friday. “We believe that the expertise and critical perspective of UA staff, students, and faculty must be included in any future decisions about renaming buildings.”
The local union chapter in the press release made a list of demands, including:
- A) faculty, staff, and student representation from all three UA System campuses. We demand that faculty, staff, and students from each campus be appointed as full members on the Committee.
- B) complete transparency of committee business. As faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students, we are the people suffering the everyday violence of entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists. All meetings and deliberations must be open to the public and announced through system-wide press releases at least 48 hours before the meeting. All email or other communication dealing with the committee or committee business must be voluntarily provided to any person or organization that requests them without the submission of a formal FOIA request.
- C) public hearings/listening sessions. We demand the full committee host public hearings or listening sessions so that the voices of community members, faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students suffering the everyday violence of walking by or entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists are heard and placed in the public record.-MORE-
- D) committee recommendations be executed by January 15, 2021. We demand the Board of Trustees require the committee report be completed, published, and made publicly available via online PDF no later than October 1, 2020, with board approval and official name changes in place by the first day of spring 2021 classes.
“Al Brophy’s foundation work, University, Court and Slave and other scholarly works have addressed these building namesakes as had James Sellers, several Crimson White journalists and other campus chroniclers. Faculty expertise will help make the committee’s work more efficient, if consulted,” the local union chapter states in the release.
UA Systems Board of Trustees President pro tem Ronald Gray appointed Trustees Judge John England, Jr., Barbara Humphrey, Vanessa Leonard, Harris Morrissette, Scott Phelps and Stan Starnes to the committee to review building names.
The announcement by UA Systems states that the final decision regarding recommendations by the committee “will be made by the full Board of Trustees at a public meeting, at a time to be announced.”
Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it
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.
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.
State releases plans for expected school reopenings in the fall
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.
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.”
AlabamaWorks Governor’s Survey deadline extended one week
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.”