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Opinion | How a group of concerned citizens killed a bad charter school

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A bad charter school died in Alabama on Tuesday. 

For that, we should all cheer.

For that, we should thank Betty Brackin and the concerned parents, teachers and citizens of Washington County. 

Because the system that was supposed to provide checks and balances and weed out bad charter schools and bad actors failed miserably. Instead, it took an entire community crying foul and doing the research, investigating and due diligence that the commissioners should have done.

The system didn’t work. So the people changed the system. 

First things first, though, Woodland Prep, a charter school originally approved by the Alabama Charter Commission, had its charter revoked on Tuesday. It was the first such action by the commission in its brief history. 

No matter what you might read in other publications, Woodland Prep deserved to die. 

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It was, quite clearly from the outset, a money grab by outside entities looking to cash in on the naivete of Alabama parents and state officials. The land was owned by a holding company in Utah. The building was being built and would be owned by an Arizona company. And there was a Texas company set to manage the whole thing. 

It lacked community support and couldn’t meet the basic enrollment or building deadlines. Woodland’s application was rubber-stamped by the Commission despite a review from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers noting that Woodland lacked a workable financial plan for opening.  

That it was ever approved, despite failing on every front, was a travesty — and a failure of the charter school commission and the Alabama State Department of Education, which, according to Alabama’s charter school law, has oversight of the Commission.

At every step, the Commission and ALSDE looked the other way, gave Woodland’s backers the benefit of the doubt and ignored laws. Had it been left up to the Commission, this money-sucking catastrophe would have moved forward as planned.

But the people of Washington County made sure it wasn’t. 

Led by Brackin, a normally-reserved grandmother who works as the federal programs coordinator for Washington County Schools, the people of the county made themselves impossible to ignore. And made it more than evident that community support — one of the requirements for a charter school to open in Alabama — was going to be a huge problem. 

But the biggest problem for Woodland Prep and the Commission was Brackin, who, over the last two years, has morphed into a weird combination of investigative reporter, researcher, lobbyist and activist. 

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Her Facebook page became the landing spot for anyone looking for information on “the charter school.” She posted meeting dates and times, kept up with media stories about the charter, the Commission or about Woodland’s owners and operators. She dished out documents to the media and passed along tips. She researched the laws and collected records. 

In our first conversation, she provided me with documents that ALSDE couldn’t seem to locate, explained complicated funding issues in a way I could understand (no small feat) and put me in touch with at least a dozen people who could corroborate everything she was saying and give me more information. 

She organized bus trips for Washington County residents to attend the Commission meetings — so “they could see us and not ignore us,” she told me — and updated her Facebook page more than a family on a beach vacation.

“I’m not a cryer, but when they revoked that charter, I just … it was so hard and we fought them every step of the way,” Brackin said Tuesday afternoon. “It never should have been approved. We joked that it was the charter school with nine lives, because it refused to die. And I’m not convinced it’s over even now. But I know what we did was the right thing. We stopped something from hurting our schools.”

That’s hard to argue. 

Washington County isn’t exactly rolling in dough. Yet, it has seen remarkable improvement in its school system over the last few years. The county has no failing schools and a majority of the schools have been improving year over year. 

The money that would have been pulled from the school system’s budget would have been devastating. Brackin’s friends and co-workers — good teachers and administrators doing good work — would have lost their jobs. 

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So, she fought. And others joined in. 

And by Tuesday, the group from little ol’ Washington County had actually changed government in Alabama. Like, for real. 

Because of the uproar created by Brackin and her group — and the media attention it inspired — there were massive changes to the Commission, including the removal of former chairman Mac Buttram after his initial term expired. Another lawmaker told me point blank that a new commissioner had been appointed specifically because of “the Washington County mess,” which he deemed “an embarrassing failure of governance.”

In the midst of it all, ALSDE and state superintendent Eric Mackey also got involved and started exploring their authority in regards to the Commission and its decisions. 

And at Commission meetings these days, there seem to be far fewer rubber stamps for charter applicants. 

“We were just talking today about how much more likely the Commission is to reject a charter application,” Brackin said. “I’ve been going to a lot of Commission meetings lately, as you know. You can really tell a difference in how thorough they are. I’m not saying we’re all the cause of that. But I think we made some people think about what was going on and pay attention.

“I was never involved all that much in government and how it works before this. It’s taught me a real lesson. If you don’t pay attention to what’s going on, look what you can lose. Look at all the money that would have been wasted in just Washington County.” 

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Because there is no better functioning government than one that is being closely watched by the people it serves.

 

Written By

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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