Who do you trust to make decisions about educating your child? Loaded question, surely. But the answer to that question appears to be the dividing line between whether you are in favor of the school flexibility bill or whether you oppose its passage.
The Local Control School Flexibility Act of 2013 is designed to give local school systems and boards of education more control over how they deliver education to the children in their communities. Basically, it allows school systems to seek a waiver from many of the current laws that may be standing in the way of offering creative and innovative ways to educate our children.
History of Flexibility So Far
The state board of education approved the Innovation School Systems Resolution in May of 2010, which allows school districts to seek waivers from certain rules and regulations, but not any regulation attached to a state law (here’s a post I wrote last year about this). Two of Alabama’s 134 school districts have entered into Innovation School Systems contracts since 2010: Florence City and Lauderdale County. In return for being granted flexibility, each system must provide additional accountability outlined in the contract. Here is the resolution that the state board approved for Florence City (click to enlarge):
This shows a local community making decisions about what type of education is important to its local community. They stated what they wanted flexibility from (waive the social studies and language portion of the high school graduation exam for participating students and to allow adjunct instructors for dance and visual arts, among other things). They also had a Career Tech component to their waiver request.
The House passed the bill on Thursday. Predictably, the vote went down along party lines (with a couple of Democrats voting yes and a few Republicans voting no). Amendments to the original bill were added in committee and on the House floor. You can view the House bill in its current form here.
The Senate committee passed the originally-identical bill with two amendments. Here’s the Senate bill. Here is the first amendment. Here is the second amendment. It is expected to come before the full Senate soon.
Is This a Back Door for Charter Schools?
The simple answer is no, it is not a back door for charter schools. Nothing in this bill allows charter schools to be formed. In each of the bills there is language that states: “No provision of this act shall be construed or shall be used to authorize the formation of a charter school.”
It is true that a district could choose to innovate by hiring folks to deliver certain aspects of their educational program. But districts and the ALSDE already do that when they adopt textbooks or curricular materials. Those are private companies that have created a product that our schools purchase with our money. And when districts go on field trips, they are giving public money to private institutions to finance the field trip. And when districts purchase computers or other hardware (like Nooks and iPads), they are giving public money to private institutions. And testing companies are private companies. And so on and so forth.
But no, this bill does not give any authority to anyone to allow charter schools to form in Alabama.
Waiving the Rules Is Like Waving a Red Flag to Some
It seems like the piece of the bill that really frustrates some folks is the ability of a school system to ask for a waiver from laws and rules that were enacted by our state legislators. I had a brief encounter with the Alabama House Democratic Caucus on their facebook page about this issue, and I learned that rules are rules and that rules should be followed and that the rules that are in place are there for a reason and they shouldn’t be waived.
I am trying hard not to engage in partisan or political debate over this bill, but I am very disappointed with the rhetoric surrounding this bill. The AEA and the House Democratic Caucus would have us believe that local school superintendents and local school boards (the ones who have to seek the waiver from state laws) are going to terrorize our children and undermine their education by seeking to hire untrained teachers, lower academic standards, stop paying teachers, strip teachers of their tenure, and generally waste money on unproductive pursuits and ignore the children for whose education they are responsible.
Here is an article from January 24, prior to the addition of the amendments that have added additional language and safeguards to the bill. From the article:
“[AEA Executive Secretary] Mabry said the AEA would support more flexibility for local school systems ‘where it helps the teachers teach and where it helps the students learn. But to just try to pass legislation that circumvents everything that this state and past leaders have worked for the past 80 years in one fell swoop is irresponsible.'” (emphasis added).
Further, from this article: “‘Some legislators are rushing to shed their responsibilities by giving local school boards and the state superintendent the right to opt out of almost all state laws, Mabry said.”
One has to ask oneself if the state laws and rules of the past 80 years that the AEA and the House Democratic Caucus are so proud of have provided the structure and framework that allows for the best delivery of a relevant and rigorous education for Alabama’s schoolchildren. I can’t answer that for you. You should form your own opinion.
Know that schools currently operate mostly under the laws and regulations that have been created by a Democratically-controlled-until-2010 state legislature (with the exception of the 2011 Students First Act, passed by a Republican-controlled state legislature). This includes the way schools are funded and how those funds must be used (we call those “earmarks”) once they reach the local school districts.
So could this be a case of those who made the rules just don’t want the rules to be changed?
Who Do You Trust? Who Should You Trust?
State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice stated that he believes that our schools need flexibility and that he trusts our local school district leaders to be responsible with this flexibility. During the Senate public hearing on Wednesday, February 6, Bice stated: “‘The best innovation and best creativity to move our schools forward are at the local level,’ Bice said.”
Bice is clearly placing his trust at the local level. The AEA and the House Democratic Caucus clearly do not trust the leaders at the local level and are more comfortable retaining control of our children’s education through the passage of laws at the state level.
And that’s what this boils down to: who do you trust? Do you trust that the state legislature’s laws and rules of the past “80 years” provide the necessary framework and structure to deliver the education that Alabama’s schoolchildren need? Or do you trust your local superintendent and local board of education to craft a plan (remember, this is a voluntary thing: no school district is forced to ask for a waiver) to educate the children in your community?
The Process of Seeking a Flexibility Waiver
Those speaking against the bills would have you believe that a school superintendent can simply decide to not follow the laws anymore and poof, it’s done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s the process that is currently required in the language of the bills:
- The local superintendent must design a proposal that outlines ways the school or system will be more accountable for student achievement under an “innovation plan.”
- The local board and superintendent must seek public input from the community in a public hearing.
- The local superintendent must then recommend the plan to the local school board.
- The local school board must approve the flexibility plan in an open public meeting.
- Once approved locally, the system submits the plan to the state Department of Education.
- The state Superintendent must approve the plan and determine whether the waivers being sought are justified and methods of accountability are satisfactory.
- Finally, the state Board of Education must approve the plan and enter a flexibility contract. This is done by public vote by the board.
- The plan must include annual accountability measures and five-year targets. The state may revoke the flexibility contract for noncompliance.
[Source: “A Thorough, Transparent and Public Process”, A+ Education Partnership web site.]
Because of this carefully outlined process, I struggle with the AEA’s and the House Democratic Caucus’ characterization that local boards can just do away with so many state laws. There is a process to be followed, and it even includes a public hearing, which means the local community will have an opportunity for our voices to be heard.
Form An Opinion. Contact Your Legislator.
We parents and families are the school community. Our voices should be heard.
If, after reading the Senate and House bills (linked above), you are convinced that giving this type of control to your local school board would be tragically harmful, then contact your legislator and let them know how you feel.
Alternatively, if you decide that allowing this type of local control would be good for your local community, then contact your legislator to let them know how you feel . Our legislators need to hear from us, the parents and family members of the students who will most be affected by these local-level decisions.
So far, the loudest voice at the table is the AEA. And they clearly believe that this bill will destroy the education of Alabama’s schoolchildren. The second loudest voice is that of House Minority Leader Craig Ford who also believes that enacting this bill will destroy the education of Alabama’s schoolchildren.
The National PTA “supports public school choice” and thus it follows that if the Alabama PTA chooses to take a position, they would follow the national position (cause they can’t not agree with the national position).
The following organizations signed a Joint Letter of Support for the Local Control School Flexibility Act:
- Alabama Association of School Boards
- A+ Education Partnership
- School Superintendents of Alabama
- Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools
- Business Council of Alabama
- Alabama Association of School Business Officials
One thing is for certain: the status quo in Alabama public education is on the line. If school systems are given real flexibility, then the laws and rules that have constrained our school communities are subject to the flexibility process. Remember, though, it will still be up to local superintendents, local school boards, and the local school community to decide to pursue a flexibility contract.
So who do you trust to make decisions about educating your children? The state legislators in Montgomery? Or your local school community?
Pssst: If you haven’t yet given your thoughts on school choice in Alabama, please do so. Click here to take a 2-question survey. Thanks!
The Truth About the Local Control School Flexibility Act – A+ Education Partnership
Talking Points About the Local Control School Flexibility Act – A+ Education Partnership