Questioning Education Reform in Alabama
Two of Alabama’s most outspoken advocates for public education, Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey and Larry Lee, shared their concerns about current education reform efforts in Alabama at the Tuesday night meeting of the Over the Mountain Democrats. Pouncey and Lee spoke to a crowd of about 75 people at the Vestavia Hills library about the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) and the draft of the charter school bill, questioning who is pushing recent education reform efforts in Alabama and whether those efforts are effecting needed change.
Lee is a frequent critic of the Republican legislature’s stated claims of wanting to “help poor kids in failing schools” without actually doing so. He began by reminding us of the Bourbon Democrats, an elite group of planters, industrialists, and politicians who, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, wanted to keep power in the hands of wealthy, propertied classes and deny political power to poor whites and blacks. Lee contends that the players are different, but the priorities are the same.
“I don’t think we’re any more inclusive or transparent or open than we were a hundred years ago,” Lee declared.
He questioned the sincerity of education reform groups from places like Florida, asking whether we should believe that anyone from Tampa actually cares about the schoolchildren in Alabama.
Lee continually asked why Alabama’s legislators are so willing to listen to and act upon outsiders’ recommendations for education reform while at the same time they reject any overture from the federal government arguing that Alabama doesn’t need outsiders to tell us what to do.
He questioned the veracity and genuineness of a small group of elitists pushing education reform, asking, “why has the world decided to look at Alabama and our school kids? What is it they’re after? Are millionaires in California really interested in kids in Alabama?”
Pouncey told the group that “in the last two years, all of these outside interests have come in and given so much money that they own a piece of so many legislators, that they’re willing to roll over and do whatever it is they want them to do.”
It is clear that both men question the motives of those “carpetbaggers” and “outside interests” from other places who have come to Alabama with the stated purpose of improving education of Alabama’s children.
The Alabama Accountability Act
Lee called the AAA “the most radical piece of education legislation we have probably ever passed in this state,” and reminded the group that “not a single educator was involved”.
You will recall that the AAA began as the School Flexibility Act and was supported by various education groups within Alabama, along with the ALSDE, but that support was withdrawn when the bill emerged from a Conference Committee the night of February 28, 2013.
He called attention to the fact that the AAA impacts “failing” schools, which numbers show are 87% black and 91% poor. Fifty-one House and 21 Senate members, all of whom are white and Republican, voted for the AAA. In comparing the demographics of the schools that are impacted and the legislators that voted to pass the AAA, Lee asked, “how many of the people who voted for [the AAA] represent a district that looks like that?”
Lee called the latest education reform efforts “bandaids” adding that the real problem is poverty, as that is the one commonality among the “failing” schools as defined under the AAA.
The scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) and the tax credit provisions were the next target of criticism.
Pouncey asserted the “Republican mantra” of we support school choice only means “let’s give outside corporations an opportunity to come in and make money off of our public tax dollars,” adding “that’s what’s been going on for the last four years in the state of Alabama”.
Pouncey suggested that the real reason for the tax-related provisions, particularly the credits given to donors to SGOs is that due to the way the credit is formulated, not only do donors receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, reducing their state tax bill, but “they’re actually making 35 cents on every [federal] dollar they contributed to the SGO.”
The logistics of how money that is held out for the tax credit program for the SGOs ($25 million in 2013 and $25 million in 2014) seems confusing, but the simple way to look at it is that if $25 million of projected income tax revenue is held out of the Education Trust Fund budget for a tax credit, that $25 million is no longer available to be allocated to any other purpose, including K-12 public schools.
This set of slides, from this article published in January, can help you understand the basics of the AAA (the embedded player below starts on slide 11, where the explanation of tax credits begin).
Pouncey claimed that the $50 million held out for tax credits during the past two fiscal years could have funded 600 middle school teachers, which is a crucial need in Alabama’s public schools, adding that middle school is where many children begin the process of dropping out of school.
Having 35 and 36 students in middle school classes is a real problem across the state, Pouncey said.
The legislature’s unwillingness to fully fund the Foundation Program has put schools and educators in an impossible situation.
Here’s a look at the State Board of Education’s budget discussion about this dilemma.
Here’s a look at the State’s Foundation Program, which was designed to fund the basic needs within a school, including textbooks, professional development, library books, and materials for classrooms.
Lee has been investigating the scholarships awarded under the AAA, and continues to question the number of scholarships that the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF) claims to have awarded. The AOSF collected nearly $18 million in donations during the 2013 calendar year, but only $600,000 during 2014.
The AOSF has published information that they awarded 2800 scholarships to students in Alabama for the 2014-2015 school year, with half of those awards going to students zoned for failing schools.
Lee asked where those children are, stating that of the 46 counties the AOSF claims to have awarded scholarships in, only 23 actually contain a failing school.
Lee stated he personally contacted 39 failing schools and found only 40 students had left for private schools. Pouncey said only one student in Jefferson County schools had transferred to a private school using a scholarship from an SGO.
I should add here that these numbers are incredibly elusive. No official numbers have been released by school officials as to how many students have actually utilized the scholarship option, except for Pouncey’s admission during this meeting.
Referring to the AAA as the “private school relief bill”, Lee added that while he has nothing against private schools, padding private schools’ books was not the stated intent of the bill.
The “Failing” School Definition
The way a “failing” school is defined was an obvious point of contention for Pouncey and Lee. After the initial bill was passed, Pouncey and State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice “told [the legislature] what was wrong with it, but it never resulted in any changes,” Pouncey recalled.
The formula is delineated here. There are two ways to declare a school as “failing”: (1) if the school lands in the bottom 6% of schools as measured by the state’s standardized test in reading and math for three of the last six years, or (2) if the school was defined as low-performing during the 2010-2011 school year by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) for purposes of distributing School Improvement Grant (SIG) money.
Pouncey used the example of Center Point High School, which has a graduation rate of 86% for all students, just below the Jefferson County district average of 88%. Four of Jefferson County’s high schools have lower graduation rates but are not on the “failing” schools list.
But because Center Point High School was defined as a low-performing school by the USDOE in 2010-2011, it will remain on the failing school list until a new federal list is required to be developed.
With respect to the “three of the last six years” calculation, because there was no benchmark for the 2013-2014 school year (as it was the first year of ACT Aspire results), schools may have improved were unable to prove that, keeping them locked onto the list for another year.
The Charter School Bill Draft
Pouncey read each of the eight statements in Section 3 of the draft bill, pausing after each statement in the bill to ask the group questions about those statements, making it clear that he believed that the educators in Alabama were already working to make those intentions a reality.
In response to the second declaration under Section 3 [It is necessary to continue to search for ways to strengthen the academic performance of elementary and secondary public school students], Pouncey proffered that fully funding the Foundation Program, making sure textbooks are available, making sure that our class sizes are appropriate, working to “halfway keep up with technology” would be a good way to improve academic performance. According to Pouncey, the legislature isn’t interested in that.
“I don’t have a problem with charter schools,” Lee said, adding that they’re a lot like public schools where some are good, some are bad, but most are somewhere in-between. He said he questions why we are going to go buy a new car when we can’t fix the one we have. “Why are we going to divide an already-small pie into smaller pieces?”
The Alabama Education Association
When asked who would represent public school teachers in Montgomery in the upcoming legislative session, Pouncey said that basically no one would be able to do so.
Remarking on who might be the right person to lead the AEA, he said, “it’s time we get back to our roots…with somebody who can actually relate to what our public education employees actually go through on a regular basis”. He added that while he is hearing names of possible replacements for Henry Mabry, he hasn’t heard any that he believes are the right person.
Lee asserted that AEA “has one more strike,” but that the organization needs to right itself soon. “Haste makes waste,” he cautioned.
Acknowledging representatives from the Alabama Federation of Teachers (AFT) in attendance, Pouncey made clear that a strong education association adds balance to the conversation, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the AEA or the AFT at the table, just that they need representation.
Referring to four family members who are young teachers, Pouncey stated, “Unless something changes drastically, I fear for their ability to provide for their families,” adding that there is such animosity against public education, it has spread onto the teachers and that he does not see any “desire in Montgomery to ensure that [teachers] are paid at an adequate rate to similar professions in this state.”
Going back to his remarks about outside interests who stand to gain from recent reform efforts, Pouncey observed that they have “painted a picture that all public educators are failures, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to overcome that.”
Jefferson County School District
Addressing rumors circulating in the Jefferson County school district, Pouncey said that yes, some people are going to lose their jobs in Jefferson County schools, but that he does not anticipate a reduction-in-force being needed.
He said that his school district cannot continue to do things the way they have always done them, and get their financial house in order. He said that of the 122 locally-funded teacher units, only about 50 can be supported. Pouncey said that most of that can be absorbed through attrition, as 250 employees have announced their intent to retire.
He said the district doesn’t have enough bus drivers and lunchroom workers as it stands, so he doesn’t anticipate any of them losing their jobs. But “the days of the teacher’s aides are gone,” adding that the cost of two teacher aides is equal to one teacher to reduce class sizes, and the focus is on reducing class sizes.
Both men stated the importance of getting familiar with these issues and using your voice to let your legislators know your thoughts about these landscape-changing decisions being made in public education.
Of course, I put in a shameless plug for the Alabama School Connection, and it is my sincere hope to keep folks informed about these sometimes-confusing, always-important decisions being made. Be sure to sign up for notifications of new articles to be delivered to your inbox to stay on top of the discussion.
The full recording is posted here.
[February 26, 11:50 a.m., grammatical and clarifications made.]