Tempers flared at last week’s State Board of Education meetings in a display of direct pushback by state education leaders against the Executive and Legislative branches of Alabama’s government.
Typically, education leaders are called to appear before legislators. On last Thursday, the tables were turned. Both the Governor and the chair of the House Education Policy committee were present at Board of Education sessions. The education leaders took full advantage of their home field position, calling both to task over perceived power grabs in recent weeks.
Gov. Robert Bentley, who rarely attends Board of Education meetings although he serves as president of the board, arrived before Thursday’s official session began. He became a part of the less-formal conversation in a board “work session” about the search for a permanent state superintendent.
Confronting the Governor
During the work session, longtime board member Stephanie Bell (R-District 3) asked the Governor how that search would be impacted by newly-filed bills to make the state superintendent a member of the Governor’s cabinet and the Governor would appoint the superintendent.
(On Tuesday, the House Education Policy Committee chair, Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), had filed those two bills and both had multiple bi-partisan co-sponsors. Collins said on Saturday she does not plan to move forward with the bills.)
Board member Mary Scott Hunter (R-District 8) said she didn’t see those bills going anywhere. The Governor, the state board of education, and the state legislature each had their jobs to do, Hunter said, adding “I just don’t feel like it’s a good idea to put the governor’s office in control of governance [of K-12 education]. It’s an all-consuming job.” Hunter has repeatedly expressed her concerns about the legislature’s overreach into setting education policy.
Bentley said “that’s not my bill” adding that he had “enough to do right now without having to manage K-12” and he was satisfied to have the state superintendent appointed by the Board of Education.
Bentley said he heard the bill would be dropped, and the state board should continue with the search “as if the bill doesn’t exist”. If the bill looked like it might make progress, Bentley said he would push back against it.
After Bentley spoke, longtime board member Ella Bell (D-District 5) told the audience that each of the state board members was elected with “at least three times the votes as any legislator” with each having a constituency exceeding 500,000 Alabamians. Bell frequently has voiced her frustration about the legislature not supporting the state board of education.
“I am getting more and more aggravated every time the legislature attacks us in such a vicious manner. I’m really tired of the viciousness that this board has been exposed to by the legislature,” she said.
Hunter attempted to quiet Bell, but Bell told her not to interrupt.
“If you want us to do our job, you give us the money to do our job. You give yourselves the money to do yours. Give us the money and give us the resources that we need to make things happen for the masses of children of color and poor children of this state. And when you do that, then you come back to me and tell me that I haven’t done my job,” Bell continued.
“As long as I have lived in this state, children of color and poor children have never ever gotten their fair share and the fair resources of this great state of Alabama. That is the reason that we stay in the low 40s and 50s when it comes to quality of life issues.”
Some in the audience applauded.
“I’ve been wanting to say that for the longest,” Bell said.
Bentley responded, “[Legislators] represent their people and they mean well. I don’t want us to get cross with the legislature and the school board. We really don’t need that.”
Ella Bell then interjected, “Well, you shouldn’t have let it happen, Governor. You just should not. I mean, that’s why we look to you for leadership. They created this. Every time we turn around, they are attacking this board. And this board is a well-trained board. All of us have credentials here. And you can’t say the same thing in your legislature.”
Board Vice President Jeff Newman (R-District 7), who was presiding over the work session, asked for Bentley to be allowed to finish his statement.
Bentley continued: “We’re all in this together. We all have different ideas about what’s best for the governance of the state and what’s best for education. I think that we need to cut each other some slack and not get too upset over things and let’s just try to continue to work together. That’s what I think we need to do.”
The work session was then suspended to begin the official monthly meeting of the Board of Education.
Gov. Bentley presided over the start of the board meeting at which Dr. Philip Cleveland was named interim superintendent. (Dr. Tommy Bice retired on March 31 after serving four years as state superintendent.)
When Bentley left the meeting, Ella Bell did not stand nor shake the Governor’s hand as other board members did.
The Legislature and Education
Since Republican lawmakers were elected in unprecedented numbers in 2010, they have enacted significant changes to public education, including introducing school choice through tax-credit scholarships and authorizing the creation of public charter schools.
Most recently, state lawmakers created a separate appointed board of trustees to oversee the two-year college system which had previously been under the governance of the state board of education.
Though the tone of the board meeting remained civil, the confrontations didn’t stop after the Governor left and the official meeting ended.
The work session resumed after lunch, and during the presentation about the A-F grading system, board members had many questions about grading schools.
Rep. Collins, House Education Policy committee chair, was there to answer questions about work on the A-F grading system for Alabama’s schools, the 2012 law she sponsored that has yet to be implemented. It calls for all schools to be graded based on various components of achievement and success. She stepped to the podium to answer those questions.
Four board members, Newman, Hunter, Cynthia McCarty (R-District 6) and Stephanie Bell, all expressed their concerns over the use of an A-F grading system and the resulting report card for a school.
Newman and Bell said they didn’t see how the information on the report card would improve a school, and Hunter and Bell expressed concern about the state board of education not having any input into the creation of the system. McCarty questioned the fairness of comparing districts that have more students who struggle.
The 2012 law required a team of stakeholders to develop the system under the direction of the state superintendent and implement it not later than December 2013. There is no requirement for the state board of education to vote to approve the system.
The three-year delay in the implementation of the A-F grading system has served as the poster child for state lawmakers frustrated with the slow pace of change in K-12 public education.
State department officials cite the change in standardized tests in 2013 as the reason for the delay, saying multiple years of results are required before gains can be calculated. Gains are an important component in the grading system.
Rep. Collins Defends A-F Grading
Collins, defending the idea of A-F grading systems in general, said the point of the system is to drive all schools toward excellence, adding, “The starting point is knowing where you are right now.”
Stephanie Bell took Collins to task, saying the system of grading schools based on grades of A through F, while popular across the country five years ago, was now being pushed aside.
However, according to information from the Education Commission of the States and recent news reports, 17 states currently use A-F systems, and 17 others use a five-point scale to grade schools, though they don’t specifically use the letters A, B, C, D, or F. That number has increased in recent years.
Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia have all recently enacted A-F grading systems.
Stephanie Bell said, “I am not convinced that this (grading system) will improve any school,” saying that other states rushed to implement grading systems and the improvements that resulted were “purely cosmetic” to allow them to show improvement under federal law. Bell said that, while teachers would not cheat on grades, they would do anything they needed to do to make their schools look good.
Collins argued that schools do improve after A-F grades are implemented, and Stephanie Bell disagreed, challenging Collins to produce a list of those states that showed improvement. Collins agreed to do so. Bell then said the best course would be for Collins’ A-F law to be repealed while the state makes changes required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Just weeks ago, Bentley surprised educators by appointing that state-level committee, charged with crafting that state-level accountability system required under ESSA. He is the first governor in the country to do so.
Newly-appointed interim superintendent Cleveland said he already serves on the Governor’s task force in his career-technical capacity and will continue to serve as interim superintendent.
After board member Hunter recommended that the board allow Cleveland to handle implementing the A-F grading system due to the number of issues on its plate, Stephanie Bell pushed back at Hunter, saying it isn’t that the board has too much on their plate, because “the legislature has done a great job of trying to remove and usurp the authority of this board”. Rather it is that the board needs to consider the new federal requirements before moving forward with the grading system, she said.
Stephanie Bell complained that while the board of education has authority over education governance in Alabama, they have spent a lot of their time fulfilling legislative mandates that she doesn’t believe are helpful to schools and students.
Tension among Education Board Members
The testy exchange between the two, where at one point Bell told Hunter to “behave”, reveals the differing philosophies and tension among state board members. Those exchanges among state board members are not uncommon in work sessions, with various board members agreeing and disagreeing over different initiatives.
Though the tone was (mostly) civil, the elephant in the room was the fundamental disagreement over who should be directing change in education: the board of education or state lawmakers.
In recent years, state-level education policy is increasingly shaped by state lawmakers, where previously it had been the domain of educators and state boards of education.
Hunter has been a strong advocate for Alabama’s State Board of Education members to form relationships with state lawmakers to bridge that divide.
Asked what Thursday’s difficult conversations revealed, Hunter said: “’Ambivalent’ is pretty much the theme of things right now. Factors contributing to that are: the leadership transition in the state superintendent’s office, the debate over student testing and what role it plays in teacher evaluation, A-F grading, uncertainty over pay raises, and maybe also just a generalized political malaise with all the messiness in politics at the state and federal levels.”
(Full disclosure: Trisha Powell Crain was a “community member” on the A-F Task Force from September 2013 through October 2015. The Task Force was disbanded in October 2015 when then Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice took over the implementation process.)