HB541 Public Hearing – Wednesday, March 21, 2012

This post is broken into two parts:  the Committee Meeting and the Public Hearing.  The House Ways and Means education Committee was given an opportunity to ask questions of the bill’s sponsor, Representative Phil Williams.  Chairman Jay Love reminded committee members that they were on a “tight time schedule” throughout the question and answer session.  A joint meeting of both bodies of the legislature (House and Senate) had been called for 11:00 a.m.

During the public hearing, ten persons spoke in favor of the bill, while eight spoke against the bill.  The eight that spoke against the bill had specific reasons for speaking against the bill which will be shared in my notes below.

So I got to the meeting right at 9:00 a.m. and ended up in the overflow room, where you can hear, but not see, participants.  No problem (until the band waiting to greet Octavia Spencer started warming up outside…).  Any clarifications that I add will be contained in brackets [ ]. 

The Committee Meeting

Best I could guess, the chairman of the Committee, Representative Jay Love, was speaking when I entered the room.  He had a few questions for the bill’s sponsor, Representative Phil Williams.  For the record, the bill has multiple sponsors, including Williams and fellow Representatives Fincher, McClurkin, Ison, Love,  Mike Hubbard and McClendon (yes, all Republicans).

Love asked Williams where non-certified teachers would be allowed to teach.  The answer was yes, but the teacher would need to have experience in the subject area in which they wanted to teach.  Williams used the example of the late Wernher VonBraun being allowed to teach rocket science at a school in Huntsville and how much students could learn from his experience.

Love:  Would systems who had a Persistently Low-Performing School (PLS) be allowed to choose if it had a charter school?
Williams:  Yes, they would still have a choice.  [NOTE:  in its current form, the bill allows for an appeal if the local school board denies a charter’s application in a system with a PLS, what they refer to as a “Priority School System”  (PSS)]

Williams said the bill offers a “cafeteria plan” to allow for customization by the local school system.  He said he could see where our senior citizens could involve themselves in our public schools, and how great that would be for our students.  He clarified that only non-religious, non-profit organizations could hold charters.
Love clarified “no corporations?” and Williams stated, “there’s nothing wrong with making money, but this is for non-profits”.

Love:  Does the money follow the student?  What if there are problems with too many students applying for a charter school? Do they use a lottery?
Williams stated that while he can’t use the word “lottery” in Alabama, yes, there would be a random drawing for enrollment.  He asked the committee to consider what the idea of more applicants than spaces in a charter school told them….that supply and demand is at play and people want to be in charter schools.  Williams stated that since charters began in 1994, 41 states allow charters.  There are areas that local school boards will have the options to teach what is needed in their local community:  biotech, agri-science, etc.

Representative Mary Sue McClurkin asked about the purpose of the Charter Application Review Council (the “Council”).
Williams said that if you don’t have a PLS in your system, the local school board has complete choice over whether charters are authorized. [While Williams never actually said this, if you have a PLS, the Council can review appeals if the local school board denies the charter’s application.]  He reminded the committee that a charter school must still go out and recruit students and demonstrate the need for the charter in the local community through the application process.  He added that at the end of the 5-year term, if the school is not performing, then the school can be shut down [something we can’t do right now].

Representative John Rogers asked where the money would come from and asked if charters are so great why Homewood, Mountain Brook and Vestavia “don’t have one”.  [No one currently has charter schools.]  He added, “Show me the money”.
Williams stated that charter schools can be “everywhere”.  If any school district wants a charter, they can have one.  If they don’t want to have one, they don’t have to have one. [Only school districts with no LPS, called “non-priority school systems” have the absolute power to deny charters.  Charter applicants can appeal denials to the Council in a PSS.]  Charters are public schools and this is a pilot program.  “Let’s get in this thing, let’s try it”, Williams added.  “If five years from now, if we’ve got 45-50 schools and they’re not working, I’ll be the first to say shut them down.”  Money follows the student and is based on the number of “heads in the desks”.

Someone (unknown, as they did not identify themselves) asked whether this would be bringing in private school students to the charters.  Williams said that he believed that if we were creative enough, we could draw some of those students back in.

Williams:  Imagine if Boeing or Raytheon adopted a school to create workers, some of those private school students might come back.  “We’ve seen a mass exodus in my area to the private schools.” [Williams area includes Madison County.]

Representative Steve McMillan asked whether there was anything in the bill to prohibit a for-profit from subcontracting with the charter.
Williams:  Nothing in the bill prohibits that and yes, you could subcontract as you could in any business.

Representative Jamie Ison stated that she believed that one of the most important aspects of this bill is the option for flexibility.  George Hall Elementary was given flexibility and it was very successful.
Williams:  George Hall is an amazing story.  They have changed lives in ways we haven’t seen yet.  It is a “profound success story”.  [How quickly we forget how difficult the reconstitution of George Hall was.  Lawsuits, protests, death threats against the newly-placed teachers…you name it, the community was originally very much against the reconstitution of George Hall Elementary.]  Williams added that it’s important to understand the idea of Conversion Charter Schools.  [This is when a current public school is converted entirely to a charter.  Only the superintendent of a school district can ask permission for a current public school to be converted to a charter school.] Williams stated that he has a school in his district where 11% of the student body reads at grade level.  Additionally, they have failed AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] for 7 of the past 8 years.  He mentioned that there are start-up charters, too.  [A start-up charter is a charter that is opening in a new place, never having been in the public school district prior to their application.]

Representative Jeremy Oden stated that while he loved the flexibility afforded public schools in the bill, why package flexibility in with the charter schools. [While flexibility for public schools is a part of this bill, it is a separate bill as well, the School Flexibility Act of 2012. Oden must not have seen that bill yet.]  He stated that the reason he is afraid of charter schools is because of the waiting list.  He asked, “Why is my child better than your child?”
Williams stated that this bill offers a buffet of options.  Why the buffet of options?  Why are we where we’re at?  We are 132 school districts, diverse in geography, rural, urban, high-performing, low-performing.  We should be letting the locals decide.  122 school districts are not on the list. [The list is the “priority school system” list, districts that contain a PLS school] 11 school districts are.  [Um, that would be 133 school districts.  Minor detail.]  Kids are trapped in failing schools because of their zip code.  Supply and demand is the answer to the waiting list.  What does it tell me if there is a waiting list?  Someone’s done something good.  If there are waiting lists, would that not tell me that they’re doing something right with charter schools?  We are taking “baby steps” with this bill.

Representative Patricia Todd stated that while this bill says the superintendent has flexibility, they really don’t.
Williams said that the charter proposer will apply to the local school board.
Todd:  But the superintendent cannot go out and pick charters, right?
Williams:  If they get 4 or 5 charter school applications, yes, they will be able to pick.  The school board will have wide flexibility on choosing the proposal.
Todd:  Are most of the 10 districts on the PLS list in urban areas?
Williams:  No, in Marshall County, Asbury is on the list.  [Making the assumption that this is not an urban area.]

Chairman Love said they will make copies of the “priority school system” list and distribute it to the members of the committee.

Todd:  Who is doing the robocalls?  They are not identifying themselves.
Williams:  I don’t know.  It’s not us.

Todd:  Looking at page 3, item c.  It says the act should be “interpreted liberally”.  What does that mean?
Williams:  We’re talking about flexibility, maximum flexibility.

Todd:  This is a huge issue and shift for Alabama’s schools, and I hope we take hours on this discussion.
Williams:  It will be two weeks before we meet again, and we will take as long as we need on this discussion.

Love reminded everyone during the committee meeting that they were in a time crunch because they had a joint meeting of the legislature at 11:00 a.m.  Turns out it was to entertain Octavia Spencer’s visit.

The Public Hearing

At 9:42 a.m., the public hearing began.  Love stated that each person would have two and a half minutes to state their position.

First up, Luke Hallmark, Superintendent of Marengo County Schools.  He is president of CLAS (Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools).  Hallmark applauded the flexibility in the bill but was concerned about out-of-state management companies coming in to Alabama.  He stated that charter CEO’s earn 18% of their budget and that 50% of their budget is spent on facilities.  CLAS supports working together for smaller classes, AMSTI and other proven initiatives and wants an opportunity to replicate programs that work before we implement charter schools.

Shiheim Wilson Lee, Site Coordinator/Career Development Specialist B.C.Rain Diploma Plus Academy, Mobile.  His school provides education for students at risk of dropping out.  Mr. Lee spoke of his experience teaching abroad, including in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as in a KIPP school.  He also taught at a New Orleans school.  He stated that he sees the most growth in a charter school.  He said that in other states, B.C. Rain Diploma Plus would be a charter school.  He stated that the Southern Education Foundation has said that Alabama’s high school dropout rate is our biggest threat.  In Mobile County high schools, the dropout rate is 60%.  This bill is appropriately titled education options.  He believes that the traditional methods of teaching don’t work with too many kids today and that students are “pretty much bored” with the current education model.  Charter schools are not the magic pill.  This bill gives schools the flexibility to innovate and provides options in methodologies.

Dr. Casey Wardynski, Superintendent, Huntsville City Schools.  He identified himself as a representative of the School Superintendents of Alabama and as an opponent of the bill.  Wardynski stated this bill was better than last year’s bill and that the bill might look different with some amendments.  Wardynski stated that charters and non-charters are not on a level playing field because charters would not have to abide by tenure laws, nor would they be required to participate in PEEHIP or the teachers’ retirement plan.  Charters would have complete freedom in hiring and placement of teachers, where non-charters would still be bound by the rules they’ve always been bound.

Wardynski stated that Huntsville City Schools have seven schools identified as PLS.  He asked what happens if Westlawn Middle School is converted to a charter school. [Only a superintendent can request that a current public school be converted to a charter school, and as such, Wardynski’s example is flawed, but his concerns are valid.]  If it is converted to a charter, the charter gets to make all of the hires.  If teachers at Westlawn have tenure, then Wardynski must move them to another school if the charter doesn’t hire them.  He said that is what happened in Mobile, when schools were transformed [think George Hall].  Ineffective teachers were moved where they would blend in to the data.

He had additional concerns about curriculum alignment.  If a student went to a public charter school for grades 3 through 5 and then moved into a non-charter public school at grade 6, would the student’s prior learning be aligned with the 6th grade public school curriculum? [This was clarified at the state board work session the following day.  Charter schools, as the bill is currently written, do not have to follow the state course of study.  However, charter school students will be assessed with the same assessments that all non-charter public school students will use, so there will have to be some level of alignment in order to adequately succeed on the test.]

Wardynski also spoke of his concern about capital planning.  How can he forecast enrollment and future capital needs in current non-charter public schools if he doesn’t know when a charter may come in and apply in his district?  [Wardynski spoke eloquently of the concerns facing superintendents and administrators in schools.  However, not once did he mention the students in his schools, nor any concern over their educational future. Even in his discussion of his self-professed failing Westlawn Middle School, not once did he express any concern for the students within the school.  I will admit that I was disappointed in his omission.]

Next up, Marcus Lundy, the Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA).  Identified as a proponent.  Lundy stated that the BBA supports allowing public schools and school systems to develop an innovation plan.  He believed it is vitally important to give all school boards the ability to operate public charter schools.  He noted that some of the schools are consistently under-performing and that’s not good.  He said that the Council must exist to allow charters into areas where school boards may routinely deny applications.  He stated that the passage of this legislation is the BBA’s top legislative priority.

Dr. Henry Mabry, Executive Secretary of the Alabama Education Assocation (AEA) spoke next.  He was identified as an opponent.  Mabry began by passing something out to members of the committee, a copy of which I was unable to obtain.  He stated that this legislation would be a dramatic change for Alabama.  He acknowledged that there are schools that need improvement.  He stated that they are dedicated to improving those schools.  He said he was passing out a chart of the 22 school districts that would be mandated to have charter schools. [I am concerned about Mabry’s characterization of the “mandate”.  No district is mandated to have charter schools in this bill.  Perhaps Mabry could have chosen different words to describe the appeals process that is available to charter applicants in the 22 school districts that have PLS…..which, by the way, no one could agree upon that number.  Williams stated 11, Todd stated 10, and Mabry stated 22.  The list that I obtained through the ALSDE web site showed three tiers of school improvement with four systems in Tier I, ten systems in Tier II, and 34 systems in Tier III.  I hope to obtain a current and accurate list in the near future.]

Mabry went on to explain his charts by color and stated that 59 out of 1500 schools, or 3%, fall on that PLS list.  He suggested that we look at improving those schools instead of creating a dual system.  He took issue with the characterization of Alabama’s schools as 49th out of 50 states and stated that Quality Counts found Alabama ranked 25th in the nation two years ago, and fell to 32nd last year due to cuts in school funding.  [Click this link to view Alabama’s National Assessment of Educational Progress statistics. Click on Alabama once on the page.]  Mabry stated that considering that Alabama was between 41st and 44th in school funding, we were getting a good value for the money.  Mabry reminded lawmakers that the PLS list is a “living list”, meaning that school systems such as Shelby County could end up falling on the list.

Mabry stated “we have legislation that we will propose that will allow the state to fix those schools”. [I did not realize that non-legislative groups could propose legislation.  I have a few ideas of my own I’d like to propose.] He went on to say that “we will offer legislation that will put more attention on career tech”.  He further explained that we need to be able to show “little Johnny” that if you go down this course, you can pursue this trade and you can make $70, $80, $90 thousand dollars a year.”

Anita Archie spoke next.  She identified herself as wearing two hats, that of Senior Vice President of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and as a mother of two children in public school in Montgomery.  She stated that the BCA is non-partisan and has a long-standing commitment to education.  They are particularly concerned with the dropout rate.  She stated that it is African-Americans who are overcrowding our prisons and something needs to be done and can be done.

Archie stated that while the bill is not perfect, it gives you a tool to make change.  She stated that fortunately, she and her husband live in a good zip code with high-performing schools.  Both of her children were accepted to magnet schools in Montgomery.  She asked the committee to think of the kids who don’t live in a good zip code where the school is “non-performing”.  This bill gives us options for kids who are trapped to have the option to get a quality education.  She agrees that every school should be a magnet school.  Let’s have the discussion.  While this will dramatically change education, we need a drastic change.  Think about those kids who have no other options.

Sally Howell, Executive Director of the Alabama Association of School Boards spoke next.  While labeled as an “opponent”, Howell stated that she believes that with a bit of work on the bill she can be a proponent.  She started by asking Emily and Jason to take a bow, recognizing them for the long hours they have spent creating the bill.  [My guess is the Emily she referred to is Emily Schultz, Governor Bentley’s Education Policy Director.  I do not know who Jason is.]  Howell loves the flexibility for local school systems, but believes that systems deserve a level playing field.  She believes that charters and flexibility are not the ends, only the means to an end and that the bill needs “a little bit of work”.  Her concern, what she labeled “the rub” is that if you have a PLS in your system, there is nothing that requires charters to serve the population being underserved by the PLS.  If the Council is going to be able to override a school board’s denial, the charter school needs to serve the population in the PLS.  She said that was an easy fix and the AASB would be coming to the committee with some amendments.  She said the bill needs to be targeted to the PLS.  [We surely do love earmarking in Alabama, don’t we?  Trust issues, maybe?]

Ashley Welch identified herself as a proponent and a mother of children attending The Capitol School in Tuscaloosa. She stated that she spoke on behalf of millions of American parents who are sick of being trapped by their zip code.  She spoke of the difficulties her family had in finding an excellent education for her children.  She herself had become disinterested early in her own schooling and had dropped out before graduating.  She spoke of the excellence she found in The Capitol School.  She said that it’s not the money, it’s the schools that are the problem.  Governments spend upwards of billions of dollars on education and being trapped in a zip code is more of a trapping than any waiting list.  She said that schools like The Capitol School need to be everywhere.  Parents need more say, more freedom and more financial supports.

Dr. Eric Mackey identified himself as an opponent and as Director of the School Superintendents of Alabama.  He said they have been supportive of charter schools but they have specific concerns.  He referenced a “packet” that was given to committee members.  He stated that flexibility is important and that the bill does not give the same flexibility for public schools as it does for public charter schools, particularly in the area of personnel.  He said that public schools should get every flexibility that charter schools get.

He was also concerned about the demands placed on a school district, particularly on page 37 of the bill which requires a school district to completely review a charter school application and render a decision within 90 days. He said that it requires a tremendous amount of resources to devote to the application review.  He stated he has three children in Montgomery Public Schools in magnet and non-magnet programs.  Mackey said it would be best to give school systems the authority to do what it needs to do.  He believes there are serious flaws in the bill.

Margaret Hill identified herself as Director of The Capitol School and a proponent of the bill.  She told the story of her school and how it came to be.  She had been an educator in Tuscaloosa County schools and was asked by a University of Alabama professor to be a part of a group that would identify what their dream school might be.  Their group did a lot of work, were very close to opening a magnet school, only to have their work shut down by the local school board.  So they opened a private school.  She stated that she’s never had tenure in her private school (it opened in 1993) and that she either produces results or she doesn’t have customers.  She asked lawmakers to please consider the bill.

Vi Paramore from the Jefferson County American Federation of Teachers spoke next.  She claimed they have 5,000 members.  She spoke of the International Summit in New York that she had recently attended and how the countries that scored better than Alabama did so because they adequately funded their schools and trained teachers.  She said that these countries allowed 5 years of mentorship and gave teachers 2 hours a day to collaborate.  Principals were given three years of mentorships.  [She did not state which countries to which she was referring.]  She said that we can do this with the schools we have right now and that we do not need charter schools.  She said that they cannot support the bill in its current format and that we don’t need to send 3-4% in management fees to a management company. [It is important to note that the 3-4% figure she quoted is not sent to a management company.  Authorizers, which are either the local school board or the Council, are allowed to shave 3% off of a per-student funding to cover administrative fees in oversight.]  Paramore stated that the literature shows that in charter schools, 25% do worse than public schools, 50% do the same, and 25% perform better.

Next up was a woman by the name of Jeanelle [not sure of the spelling] who identified herself as a parent of students at The Capitol School and a proponent of the bill.  She stated that she wanted the bill to be passed to allow schools the flexibility they are asking for.  She stated that she didn’t have choices in her child’s schooling because if she was interested in the Alabama School of Math and Science, it was 250 miles away.  She said that parents need more options closer to home.

Emanuel Ford, a Birmingham City Schools Board of Education member spoke next and identified himself as an opponent of the bill.  He stated that he had several concerns.  Page 3 of the bill said, “It is in the best interests of the people of Alabama to provide all children with public schools that reflect high expectations.”  He said that he didn’t see how we could do that by pulling off of one to give to the other.  We need to improve what we have.  He referenced Wilkerson Middle School where children perform at high levels.  He said that if Wilkerson can be high-performing, what is it that those principals and teachers do at Wilkerson?  He said students drop out for a lots of reasons and that we should be providing more high-tech opportunities.

Ford said that Shakespeare might not do a child any good when that child is more focused on auto mechanic or culinary opportunities.  He said “no matter what the subject, math and science are the key”.  He said HB541 needs to be revisited because if not “we’re gonna have a tale of two cities”.  “You don’t play with children’s futures,” he added.

Dr. David Craig, Pastor at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Fairfield, spoke next.  He supports HB541.  He said that he sees the results of children being undereducated every day.  He said that we are seeing too many of our children failing and that we’ve got to do a better job of educating our children.  He said that even graduates can’t get a job because they can’t pass the test.  He said Birmingham City Schools’ dropout rate is 47% and Bessemer’s is 50%.  He said “these children don’t get a redo” and parents need options.  If we continue to do the same thing, we’ll get the same results.  Far too many young men and women are failing in Birmingham.  He said that right now, public schools get all of the money and they’re still not getting it done.  Give parents some options.

Richard Franklin, President of the Birmingham chapter of the American Federation of Teachers spoke next and identified himself as an opponent of the bill.  He began by saying that he stayed in the zip codes we keep referring to.  He said that the real problem is equality.  We have charter schools for schools that are failing.  We’ve got the over the mountain area and the Birmingham area.  “If kids in Mountain Brook are eating steak, and kids in Birmingham are eating chicken, don’t give me more chicken.  I want steak,” he said.  He said that we don’t fund our schools right now at a good level.  We spend $12,545 on each prisoner and $7,683 on each student.  He said that the charter schools in Harlem are getting lots of money put into their schools.

Franklin said that we can’t talk about lottery and equality at the same time.

Karen Jones identified herself as a proponent of the bill and a resident of Montgomery.  She said she was a product of Carver High School.  Our schools are failing our children, she said.  She has no children, but lots of nieces and nephews.  She said that she’s not afraid of waiting lists because parents are already on waiting lists for magnet schools.  She said that yes, we want schools to be equitable.  She added that the local school board should not be the authorizer because they already have so much to do.  What we know now is that “what we have is not working”.  Alabama is always on the bottom of the list and we should be proactive, not reactive.

Jones said to “stop the scare tactics” as in “gonna take money from the public schools”.  She said that for children in failing schools the money is already being used for tutoring (under No Child Left Behind).  She quoted Malcolm X:  “education is the key to the future for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”  She said it was wrong for children to come from Alabama’s honors programs and go to Georgia and not be able to make a “D”.  Let’s be equitable.  Compromise and come together for the greater good.

Brenda Irby spoke next, identifying herself as a mother with three children in Montgomery County Schools and a proponent of the bill.  She said that two of her children are disabled and that they are not now receiving the services they need in the public schools they attend.  She said that federal regulations are not being enforced now in the public schools and that they need to look at the bill to ensure parents have an avenue for grievances.   She said that if a school system has a PLS, they shouldn’t be authorizers because they’ve already proven they don’t know how to do it properly.  She suggested that lawmakers hold public hearings throughout the state to hear from parents and students.  She said that parental involvement is the key and there’s not much in the bill about parental involvement.  She is deeply concerned about the school board being the authorizer and that she believed someone outside of the system needs to be looking at the applications.

Irby said that in admissions that they need to make sure that target groups that we’re trying to reach are reached.  She said she sees where the bill says that charter schools need to provide special education but how can parents be sure that is done.  She is concerned that teachers’ children will be allowed in the charters and will that take away from the capacity in the school.  She believes that instead of lottery we should look at which children really need to be in the charter school.  She asked them not to think about the teachers, but instead think about the children.  She added, “God has entrusted you with a lot of responsibility”.

Kenneth Campbell, President of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, spoke next.  He is a proponent of the bill.  He said that there are 1.8 million students in charter schools in 40 states in the nation.  He said that “centralized schools are not working”.  He has been working with charter schools for 17 years and worked for three years in New Orleans.  He said that they were able to close down the schools that were failing in New Orleans.  He said that we shouldn’t be talking about charter schools versus public schools but rather how to create the best opportunities.  He said we shouldn’t be put off by the fear of the unknown, but cautioned that charter schools are not a magic bullet and that we still have to be “really engaged”.

Someone, who I assume was Chairman Love, then said that we will have a lengthy discussion, an “adequate discussion” before we vote.  Someone asked if the committee would hear from State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, and the answer was yes, at the next committee meeting they will hear from Dr. Bice, the Governor, and the Bill’s sponsor.  They want this to be as fair and transparent as possible.

The meeting was adjourned at 11:06 a.m.

My goal in documenting this meeting was to put the facts of what was said in front of you.  Media sources sometimes miss a bit due to constraints on deadlines and/or column space forcing them to summarize.  I, too, could summarize, but my goal is simply to put the debate in front of those of you who are interested in the details.

House Committee Hosts Public Debate on Charter Schools Bill – The Birmingham News, March 21, 2012

Summary of Action in Alabama Legislature – AP – March 21, 2012

No Decision on Charter Schools Bill – Times Daily – March 22, 2012

Charter School Legislation Subject of Lengthy Hearing – South Union Street – March 21, 2012

Alabama Charter School Options Now on the Table – Alabama Association of School Boards, March 23, 2012

School Superintendents of Alabama Update – March 23, 2012

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