State Board of Education Work Session – May 23, 2013

This work session lasted an hour and 40 minutes. A lot of information and opinions were shared. If you want to see the whole thing, here’s the full video on UStream the full video on the ALSDE site. I have created highlights of certain important pieces of the video, and you can access them at the UStream link Highlights are gone…sorry.

I tweet live from the work sessions (@alschoolconnect). I then compile all tweets from myself and others who tweet live into the Storify version, complete with links to highlights and articles that were written about goings-on at the session. Storify is the quick version for those of you who don’t wish to read all 3,300 of these words.

Here are the presentation materials, complete with agenda.

At this work session, in addition to hearing about the School Finance study underway, the State Board of Education (SBOE), State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, and Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey were extremely candid about their thoughts and concerns about the recently-concluded 2013 Legislative Session and what impact the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) may have on Plan 2020, the ALSDE’s strategic plan to improve student outcomes.

School Finance Study

Bice began the work session by letting the SBOE know about a study that is underway by Colorado-based consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc. to determine whether there is a better way for Alabama to fund its public schools. Evan Belanger does a great job with his article about the study, so read it for the details. The ALSDE is spending $338,950 for the study.

Augenblick, the spokesman, spoke about the “strange way of doing things” where funding public education is concerned: a state department of education and a state legislature sets performance objectives for districts without ever knowing what it will cost to actually meet those performance objectives. While he termed it “strange”, he said it is a common practice across the country.

These consultants have done studies in many states. Some states have implemented the recommendations of the group, while others did not. Here’s a link to reports published by the consultant group on their web site. They recommended the current system used by Maryland, which takes into account additional struggles faced by school districts in educating struggling learners. If you’d like to learn more about the Bridges to Excellence program utilized by Maryland, click here. Here’s a fact sheet on the authorizing legislation, passed in 2002. It gives you a flavor of how Maryland funds their schools.

Augenblick stated that finding the information about how Alabama’s systems fund their schools has been very difficult. There is no web site to go to, nor any book available for them “to understand what the wealth of different communities is and what the tax effort they’re making is” toward funding their school systems.  He said the information is typically available in other states, but not in Alabama. He called ours a “complex tax system”.

[It is certainly fair to say that Alabama public education offers little in the way of available data. It was interesting to hear Augenblick say so.]

The study and recommendation process is expected to take a year and a half. Ultimately, the Alabama legislature will have to approve any changes to the funding mechanism and will be included in discussions regarding the development of the recommendation.

This study and review is extremely important to the future of public education in Alabama. While there is no indication that parents, families, or students will be given an opportunity to provide input, if you are given an opportunity to be interviewed or provide input to this consultant group, please make the time to do so. We must be vigilant and keep our eyes and ears open about this study.

ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign National Student Readiness Award

Not on the agenda, but Bice announced an Alabama high school senior won the inaugural ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign National Student Readiness Award. From the press release: ACT established this campaign to create awareness around the goal of college and career readiness for all and to recognize exemplary efforts across states in advancing this goal. Six states participated in this first year of the campaign: Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

A good “first” for Alabama.

2013 Legislative Recap

The simplest way to share what was said is to share Bice’s 9-minute remarks about the session from the video. Here it is:

Video streaming by Ustream

Bice spoke of how many different entities, including business and industry, higher ed and post secondary, and others had challenged the ALSDE to produce a high school graduate that “looks different”, which ultimately resulted in the SBOE approving Plan 2020 in mid-2012.

Regarding the budget the ALSDE prepared, Bice said their plan was to do something different with their budget this year, to change direction and put forth a budget that was based on identified needs so they could tell the legislature why they wanted this funding.

Many conversations were had between November (when they had their budget ready) and when the session started in February, and Bice felt confident he had much support for the budget he submitted.

The first indication of “wow, where is this gonna go” was when so few legislators showed up for the Joint Legislative Hearing on February 6 where he presented the ALSDE’s budget request and plan for why they were asking for money in the configuration in which they asked. He felt that the ALSDE staff and SBOE had worked hard to prepare their budget request.

“We weren’t asking for new money,” Bice continued, rather they were re-purposing money that had been spent in other areas and now would be used in a way to “move public education in this state forward”. Only one of those budget priorities got any funding, and monies were lost in some areas. “It was not a good budget year for us,” Bice continued.

Bice said he felt he and his staff spent the majority of the session “defending our work, defending misuse of data, defending our standards, defending misuse of appropriation of funds, which all are unfounded”, dealing with that instead of their plan for public education, which Bice termed “regretful”.

The big bill, of course, is HB84, the Alabama Accountability Act, which will be discussed shortly. The bill for which Bice termed them “very fortunate” is the passage of the Career Tech bond issue, also to be discussed shortly.

Other bills that passed had to do with School Safety.  The Charles J. “Chuck” Poland Act was passed, named in honor of the bus driver in Dale County who was murdered while protecting the students on his bus from an intruder earlier this year. That law defines Criminal Trespass on a bus more clearly and could result in jail time for someone who stops or delays a bus in an unauthorized manner.

The School Intervention bill (SB60) passed on the last day of the legislative session, which clarifies the state board’s authority to intervene when “things aren’t going well”. It  streamlined the process so time is not wasted in court affirming that the state Constitution gives the SBOE the right to intervene in a school system.

Pouncey’s Budget Presentation

Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey opened his remarks with: “My observation, having been here for 10 years, is that, at the end of the day, it appears things were already predetermined before anyone had an opportunity to engage in the political process of budgeting of resources in this state.”

Here is a link to Pouncey’s presentation materials.

Here is the 32-minute presentation and discussion of the results of budgetary debate and passage:

Video streaming by Ustream

Pouncey indicated they had tried to regain some of the money that has been lost over the past three years. The Senate restored $12 million to OCE (Other Current Expense, which is an additional amount given to school districts above the Foundation Program dollars which helps pay some operational costs); the ALSDE had asked for $19 million.

Due to changes in the divisors (which determine how many teachers per how many students will be funded by the state), since 2010, about 1300 teachers have been lost, and the ALSDE hoped to get 250 of those positions back to reduce class sizes in middle school, cossting $19.1 million. The legislature provided “zero”.

The legislature did fund $304 million of the $323 million requested to help with transportation costs.

Textbooks are still funded at $31.55 per student, or $23.1 million, which is the same amount provided last budget year. The ALSDE had requested $55.4 million.

While the ALSDE suggested the need for a pay raise for teachers, they did not request a specific percentage pay raise. The legislature appropriated funds for a 2% teacher pay raise, costing $64 million.

Before you go further, you might wish to refresh your memory on how the state board had decided to repurpose some monies to focus efforts in a different direction. Here are the notes from the September 27, 2012, board work session.

Something you need to understand before you continue reading is that there is very little discretion in the way the ALSDE and the school districts are allowed to spend the money given to them by Alabama’s taxpayers. The way the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget is designed is that almost all monies appropriated are earmarked, line by line, as to HOW the money must be spent. Earmarks can be very frustrating when folks identify the need to change how the money is being spent. That is the frustration you hear in Pouncey’s and Bice’s voices. They had good ideas on how to repurpose monies in this budget, but the legislature did not go along with their ideas.

The Human Capital Plan would have utilized $10 million repurposed from the Alabama Reading Initiative. The legislature not only didn’t allow them to repurpose it, they took the  $10 million away.

The Career Tech bond issue had started as a $30 million request, initially begun by former state board member Gary Warren. It was passed as a $50 million bond issue. Pouncey said it will be “very beneficial” to career tech programs across the state. Board members asked why the amount was increased. Pouncey said the legislators wanted to broaden the focus of the program.

The state board requested $5 million to reward schools that are performing at a high level and/or showing improvement, but “zero” was allocated.

The $5 million Healthy Kids and Families initiative was zero-funded. Pouncey said everybody thought it was a great idea and really liked it, but “zero” dollars were appropriated.

The SBOE requested $5 million for Arts Education, yet only $1 million was appropriated. That $1 million is restricted for use only to fund field trips to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.  Previously there had been $600,000 in the budget to be doled out in $50,000 grants for school systems to use to fund art programs. Because the $1 million is restricted, those grants are no longer available.

While not a part of the ALSDE budget, pre-Kindergarten was funded at $9 million, which is more than the $5 million that the ALSDE had suggested.

Bice, referring to the monies they had hoped to repurpose to the Human Capital, State Reward, and Healthy Kids initiatives, said the state board had “basically lost it twice: we didn’t get it for what we asked it for and we lost it from where we were going to take it from”.

Board member Ella Bell expressed her profound confusion as to how the state legislature made the decisions that it made on funding. Much discussion was generated regarding why the Career Tech bond issue had been so successful and these initiatives had not. Consensus was reached that the SBOE should communicate clearer with the legislature all through the year about their needs, and communicate in terms that are familiar to the legislature in order to better “sell” their initiatives.

There were a number of strong statements about this year’s legislative session by various board members. One to note is board member Dr. Charles Elliott’s, who stated, “Let’s face it: the actions and the behavior of the state legislature are disingenuous at best. The protests are that they are concerned about Alabama’s failing schools, yet they are complicit in the formation of our struggling schools.”

The state board requested $4,080,709,221 and received $3,917,365,550.

Board member Mary Scott Hunter said she is concerned that the SBOE may seem ungrateful for the $90 million bottom-line increase from last year’s funding. However, she stressed that the legislature needs to understand that the funding was “not in the right places”.

Bice countered that the increase was $95 million and was earmarked for the Foundation Program for the 2% raise, and that the real story was in the $5 million overall loss to the ALSDE.

Bice, in “cutting to the chase”, stated that when you have to set aside $70 million for an Act that you’re not sure how much it’s gonna cost (the AAA), then “something had to move to zero”. He mentioned, too, that while the $5 million allocation for liability insurance is in their budget, it’s not something “there for children”. [So that makes $10 million less for the ALSDE overall, if my calculations are correct.]

Bice added, “If you really  pull out the things that actually go to children in moving education forward in the state, there’s very little there [in the budget allocation]. There’s actually negative there.”

Pouncey told the board that the $200 million to go to paying back the Rainy Day Fund is necessary, and that in FY15 there will be another $200 million or so to finish paying it back. So next year is not expected to be any better. Bice added, “It could be worse.”

Bice concluded there is no “real consequence” from the legislature’s appropriations this year, because “when August comes” they will still open schools and educate children. He said that at some point, though, there becomes a point of diminishing returns and that they are “real close”. That when something as fundamental as providing wrap-around services for children can’t get funded, “we’re in a bad place”. Their agenda will stay the same, but they must work to get their agenda funded.

[This is where we come in, too, parents and families. We must talk with our state legislators about what we expect in the way of funding for our public schools. Keep reading, keep learning, so we can speak their language.]

The Alabama Accountability Act Discussion

Bice’s comments on the AAA were succinct and to the point. Here are his 15-minute remarks below.

Video streaming by Ustream

Bice’s big concern is how to define the failing school. The definition they’ve ended up with is “just as problematic and just as flawed as the first one was”. He indicated that he “might end up in jail” because he refuses to release a list that includes a school that shouldn’t be on the list.

He gave specific examples of how a school could have originally been low-performing in the first three years of the six-year-period in which calculations are made, but has shown significant improvement in the past three years. He said that school shouldn’t end up on the list. He called the formula “absolutely incorrect” and said he was willing to “go to the sword on” this (Elliott added he would join him).

The list will be available by June 13, the date of the next board meeting. First he will meet with superintendents and board members to let them know they’re on the list. Bice stated the list should have come first before the law was passed. He added that legislators wanted to see the list before they could move forward, but Bice countered that if the law was the right thing to do for children, it shouldn’t matter which schools were on the list.

Bice believes the list should be adjusted for growth and not just be a simple “bottom 6%”. He indicated that they tried to get the legislature to define the schools that need improvement in the same manner that the ALSDE does in Plan 2020, to no avail. Bice indicated that he will produce a list that accommodates for growth. He said he expects to be challenged on it, but he believes the list must accommodate for growth.

Bice made it clear that while he respects families who have chosen to place their children in private schools, the AAA’s fallacy is that private schools are somehow inherently better. He said there is no indication that a student’s achievement in a private school will be any better than in the public school.

Bice plans to identify these schools with a spotlight, rather than a hammer. He wants to continue working with the schools and show how the SBOE’s strategies will work to turn around underperforming schools.

He stated he had been contacted twice by the Department of Justice, and that the passage of HB658 with its directive that no public school can be forced to take a student likely put a target on the AAA. Here’s Kim Chandler’s story on this.

In addressing the underlying reason for the passage of the AAA, Bice remarked, “Do we want schoolchildren in underperforming schools to have better opportunities? Absolutely we do. The fact that anybody would think we don’t is just asinine to me. And we’re gonna make sure that occurs. You’ve set forth a plan to make sure that happens.”

The Educational Intervention and Accountability Act

Here is the full discussion:

Video streaming by Ustream

Pouncey stated under the old law, there were three distinct paths to intervention and it would take a minimum of three years to get changes made. Those three paths were either: (1) Instructional and academic, (2) School safety or discipline, or (3) Financial. The new law gives the SBOE a “more immediate opportunity to make an impact to make change faster” and could mean change could be made in a year and a half.

Referring to how the prior law defined three paths and how they are actually all interconnected, Pouncey said, “If you’ve got problems academically, you’re not using your resources right.” [This is my favorite quote of the day, though there were many from which to choose.]

When asked by Hunter if Bice anticipated a more liberal use of this law, Bice said yes and no. Bice said, “Most people want to improve. They really do. Sometimes politics, especially at the school board level, sometimes get in the way.” He added, “Where politics are rich, some of the decisions that need to be made to move that system forward are real hard for the folks that live with them, go to church with them, work with them every day to make. Let us come in [through the provisions in the Act] and make the heavy lift decisions on the front end” to get the ship righted and build district capacity to move forward.

The Flexibility portion of the AAA

Bice mentioned that he was remiss in not talking more about the Flexibility portion of the AAA. He said they will be looking to school systems to “recreate innovative and creative ways to do school”. He called this “the good part of that bill”. Here are his remarks about the Flexibility portion:

Video streaming by Ustream

Closing Remarks

Elliott said he doesn’t understand who is behind the scenes driving the AAA. “There are powerful entities driving these issues in school reform, but their ideas of school reform are different than ours”, he said. Elliott hopes to find out who these groups are and build bridges with them to work on a common agenda.  Bice stated that he has requested a meeting with the head of “one of the organizations who doesn’t currently reside in Alabama” and he would fill the SBOE in later on the results.

Hunter mentioned U.S. Representative Martha Roby’s Defending State Authority Over Education Act that “prohibits the federal government from making special funding grants and coveted regulation waivers contingent on whether a state is using certain curriculum or assessment policies”.  Hunter said Roby’s bill “hit the target” and appreciated her initiative in introducing the bill.

Bice then mentioned the resolutions that the SBOE will be considering at the next meeting on June 13, 2013.

The meeting ended at 12:09 p.m.

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