By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
The Alabama legislature approved a sweeping new education law last week with little warning, and local education officials are still scrambling to figure out what the repercussions could be for local schools.
Republican legislators expanded a routine education bill to include tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools, prompting the state school superintendent to withdraw his support and a teachers' group to assail it as “totally anti-public education.”
The revised version cleared the House and Senate, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing it in unusually heated debate. State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice dropped his support, but Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he would sign it into law.
The bill was originally meant to allow city and county school systems to seek approval from the state school superintendent and school board to have flexibility in complying with state education laws. It was backed by the Legislature's GOP leadership, the governor and Bice.
After the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, a legislative conference committee dominated by Republicans put out a new version Thursday afternoon that expanded the bill from nine pages to 27. Those extra pages added tax credits for parents who move their children from a failing public school to a non-failing public school, private school or parochial school. It also creates a scholarship program for parents who can't afford a move. Business and individuals would get tax credits for contributing scholarship money.
Cullman City Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said she is strongly opposed to the version of the bill passed by the legislature, most notably the decision to include vouchers.
“The bill they passed was not the bill superintendents had supported, and I did not support it either,” she said. “I do think when we have vouchers, my fear is public schools become less of a focus. I think we’re better off if we’re together.”
Considering many aspects of the new law have yet to be defined, Harris said she still has several questions about the long-term effects on education in Alabama.
Harris noted the only positive to come from the bill was the inclusion of the flexibility language — which was how the discussion began earlier in the session. Those aspects of the bill will allow school systems to seek flexibility within state guidelines to try new programs and initiatives.
“I think that anytime we can have a little bit of flexibility, with approval and accountability, that’s a good thing,” Harris said. “There are gateways that ensure oversight we are all comfortable with, from the local superintendent to the school board to the state superintendent. There is a lot of accountability woven into it ... But we will work together for the children, under whatever laws are passed.”
Regardless of the content in the new law, Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said he believes the legislators’ rushed approach put a negative cloud over what was born as a positive bill in educators’ eyes to allow school systems more flexibility for success.
“My biggest concern about it is the process by which they arrived at the decision. Because of that, I think they probably lost a little bit of trust that will have to be earned back,” Coleman said. “I’m sure everyone’s motives may have been in the right place, but I think the process tarnishes that a little bit. I do wish there had been a little more openness about the direction it was going.”
Instead of focusing on laws he can’t control, Coleman said he and his staff are more than occupied by managing the school system.
“All I know is we want to do everything we can to be completely transparent, but I understand its not our job to make laws,” he said. “We have people in charge of making those laws and we have enough to do running the school system, as opposed to trying to second guess those decisions.”
Ernest Hauk, principal of Sacred Heart private school and a former public educator, said he sees both sides of the voucher debate. He said he favors giving parents and students a way out if a school is failing, but noted it could have major repercussions for public education in the future.
“I have mixed emotions about it, as I’m a big proponent of public education, but also a big proponent for private schools, for those who want something a little different or more in-depth than public schools can offer,” Hauk said. “I can see where there is some good, but also some potential for harmful things in public education. I don’t really see us having to deal with this very much locally, since our public schools aren’t failing schools, but I do think parents should have an option if there is something wrong with a child’s school.”
The executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, Henry Mabry, said the Republicans' original school flexibility bill was a Trojan horse to benefit private schools.
“This is totally anti-public education,” he said.
The state superintendent said he worked on developing the original version of the bill, but had no input on the new version. He said it will have a significant negative financial on public schools.
“This is no longer the bill I gave my support to,” he said in an interview.
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she also worked on the original bill, but got “bushwhacked” by the changes.
Despite the push back from education leaders, legislators say they believe the bill will be a major positive change in 2013 and beyond.
“It’s something I have been in favor of for a long time, and in this case we’re focusing on failing schools or chronically underperforming schools,” Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, said. “It gives those children a chance to have some options, as opposed to being trapped in a failing school.”
When asked why the legislature moved so quickly to pass the measure without seeking more feedback from the public or education leaders, Buttram said he only did what he thought was right for the state.
“We just saw it as an opportunity to do something that will help the children. This is what needed to be done, and this was the best way to do it,” Buttram said. “The Senate has been reluctant to make bold moves to try to impact education, like last year we could’ve had charter schools, but the Senate held up and we couldn’t get it through. The senators were willing to go along with this, and we had the votes we needed, so we took care of it ... We may look back in five years and see it didn’t make the difference we thought, but doing nothing wouldn’t have made a difference, either.”
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told the Associated Press the bill gives hope to parents whose children are stuck in failing schools and will force school boards to address poorly performing schools.
“We took flexibility and turned it into accountability,” he said.
Bentley said the surprise move had been in the works for a few days, but supporters like Howell and Bice weren't included because Republicans knew they would oppose the tax credits. Marsh said Republicans didn't want to delay a vote because that would have allowed opponents to inundate legislators with calls.
The new version provides the tax credits for parents of students now in failing schools. Failing schools include those in the bottom 10 percent on statewide reading and math assessment scores, with three consecutive D’s or one F on the school grading card, or labeled “persistently low-performing” on the state's School Improvement Grant application.
The new version also allows flexibility from teacher tenure laws in failing schools, but not in other schools. They could have a tenure program for teachers who wanted it and a non-tenure track for those who don't.
The four Republicans on the conference committee voted for the new version, and the two Democrats voted against it. Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, a former public school principal on the committee, said the new version was designed by four white Republicans on the panel without any input from the committee's two black Democrats.
Then the House approved it 51-26 and the Senate 22-11 on party-line votes. Before the Senate's vote, members shouted and shook their fingers at each other, and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey repeatedly called for order without success.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.