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Alabama: The Sad Tale Of A State Betrayed By Its Leaders

by: countrycat

Sun Aug 30, 2015 at 08:16:27 AM CDT

Note: This piece was written by Larry Lee & is cross-posted from his blog. 
It has been 49 years since I got my degree at Auburn University.  I've spent 47 of those years in Alabama.  Considering my roots, this does not seem odd or unusual to me.  My ancestors have been here for nearly 200 years.  Three great-grandfathers served in the Civil War.  One never came home, another was discharged at Appomattox, VA.  My kin were Lees, Stuarts, Rogers and Paulks.
They survived by plowing and planting the sandy soil of Covington and Butler counties and by pulling one end of a crosscut saw until sweat puddled in their boots.  They lived in dog trot houses with a dug well out back and went to Primitive Baptist churches.  They were neither landed or learned.  One of my grandmothers could neither read or write.  They dipped snuff and had an occasional drink of something besides water and when the weather was right, they listened to their dogs tree possums and coons.  They butchered hogs when mornings were frosty and hung slabs of bacon in their smokehouse.
And today they rest in plots of earth called Bushfield and Elizabeth and Moriah and Fairmont.  Their blood also runs through my brother and sister, both of whom live in North Carolina.  A team of oxen couldn't drag either back to Alabama.
But being just plain stubborn or hard-headed I've stayed.  Always with the hope that the day might come when the people of Alabama might be wise enough to elect the political leaders they deserve.  But for reasons I have never been able to comprehend we've allowed ourselves to listen to the wrong voices.  Voices that played to our most basic fears and insecurities and turned us one against another.  White against black.  Rich against poor.  Region against region.  Country against city.
There are good people in Alabama.  I meet them every day.  Many of them work in schools, spending their own money so a less fortunate child will have a snack when their classmates do.  Principals who are at school to greet children getting off buses and who lock their office door after the sun has set.   People who still believe it is better to give than receive. People who sing in a church choir and work with Cub Scouts and Pee Wee football teams.
The cold, hard truth is that we've come to a juncture in the life of Alabama where our "leadership" is anything but.  Montgomery is in shambles.  The quest for greed, the thirst for power, the personal agendas far overshadow any pretense of doing what is right and honorable and in the best interest of the majority.  Recently a veteran of the legislature told me they are embarrassed that people know what they do.
Our governance now seems more reality show than anything else.  Honey Boo Boo may show up at the Statehouse any day now.
We will soon try for the third time this year to cobble together a General Fund budget.  One of the most prominent ideas floating around is to take millions from the education Trust Fund to prop up the General Fund-- even though education has not been adequately funded since 2008.  And irony of irony, the cost for the special session will be paid for with education dollars.
But not once have I heard any of our "leadership" say, "What do we need to do to come up with long term solutions?"  Who has shown the fortitude to assemble all the "players" in the same room and have a, as we say, "come to Jesus" meeting?"
I have no doubt that were these Biblical times, we would now be organizing a march of six days around the Alabama Statehouse as the people of Israel did when Jericho stood in their way.
And today I think of my ancestors and their struggles.  I think of daddy helping grandpa clear ground with mules and axes.  I think of grandma picking cotton till she had to go prepare lunch on a wood-burning stove before returning to the field.
My family ate fried chicken on Sunday and went to work on Monday building houses, cutting meat at a grocery store, laying ceramic tile and stacking peanuts.
I think of how our "leadership" is betraying them and their work.  And I weep for Alabama.


Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net 

He blogs at LarryEducation.com 
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North Alabama School Dress Codes Under Fire As "Sexist" & "Promoting Rape Culture"

by: countrycat

Sat Aug 22, 2015 at 13:06:44 PM CDT

If you've ever looked at a young woman wearing a sloppy, oversized sweatshirt and leggings & labeled the outfit as "too revealing," well, you may work for the Huntsville City School system! Indignant students (and parents) have been protesting the system's updated dress code that seems to focus like a laser beam on the fashion choices of young women - while leaving young men alone.

"The way the dress code is set up is it's angled more toward girls and it's a ‘don't distract the boys’ kind of thing,” student Abby Wilson said. “It's basically telling them that their education is more important than ours."
The dress code states that "students may only wear yoga pants, tights, leggings or jeggings as long as they are used as undergarments covered by shorts, skirts or dresses."

Thompson says school officials told her the outfit was too distracting for the boys.

"I think our education is more important than what we wear,” student Elizabeth Campos said.

Other female students want to know why the district is not worried about girls being distracted by the boys.

"The boys are wearing [shorts] higher than the girls wear and to be honest, when they sit down you can see everything that they have under their boxers,”

student Haley Konecny said.

"I've not seen a boy get dress coded since school started,” Abby Wilson added. 

Read the whole dress code and you find a rather creepy focus on undergarments, tight shirts, shoulders, dress length, and the width of the strap on sleeveless blouses (must be at least 3 inches). 

School officials protest that the dress code doesn't mention "gender" specifically, so it's (they say) a non-issue.  Still, you have to wonder what the reaction would be if a number of boys started showing up in drag.  Would that be considered "distracting" or "disruptive?"

No matter what school officials say to the media however, female students report being upbraided personally by school officials who told them that they can't wear clothing that would "distract" boys.

That's where the "promoting rape culture" charge comes into play. Across the country, school systems enforce dress codes in ways that penalize young women and make them responsible for the reactions and behavior of young men.

In the past month alone a Canadian teen says she was given detention for wearing a full length maxi dress because it violated her school dress code by showing her shoulders and back and a UK school announced plans to ban skirts altogether.

These are just the most recent cases in an ever-growing list that has seen shoulders and knees become a battleground, leggings and yoga pants banned and girls in some cases reportedly told to flap their arms up and down while their attire was inspected, or asked to leave their proms because chaperones considered their dresses too ‘sexual’ or ‘provocative’. 

Follow the links in the blockquoted article above, and you'll find that school administrators are up front about the reason for bans on leggings, tight jeans, yoga pants, tank tops, etc.  They don't want the boys distracted.

The school amended its dress code to ban leggings in the classroom, saying that it causes distraction amongst the school’s boys. 

Girls at a North Dakota high school have been banned from wearing yoga pants and other tight legware to school because officials claim they are “too distracting,” 

Give HCS officials credit for not being overtly sexist, but the end result is the same

While the dress code is left behind in high school, the implication is not. Dress codes have become a part of rape culture. High schools are teaching girls that they are the distractions for men, therefore implying that the men must be protected because of their lack of control. When schools do this, they are teaching students their place in rape culture: girls are at fault, while men are out of control and must act on their natural instincts.

Students (both male & female) at Grissom High School in Huntsville are fighting back. They've staged protests, posted signs around the school, and have received both local and national media attention. 

One proposed chant made me laugh out loud:

Boys are not animals.
Girls are not prey.

You go girls and boys! Kudos for calling attention to the unfair and sexist way the school system is handling this issue.  It's NOT just about "leggings;" the stakes are far higher than that:

When a girl is taken out of class on a hot day for wearing a strappy top, because she is ‘distracting’ her male classmates, his education is prioritized over hers. When a school takes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behavior, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Students are being groomed to perpetuate the rape culture narrative that sits at the very heart of our society’s sexual violence crisis. It matters very much indeed.

More photos below. 

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Public Education In Alabama Is Poised On The Brink Of Disaster

by: countrycat

Sun Jul 19, 2015 at 15:40:52 PM CDT

Hyperbole?  Not really. Let's take a look at recent events and the GOP supermajority's plan to "fix" the state budget crisis during the special session set to reconvene the first week of August.


The first hit to public education came when Governor Robert Bentley appointed a 28-year-old man to a vacancy on the state school board.  He's not just relatively young; Matt Brown of Baldwin County has zero experience with public schools and is actively hostile to public education.

Brown said one of his motivations for seeking the position was to learn the educational structure of the state.

Does Governor Bentley really think that the State School Board is the proper venue for on the job training?  If Brown wants to "learn" about public education, maybe he should enroll his children in the public schools, volunteer at a school, or even run for his local school board before he injures every school child in this state with his inexperience. 

From Larry Lee's education blog:

Brown never attended public school, has stated that his children will not attend public schools and was head of the Educate Baldwin Now campaign that worked (successfully) to defeat an education tax referendum last March.  He is also an  opponent of Common Core, which is aligned with the Alabama College & Career standards.

The governor stated in a press release, “Matthew brings a unique perspective to the position.”  He is certainly right about that.  About like I (an avid Auburn grad and supporter) would do if appointed to the Board of Trustees at the University of Alabama.
As we know, the governor is a dermatologist and there is a group known as the Alabama Dermatology Society.  Would the governor nominate Matt Brown to serve as an officer with this group?  From where I sit, he seems to have just as much experience to do this as he does to be on the State Board of Education.

Insider speculation is that Governor Bentley traded this position for Senator Trip Pittman's cooperation on the budget deal Bentley hopes to push through. If true, it's no surprise to longtime observers of Alabama politics: Pittman has quite the history of insider deal-making and sweetheart contracts - not to mention an amazing affinity for Ten Commandments displays.

However, he has previously expressed  skepticism about a plan to combine Alabama's education and general fund budgets - a plan supported by Governor Bentley and many GOP legislative leaders.

In 2012, Gov. Robert Bentley floated a budget unification proposal, but the plan went nowhere. Senate Finance and Taxation Education chairman Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said Friday that he was concerned that unifiying the budgets would not solve the General Fund problems, and possibly create another one within the school systems.

"Instead of the General Fund becoming the health care trust fund, you're going to make General Fund and the Education Trust Fund the health care trust fund," he said.
"I'd love to get the unified budget, but I've told Sen. Dial that until you get the Medciaid and prison situation under control, I think you have a hard time getting that done," he said.  

Even so, Senate President Pro-Tem Del March told the APT current affairs show "Capitol Journal" that he hopes to pass this bill during the special session.  Now the Governor has done Pittman a big favor by putting his unqualified buddy on the state school board. It's hard to believe though that Pittman comes that cheap.

Tell him what you think about this plan:  Trip.Pittman@alsenate.gov 


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If Public Education Is Worth Saving, We Must Work To Save It

by: Larry Lee

Fri Jul 10, 2015 at 09:26:14 AM CDT

It has now been 45 years since country singer Roy Clark came across the airwaves with "Thank God and Greyhound She's Gone."  But the song's title came immediately to mind recently when the Alabama legislature packed their bags and rode off into the sunset bringing down the curtain on the 2015 regular session. Once again, those representing public education spent most of their energy reacting to bills that seemed to materialize out of thin air that would ultimately harm public education and limit its resources. 


More often than not, whoever concocted the legislation did not consult with educators beforehand. For example:

  • We passed legislation to set up charter schools which will slice the education pie into smaller pieces.
  • We raised the cap on contributions for donations to scholarship granting organizations so that will deny even more funds to the education trust fund. W
  • We talked a lot about combining the education trust fund and the general fund.
  • We continued to declare there is a huge "surplus" in education funding.

We passed an education budget that, for the first time since 2008, began to meet the state's obligations in funding the foundation program. 

While this is noteworthy, we need to keep some things in context before we pat legislators on the back too much.  For example, we put $1 million in library enhancement for the first time since FY 2008.  What that really means is that we have now funded libraries at a average annual rate of $142,857 since 2008.  

However, in the same time frame we have funded the Alabama Teach for America program to the tune of $3.2 million.  And not a single one of the 105 House members or 35 Senators can tell you what this money is used for.

We amended the Alabama Accountability Act to allow contributions made in 2015 be counted as contributions made in 2014.  We increased the contribution cap in this bill from $25 million to $30 million (even though we only raised about 52 percent of the limit in 2014) and we put in law that private school scholarships can be up to $10,000, while we are presently giving $5,800 per pupil to public schools.

I know that it is not easy to serve in the legislature.  Members are bombarded by special interests of all stripes to be for or against something.  It is impossible to reach objective decisions because members do not have staff to help with homework and separate fact from fiction.
There are members I greatly appreciate.  Rep. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa, who chairs the House Education Ways & Means Committee, comes quickly to mind.  He is diligent, dedicated, accessible and even tempered.  He takes his chairmanship seriously and works hard at being informed and in touch.

On the other hand, there are those mired so deeply in a particular ideology that such things as compromise or tolerance never seem to cross their minds.  

Unfortunately, I see more ideologues and those driven by a need to be totally in control than I do members like Bill Poole.

The lesson public education needs to take from this session is that SOMEONE needs to step up to the plate.  SOMEONE must start telling the story of what is going on in our public schools.  Contacting legislators is not something that should be confined to just those times when they are meeting in Montgomery, it should be year-round.  Now that this session is over and we know how members have voted on certain issues is when they should be held accountable.  Let them know someone is paying attention. Ask them to explain why they voted as they did.  Ask them to explain how constituents in their district will benefit from legislation they enacted.

If public education is worth saving, we must work at doing so 365 days of the year.


Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net 

He blogs at LarryEducation.com

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Accountability Act Really Is A Great Private School Giveaway

by: Larry Lee

Sun Jun 28, 2015 at 10:58:29 AM CDT

New information from the Department of Revenue shows at least $4 million that should have gone to the Education Trust Fund in 2014 went instead, to pay tuition for students already enrolled in private schools.   While the law was intended to help "failing schools" and their students, more than 1,000 students in private schools got scholarships.  This is allowable under the Alabama Accountability Act. 


Under the accountability act, scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) raise money from both individual and corporate contributors.  When donors adhere to certain guidelines, they receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit against their Alabama tax liability.  Since the diverted funds would normally go to the state Education Trust Fund, any dollar received by an SGO is a dollar that is unavailable to be used to fund education needs.

Bottom line, in 2014 we took $4 million away from the Education Trust Fund and gave it to private schools to pay tuition and fees for students who attended that school for at least one year prior to getting a scholarship

Legislative leadership who rushed AAA through the House and Senate in 2013 never told the public that this would be one of the outcomes.  Instead, we were told repeatedly that this law was only about "helping poor kids stuck in private schools by their zip codes."

Records on file at the Department of Revenue's website show what's happening:

  • The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, LLC, created by former Governor Bob Riley, gave 725 scholarships to private school students.
  • Scholarships for Kids, Inc. of Birmingham handed out 320 of them.
  • AAA Scholarship Foundation, Inc. of Prattville funded 21 (which was 70 percent of their scholarships).

If you multiply the number of scholarships by the average scholarship amount for each SGO you learn that as much as $4,431,897 may have gone to private schools for previously enrolled students.

We also learn that AOSF gave out more scholarships in Mobile County than any other. The primary target for Scholarship for Kids was Jefferson County, while AAA Scholarships and Beacons of Hope were most active in Montgomery County. (Beacons of Hope did not award any scholarships to students already in a private school.)
Another bit of info that catches one’s eye is the amount spent by AOSF in 2014 on “non-scholarship expenditures.”  The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund spent $805,190 while only collecting $652,390 in donations.

An annual audit by the firm of McGladrey, of Step Up for Students, the Florida SGO that controls AOSF, shows the Alabama group spent $522,282 on salaries and wages and $387,036 on recruiting and advertising by June 30, 2014.

Even though supporters of the accountability act continue to claim it was intended to help failing schools and their students, it has long been acknowledged that a large number of scholarship recipients were not from these schools. The new info is the most specific look to date at how far this legislation has strayed from its original stated purpose.

And you can’t help but wonder if the 22 senators and 51 house members who supported AAA bill in 2013 would have changed their votes had they been told they were voting to take $4 million from public schools to give to students already attending private schools.

The 2013 version of this bill capped SGO contributions at $25 million.  However, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh got an amendment passed in the recent session to raise the cap to $30 million.  So more money will be lost to public education and if the past is prologue, even more money will leave the education trust fund to support students who are already attending private schools.

It  should also be noted that the amendment passed by Senator Marsh actually rewrites the intent of the bill.  In 2013 bill language clearly says it is about failing schools and their students, this has now been changed to say that the bill is about "school choice."  In other words, two years after saying one thing, the sponsor finally admits all the talk about helping failing schools was really not true. 

And we are supposed to place our confidence in this kind of leadership?


Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net 

He blogs at LarryEducation.com

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Alabama Near The Bottom In Upward Mobility Index - Some Kids Just Don't Stand A Chance

by: countrycat

Mon Jun 15, 2015 at 15:49:25 PM CDT

The chance that an Alabama child born into the bottom 5th of the income distribution will reach the top 5th sometime in his/her lifetime is 6% or less in many parts of the state. It's no big surprise that where you grow up and your parents' level of education and income has a huge impact on your adult life, but these numbers suggest that many poor kids just don't have much of a chance no matter how much their parents care and how hard they work. 


It's not because the kids are dumb or unmotivated or their so-called "culture" doesn't respect education: it's that the deck is stacked against them from the moment they're born - particularly in rural communities (PDF).

In 2008, 22.1% of our Alabama children lived in poverty. By 2012, that number had risen to 26%. The poverty level in 2012 was $23,283 for a family with two adults & two children. That family has $447/week to spend on food and shelter. There's no luxury in this lifestyle: it's barely subsistence living. An even bigger outrage is that only 9% of these kids lived in a family where no adult worked full or part-time during the previous 12 months. In the majority of these families, the parents are working, but at poverty jobs that offer little security, benefits, or chance for advancement.

What do these children face growing up in Alabama?

Limited Access To Prenatal Care
This is a major risk factor for premature birth, and Alabama is in the top three states for the number of premature births.  Our rate is 15.6%, just behind... wait for it... Mississippi.

Low income women are more likely to give birth prematurely, and those children can face a number of challenges into adulthood, including lower test scores in school and numerous health problems.

Inadequate Nutrition
The issue of food deserts in inner city and rural communities is a nationwide problem and particularly challenging for many families living in areas that lack affordable public transportation. SNAP payments (food stamps, they're still commonly called) average $128.82 per person in Alabama. That's a $4.29 daily supplement per person to a family's food budget. The SNAP program is meant to be a supplement to the budget, not the entire food budget but in some families, SNAP money pays for a large percentage of the family's food.

When money is tight, it's tempting to go for the cheap starchy foods that will fill up your kids' hungry stomachs: $1 for a box of mac & cheese (with powdered cheese sauce) or $1 for a fresh orange to be split between the two of them. Which do you pick?

Poor nutrition affects school performance; many educators report that "misbehaving" kids who can't concentrate, are disruptive in class, etc. are simply hungry.

Lack Of Access To Quality Health Care
Poor nutrition contributes to obesity, which in turn, causes chronic health problems like diabetes, hypertension, and can contribute to cancer. In 2013, Alabama ranked 3rd in the country for teen obesity (17.1%). Eight Alabama counties lack any hospital and only 17 counties in the entire state have hospitals with a labor & delivery unit. In 2013, 26% of mothers in rural areas lacked adequate prenatal care.

"Driving an hour or more each way for a monthly OBGYN appointment just isn't feasible for many women who work full time, who have jobs with inflexible leave policies, or those who don't have access to transportation. So they go without.

Sub-standard, Under-funded Schools
When these children reach school age, they're often funneled into under-funded schools.  Rural schools especially face serious challenges attracting qualified teachers, supporting extra-curricular activities, and keeping students engaged in school. Instead of supporting those schools, LIA contributor Larry Lee has shown that the current legislature is more interested in funneling money away from public schools.

Crumbling/Outdated Infrastructure
During the past two legislative sessions, some legislators have tried to force Alabama's school systems to drop paper textbooks in favor of digital textbooks, a scheme that State Senator Vivian Figures called "the have and have nots" bill.

Unlike a paper book, a digital textbook requires a piece of technology to access it, be it a tablet, laptop, PC, eReader, etc. Furthermore, most also require students to have broadband Internet to access homework assignments, take tests, & do additional research.

35% of Alabamians lack broadband Internet access at home, and 56% of rural residents lack access. DSL just made it to our house fewer than 5 years ago!  Local officials have called broadband Internet access as important to the state now as rural electrification was a hundred years ago.

Physical and telecommunication infrastructure affects a community's ability to attract good-paying industry (something other than coal ash pits and prisons!). Industry contributes to the tax base, which supports schools, hospitals, and other local businesses. 

Our children won't have good jobs without modern infrastructure, but Alabama can't even keep its bridges safe, must less wire schools for broadband.


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The Tangled Web of Alabama Accountability Act Scholarship Money

by: Larry Lee

Fri Jun 12, 2015 at 14:48:48 PM CDT

A new summary of activity in 2014 under the Alabama Accountability Act offers more evidence that the promise the legislation would help students in poorly-performing schools was more smoke and mirrors than anything else.  The summary is posted on the Alabama Department of Revenue website (PDF download).


Nor does it support the claims of Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh that there is an urgent need to increase the limit on SGO contributions from $25 million annually to $30 million or that scholarships for private schools should be as much as $10,000, measures that are in a Marsh-sponsored amendment signed by Governor Bentley June 9.  SGO donors get a dollar for dollar Alabama tax credit.  Each dollar contributed is one that does not go into the Education Trust Fund.

There are nine SGOs in Alabama.  However, three had not submitted an annual report by June 8 and another said they had no activity in 2014.  The Rocket Ship Scholarship fund in Huntsville raised $128,720 but did not award any scholarships.  In all, $13,311,357 was raised.

SGOs that awarded scholarships in 2014 were:

  • Scholarships for Kids of Birmingham
  • Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund of Birmingham
  • AAA Scholarship Foundation of Prattville
  • Beacons of Hope of Birmingham. 
They awarded 5,776 scholarships and spent $1,412,654 for administration.

The two major "players" are Scholarships for Kids and Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund.  (The latter is closely identified with former governor Bob Riley, though it is actually controlled by a  Florida group.)  When the accountability act was set up in 2013, Riley's AOSF came out of the gate like triple crown winner American Pharaoh and collected $17.8 million from 25 donors.  Scholarships for Kids raised $6.3 million in 2013.

But 2014 was a different story.  Last year AOSF only collected $652,390 while Scholarships for Kids brought in $12,145,367.  AOSF used their 2013 funds to award 3,608 scholarships at an average of $4,683 each.  Scholarships for Kids gave out 2,076 scholarships at an average of $2,997.

These numbers immediately call into question why the Marsh amendment seeks to increase the cap to $30 million when only 53 percent of the max was reached last year.  If the bar is set at 5 feet and no one can clear it, why raise it to 6 feet?

The same is true of setting scholarship limits at $6,000 for elementary students, $8,000 for middle and $10,000 for high school when the average scholarship awarded in 2014 was $4,072. 

The state of Alabama contributed  an average of $5,828 per pupil for all students in FY 2014.  So Marsh and his supporters think private school students are worth considerably more than those attending public schools?

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More & More Questions About Alabama Accountability Act Scholarship Money

by: Larry Lee

Tue Jun 09, 2015 at 11:00:00 AM CDT

Slowly but surely, information about the Alabama Accountability Act comes to light that raises more questions about the program. Questions that conjure up images of corporate board rooms, tax lawyers and accountants, campaign contributions and political payback–certainly not images of “kids stuck in failing schools by their zip code.” The kids are just the sizzle being used to sell the steak.

Directing the operation are some of the most powerful people in Alabama politics.

Senate Pro Term Del Marsh introduced an amendment to AAA as soon as the legislative session began in March. Two of the changes he was seeking was to raise the cap on contributions to scholarship granting organizations from $25 million to $35 million (In spite of the fact that all SGOs only raised 53 percent of the limit in 2014) and to make 2015 contributions eligible to be counted as tax breaks in 2014.

A document prepared by the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (the one created by former Governor Bob Riley and controlled by an organization in Florida) indicates that Marsh was getting his marching orders from Riley operatives. The document details the financial obligations AOSF needed to meet to keep the program afloat. For instance it states they need $15,448,105 “immediately” to renew scholarships for the 2015-16 school year.

But the fly in the ointment is that while the SGO says they handed out 2,851 scholarships at an average of $5,300 for the 2014-15 school year, they only raised about $641,000 last year. (Since the law states that all students who get a scholarship can keep it until they graduate or reach age 19 an SGO must raise enough money the following year as they awarded in scholarships the previous year.) This lack of success put AOSF in a definite bind entering 2015.

Records from the Alabama Department of Revenue show AOSF raised $17,825,594 in 2013, the first year of the program. Of this, the SGO is allowed to keep five percent for administrative fees. That would be $891,279 in this case. That leaves $16,934,315, of which AOSF says $15,110,300 went scholarships in 2014-15. That leaves only $1,824,014. Add the $641,000 collected in 2014 and you have only $2,465,015 to cover the 2,769 scholarships the Riley document says should be renewed.

In other words, we are between a rock and a hard place.

In such cases, we all turn to our friends. And financial records from the 2014 election show Senator Marsh had obligations to fill. Two of the major backers of vouchers, school choice and charter schools in Alabama are Bob Riley and Billy Canary, head of the Business Council of Alabama. In 2014 Riley had a PAC known as Alabama 2014 while Canary had BCA’s Progress PAC. Canary’s group contributed $116,000 to Marsh’s 2014 re-election, while the Riley PAC chipped in $15,980. Riley also made a personal donation of $2,500 to Marsh.   In addition, the senator from Anniston got $20,408 from StudentsFirst, the California based “education reform” group, and $15,495 from the Alabama Federation for Children, the group that got all of its funding from out-of-state millionaires.

So it comes as no surprise that the AOSF document (which surfaced back in early March) shows the SGO cap on contributions would be raised from $25 million to $35 million and there would be an additional $12 million available through retroactive tax credits.

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SB-496 - New Assault On Public Education Funding. Take Action NOW!

by: countrycat

Thu May 28, 2015 at 16:14:56 PM CDT

From LIA contributor & education expert Larry Lee comes this warning about Senator Arthur Orr's bill - SB-496 - to divert money from the Education Trust Fund. Lee is asking everyone to take action now.  The bill is scheduled for the Senate Special Order calendar for tomorrow morning.

From Lee:

Senate convenes at 9:00 tomorrow. Sen. Orr has a bill on the special order calendar that will take money from the trust fund forever.
The bill is SB496 and it diverts a percentage of the use tax from the ETF to the General fund.

Here is the fiscal note:

Senate Bill 496 as introduced will increase receipts to the State General Fund (SGF) and decrease receipts to the Education Trust Fund (ETF) starting June 1, 2015, by changing the distribution of the use tax and the remote use tax.

The proposed distribution will increase receipts to the SGF by $26,000,000 in Fiscal Year 15 and $80,000,000 annually thereafter and correspondingly decrease receipts to the ETF by the same amounts.

You read that right! Only $26 million from Education this year BUT $80 million forever more.


Please call your Senator and ask for a NO vote on SB 496! If you have professional staff members who might also be willing to make that call, enlist their help!

It is best to contact your Senator by cell phone. However, if you don't have that number, use the website below for email addresses and office phone numbers. Senators have clerks who can take your message to the Senator on the Senate floor.

Ask them to please relay your concerns.

DeKalb Co. folks may call Steve Livingston a 334-242-7858 and leave a message.

The clock is ticking down in the 2015 regular session, but the hits just keep on coming.


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SB-502 Wins Senate Committee Approval - Bill Combines Education & General Fund Budgets

by: countrycat

Wed May 27, 2015 at 08:38:11 AM CDT

The Florence Times-Daily calls it "giving the fox control of the henhouse," & citizens concerned about public education use more unprintable descriptions. Nevertheless, Senator Gerald Dial's constitutional amendment (SB-502) to unearmark education money passed out of the Senate Committee on Finance & Taxation yesterday on a 9 to 4 vote.


The Times-Daily editorial puts the issue in perspective:

An ideal Legislature could be entrusted with such decisions, and could better serve the people if it was working from a unified budget. It makes little sense for an ideal Legislature to be constrained in 2015 by constitutional earmarks passed in 1936 and 1947 limiting the bulk of sales and income taxes to educational purposes.

Sadly, this is where reality intrudes. It turns out Alabama is not blessed with an ideal Legislature.

The voters knew that when they voted to earmark the funds. Even the bill's sponsor, Gerald Dial, understood that several years ago, when he scoffed at Governor Robert Bentley's suggestion to have a single, unified budget. Here's what Dial said then:

But Dial said voters prefer locking in some taxes for certain purposes, such as using most income-tax collections to pay teachers' salaries. ''They don't trust the Legislature to just give us ... money to spend wherever we want to," Dial said. 

But today's Gerald Dial is taunting his fellow legislators to "stop worrying about re-election" and show some courage.  Yeah, it takes real courage to steal public education money because you don't have enough spine to deal with Alabama's systemic taxation and budgeting problems.

The Legislature is already siphoning public education money for other purposes.

For starters, the Legislature has routinely ignored the constitutional restrictions that limit some taxes to the Education Trust Fund. The Legislature has directed $50 million a year in ETF funds to the Commerce Department. Another $650,000 goes to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Alabama Civil Air Patrol gets $75,000 a year in ETF money. The National Computer Forensic Institute and the Alabama Supreme Court Library each get $250,000.

Even Gov. Robert Bentley, who has not been shy about raiding the ETF, figures $187 million a year is siphoned from the fund for purposes unrelated to education.

What does this tell Alabamians? That the Legislature is so determined to reduce funding for public schools that it will do so even when that means ignoring the Constitution. Imagine the result if the General Fund and Education Trust Fund are unified, giving the Legislature unfettered access to funds now used for schools.

Yes, just imagine it. The bill is now headed to the Senate floor. It still needs to get through a House committee vote and vote of the full House.  That's a tall order with just 4 days left in the session, but never underestimate the Alabama Legislature's ability to fast-track a bad idea.

And if Governor Bentley makes good his threat to call a special session to deal with budget issues, hang on you your hat. This will be quite the tempting target: the Education Trust Fund has a $250 million surplus, while the General Fund has an almost identical deficit.

That's math that even the dumbest legislator can understand.

Find your legislator and contact him/her about this bill!


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SB-502 Will Use Education Money To Bail Out The General Fund

by: countrycat

Sat May 23, 2015 at 12:43:53 PM CDT

Let's call it this bill what it really is: "Leave Every Child Behind." Don't like the Draconian budget cuts that the House passed? Senator Gerald Dial has the solution: raid the Education budget to prop up the General Fund budget. It's just one more desperate attempt to fund state government by draining the state's resources and savings accounts.


How far do you trust the Alabama Legislature?  The text of this bill asks for quite a bit of trust on the part of voters, while giving all the power to the Legislature. Sound familiar?

This bill specifically states that "all appropriations for the ordinary expenses of the executive, legislative, and judicial departments of the state, for interest on the public debt and for public education may be made in the general appropriations bill". They want us to trust the people who pushed through the Great Private School Giveaway Plan in the middle of the night to do what's best for public education. Right.

Gerald Dial, the guy who once told constituents that he was too busy to meet with them during the legislative session, is now presenting himself as a paragon of political courage, calling on fellow legislators to "stop worrying about reelection." Note that it's easy for Dial to say that. As chief architect of the last redistricting plan, he gerrymandered his 2010 opponent out the district by running the district line through the opponent's back yard.

It's interesting to note that Dial had this to say about the Governor's 2012 proposal to merge the budgets:

But Dial said voters prefer locking in some taxes for certain purposes, such as using most income-tax collections to pay teachers' salaries. ''They don't trust the Legislature to just give us ... money to spend wherever we want to," Dial said.

Does he actually think voters trust the Legislature more after the antics of the past few years?

Let's not even pretend that this is a serious attempt to reform Alabama's budget process.  Call it for what it is:  proof positive that Republicans can't govern. Their claim of "fiscal responsibility" is complete and total fiction. Let's look at how "fiscally responsible" they've been since taking power in 2010:

Now, once again, we're faced with the possibility of prisoners in our basements and our options are limited.

They'll do anything but admit that there simply isn't enough revenue coming in to fund their corporate welfare projects and provide for the general welfare of the poor schmucks paying the bills.

The committee hearing on this bill is scheduled for Tuesday, May 26 at 1pm in Room 727.

Note: that's pretty quick action, given that Dial just dropped the bill at the end of last week.  But Senator Del Marsh has signed on as a co-sponsor, so you safely assume the leadership plans to fast track it.

If the legislature passes the bill, the plan then goes to the voters as yet another constitutional amendment. We could have another expensive "special election," where the voters will be asked to once again bail out a legislature incapable of doing its job.


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2015 Legislative Actions "Betray the Goodness of the People" of Alabama

by: countrycat

Thu May 21, 2015 at 09:00:14 AM CDT

Slowly but surely our legislative leadership is nibbling away at the very foundation of how Alabama government has worked for nearly 200 years. Like this great country itself, Alabama is a democracy. By definition democracy is “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them.” Abraham Lincoln stated it well in his 272 word Gettysburg Address when he ended his remarks with “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”


However, apparently some of our “leaders” prefer an oligarchy where power is held by a small number of individuals.

The latest example of this mindset is the statement made this week by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh about his interest in a bill to move from an elected State Board of Education to an appointed board. Marsh’s remarks came in response to the failure of the state board to select members for a charter school commission at the meeting May 13. (For background, see previous posts at LarryEducation.com - State School Board Split over Charter Appointments of 5-13-15 and Anyone Seen My Ball? of 5-14-25.)

According to the Decatur Daily, Marsh said, “The board acted in an irresponsible manner not appointing those to the charter commission. I’m told that they are going to convene next week to do that, and I would advise them to so.”

Irresponsible? Four members of the presently seven member board said that they did not feel they had enough information about nominees to make informed decisions and that they had not had adequate time to do due diligence. Irresponsible? That the majority of this body want to be more deliberative in the process and still meet the legislatively-mandated deadline of June 1.

Or is irresponsibility threatening a duly-elected body with “I would advise them to do so?”

The Legislature has already trampled on democracy this session when they created an appointed board to govern the two-year college system, stripping this duty from the elected board. And Senator Marsh might do some homework before issuing threats. He needs to ask his high-priced chief of staff (the one he gave a 38 percent raise to last year) to dig out a copy of Alabama Constitutional Amendment 284, ratified Dec. 16, 1969. The amendment voted on by the people of Alabama to discontinue having an appointed state board and replace it with one “which shall be elected.”

The good senator might even go back to 2014 and look at some numbers. There are eight elected state school board members (one seat is currently waiting to be filled by an appointment by the governor). Obviously one of these seats has far more constituents that a senator does since there are 35 senators.  Last year a new state board member was elected from Calhoun County, which is also Senator Mash’s home county. Cynthia McCarty got 35,505 votes in the Republican primary. (Primary turnout is always substantially less than in general elections.) Still, she got more than twice as many votes as Marsh did in his general election (17,646).

Translation–Senator Marsh wants to disenfranchise the 35,505 voters who chose Dr. McCarty. (As well as the 29,933 who voted for board member Betty Peters and the 25,188 who voted for member Mary Scott Hunter.) He apparently thinks he and a handful of his cronies know more about running the state than the folks who pave our roads, till our crops, teach our children and care for our sick.

There is a story about an old woman who baked a pie and stuck it on the window sill to cool. When she came by later she saw that someone had taken a bite of the pie. “Well, it was only one bite,” she shrugged and went on her way. She returned later and noticed there were now two bites of pie missing. Again she shrugged, “Well it was only two bites.” And you know the rest of the story, by the end of the day the entire pie had been eaten by passersby.

What is going on in Montgomery is much, much bigger than the state school board. It is all about a mindset that believes the public will not care about how many bites are gone. It’s about a mindset that thinks Abraham Lincoln was wrong about “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s about a mindset that believes in intimidation instead of compromise.

Long ago, as a young deacon in a Baptist church in Birmingham, I sat in meetings when passions flared and faces turned red as the matter of allowing blacks to worship in our all-white congregation was debated. The standard refrain from most in the room was “If THEY were coming here for the right reason, it would be OK.” I was bewildered that one human had the capacity to look into another’s heart and determine the “right reason.”

Yet, this is the same logic we’ve seen this legislative session as bills have been proposed that allow a business owner to deny service to someone they feel may worships the wrong god, or love the wrong person or part their hair on the wrong side or whatever trumped up reason they find to mask discrimination. It is a logic that reeks of elitism, of looking for ways to judge others of being unworthy of being their equal and of being unworthy of going into a voting booth and being part of “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

No, this is not so much about the state school board and how it behaves as it is about a broadening mindset that categorizes the people of Alabama into categories of “worthy” and “unworthy.” The angst of some with the state board of education is merely a means to a greater end.

It is about once again going down a path we’ve trod too long and too often. A path that echoes with “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

It’s about a mindset that betrays the goodness of the people of this state.


Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net 

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HB-592 Wasn't One "Monkey Trial" Enough? Another "Please Sue Alabama" Bill

by: countrycat

Thu May 07, 2015 at 07:00:00 AM CDT

It's hard to discern the motive behind all these dreadful bills dropping so late in the session. Do the sponsors think nobody is watching and they can slip crap through the process unnoticed? Or is this simply a Greg Abbott-style method of appeasing the howling mob without actually doing much of anything to push their agenda?

HB-592 Creationism in Alabama 

Whatever the motive, Rep. Mack Butler has added a new issue to this session's toxic brew of PSA bills that includes: anti-GLBT bills, anti-abortion bills, and anti-common sense legislation. Now let's add an anti-science education bill. It's easy to see what's going on when you consider Butler's other bill - HB-1 - the "Student Religious Liberties Act."  He was asked if that would allow the teaching of creationism in public schools.  He dodged the question, but offered this comment after passage:

“I’ve spoken to several teachers who are scared of making any mention of religion in class, but this bill will force school systems to clarify what is and is not permissible so that we can eliminate that fear among our educators,” Butler said. 

HB-592 seems like an innocuous attempt to encourage debate and critical thinking in classrooms, but that's far from the truth, asserts the National Center for Science Education.   

The bill's text almost duplicates Tennessee's 2012 creationism law that was widely derided by science teacher associations, civil liberties groups, and actual scientists. And now that we've passed HB-1 and made sure that teachers shouldn't be "scared of making any mention of religion in class," we're going to let them encourage students to debate creationism on an equal footing with evolution.

It's kind of like asking students to "debate" whether or not the Earth is flat and allowing the use of someone's religious tract as "proof" that it is.

The NCSE points out:

House Bill 592 (PDF), introduced in the Alabama House of Representatives on April 30, 2015, and referred to the House Committee on Education Policy, would undermine the integrity of science education in the state by encouraging science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach whatever anything they pleased and prevent responsible educational authorities from intervening. Topics identified in the bill as likely to "cause debate and disputation" are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, and human cloning."

The 2015 legislative session is down to 10 days, but committees have shown that they can hold a hearing in the morning, report the bill, and have it brought to the floor all in a single day.  Also, if they fail to address the state's horrible budget problems, the Governor has pledged to call one or more "special sessions."

Governor Bentley can say the session is for budget issues only, but legislators are free to bring up any damn thing they want anyway.


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Alabama Accountability Act: Supporting Christian Schools With Public School Money

by: countrycat

Mon Apr 20, 2015 at 14:12:53 PM CDT

Far from being a lifeline for eager learners stuck in so-called "failing" public schools, the Alabama Accountability Act instead appears to be a cash cow for several hundred private religious schools. What's more, a bill pending in the legislature would amend the AAA to allow the state to fund annual "scholarships" of up to $10,000 each for students to attend these private schools. That's almost twice the average per-pupil spending ($5828) given to Alabama's public schools.


These are the same people who say that "throwing money" at education won't do any good.  Except that what they really mean is that adequately funding public schools isn't on their agenda.  They'd rather pay more for a select few to attend private - mostly Christian - schools than give public schools the same funding and flexibility that private schools have.

Actually, "mostly Christian" is a gross understatement. Look at the AL Department of Revenue list of private schools participating in the AAA (PDF).  Of the 123 schools on the first three pages, only 11 lack an explicitly Christian focus or Christian-oriented school curriculum.  That's 9%.  The numbers don't improve as you move through the rest of the list either.

Note: I'm not insinuating that all the religious schools (or even most of them) provide a poor education.  They may be great schools, but they do teach from an explicitly Christian viewpoint - and they're receiving money to help promote a religious agenda that would otherwise be destined for public education.

Supporters will tell you that this is not "public money" but rather "donations" given to "Scholarship Granting Organizations" (SGOs) that distribute scholarships.  However: a tax-credit does what exactly?  It lowers your taxes and thereby the tax revenue of Alabama. As Larry Lee pointed out last week, there's a very real cost to Alabama public schools:

Presently the cap on SGO contributions is $25 million.  The senator would like to increase this to $30 million.  (An SGO donor gets a dollar for dollar tax credit on their state tax liability for all money given an SGO up to a certain percentage. Each dollar contributed to an SGO is a dollar that does not go into the education trust fund.  So a dollar that goes to an SGO is a dollar not available for public schools.)

Senator Del Marsh's amendment (SB-71) takes a bad situation and makes it worse. It's not bad enough that the legislature would rather drain public education money than fix public education.  But he now wants the state to help fund religious private school tuitions in amounts that far exceed the average amount we spend on public school kids.

Somebody's making some serious money here and it's not public school teachers:

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Legislators Aren't Telling The Truth About Alabama Accountability Act Amendment

by: countrycat

Fri Apr 17, 2015 at 12:00:00 PM CDT

We have all been told that one should never watch either legislation or sausage being made.  Having grown up long ago on a south Alabama farm, I took part in more than a few "hog killins" and know all about making sausage.

GOP Alabama Accountability Act 

I've also witnessed legislation being birthed in more than 40 years of visiting the Alabama legislature.

And speaking from first-hand knowledge, I'll take the sausage making any day.  This point has been driven home forcefully in the last few weeks as both House and Senate committees have debated amending the Alabama Accountability Act. It has been nothing less that excruciatingly painful to listen as the truth was abused, twisted and just plain ignored by the proponents of this legislation.

Let me say that I understand being a legislator is difficult because you are bombarded by dozens of issues and being an expert on any and all is an impossibility.   In addition, legislators have virtually no staff to research issues for them, give them briefings and pass along information.

By the same token, those sponsoring legislation are often not as aware of its nuances as you would hope they might be.  Instead, they are depending on some special interest to give them sound guidance and good advice.

Still, this doesn't make untruths any less untrue. For example:

  • Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh is the sponsor of an accountability act amendment.  He has been asked repeatedly if there is a relationship between the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, set up by former Governor Bob Riley, and a scholarship granting group in Florida known as Step Up For Students.Each time he has said he is unaware of any. 
  • All non-profits must file a yearly 990 report with the IRS. 
  • The most recent such report by Step Up For Students clearly identifies the Riley SGO as a subsidiary of theirs.  You find on page 46 of this report that the Florida organization is the "direct controlling entity" for the Riley SGO.  Also, both the CEO and the CFO of Step Up For Students are two of the six Riley board members.
  • The accountability act allows all SGOs to retain five percent of their donations for administrative purposes.  Senator March says this is the lowest such rate in the country.  But on page seven of the financial audit of the Florida group dated 6-30-14 you find that their administrative charge is only three percent.

Senator Marsh's amendment would allow Alabama SGOs to pay up to $10,000 for a scholarship for a high school student.  He defends this as being a good steward of money because a limit is designated.  But he fails to note that according to the Step Up For Students web site, their maximum scholarship is $5,272.  Nor has he pointed out that the average state funding for all public school students is presently $5,828 each

So he is urging us to spend up to $4,175 more on a private school student than one in public school.

Presently the cap on SGO contributions is $25 million.  The senator would like to increase this to $30 million.  (An SGO donor gets a dollar for dollar tax credit on their state tax liability for all money given an SGO up to a certain percentage. Each dollar contributed to an SGO is a dollar that does not go into the education trust fund.  So a dollar that goes to an SGO is a dollar not available for public schools.)

In promoting his bill at a recent hearing before a House committee, Senator Marsh held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart and told the committee, "We're just talking about a small amount of money."

I nearly fell out of my seat because where I come from $25-$30 million is not a "small amount of money."  Wonder if the good senator would care to tell a school librarian who has not had new books purchased by the state since 2008 that $25 million doesn't count.

Let's end where we started, back on the farm with the pigs.  It is also said that you cannot  put enough lipstick on a pig to cover up the fact that it is still a pig.  The same is true of the accountability act and the proposed amendment, you just can't put enough lipstick on it.
Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net

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SB-71 Alabama Charter School Legislation: "Follow The Money"

by: countrycat

Mon Apr 06, 2015 at 10:27:49 AM CDT

Even an amateur swami with a cloudy crystal ball could have told us how the recent vote to approve charter schools in Alabama would play out.  In fact, he didn't even have to look at his ball, they could have looked at 2014 campaign financial disclosures instead.

There they would have found a trail of contributions of thousands and thousands of dollars from charter supporters to friendly legislators.

This bill passed the Senate 22-12 the first time it was voted on.  One senator did not vote, eight Democrats voted against it, as did the one Independent and three Republicans.  All yes votes were Republican.

The "Big Three" donors supporting charters last year were:

  • Bob Riley's Alabama 2014 PAC
  • Business Council of Alabama's Progress PAC (run by Billy Canary)
  • Speaker Mike Hubbard's Storm PAC. 
These three have also been strong supporters of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Together, they spent $5.1 million dollars in 2014 in hopes of having friendly politicians in place.  Obviously their plan worked well.  This money came from an assortment of sources.  While BCA depends on their Alabama members for support, the Riley and Hubbard PACs cast a wider net and got checks from across the country.  Companies such a Pfizer, General Electric, Anheuser Busch, Cemex and International Paper donated.  As did pay day lenders and  charter supporters like StudentsFirst and K12.

And while BCA did contribute $37,500 to 11 incumbent Democrats (10 of them House members), Riley and Hubbard only supported Republicans.

Let's take a closer look at how the pot was split in the Senate.

  • None of the eight Democrats or the lone Independent who voted against charters got a penny from Riley, Hubbard or BCA. 
  • The Republican who did not vote got $1,000 and the three Republicans who voted "nay" got a total of $77,000, mostly from BCA.
  • Of the 22 Republican "yea" votes, one who few thought would win, got nothing.
  • Of the remaining 21, six had either no opposition or token opposition. They only received $8,000 total. 
  • The remaining 15 got $987,815 in all, an average of $65,854 each.  However, some were more equal than others as five got more than $100,000 each.

In addition to contributions from the "Big Three," StudentsFirst, a Sacremento, CA group with 10 lobbyists in Alabama, spent $61,958.  And the Alabama Federation for Children, which was solely supported by checks from millionaires in California, Michigan and Arkansas spent $101,748.  Evidently "Alabama values" include California millionaires.

In all, the 15 senators who had substantial challenges got $1,142,522 from the charter supporters just mentioned for an average of $76,168.

Of course, every legislator says they are representing "the home folks."  But when you see who is paying the bills to get them elected, you have to wonder who they are really listening to.

Editor's note: In looking at hundreds of pages of financial reports, the most interesting thing I came across were two letters.  One from July 11, 2014 from the treasurer of the Riley PAC to candidate Clyde Chambliss of Prattville and a follow up of July 30, 2014 from Chambliss to the PAC. he first informed the candidate that he should disclose $8,500 for polling and $35,916.79 for mail pieces. 

The reply from Chambliss explained that he had no knowledge what the Riley group was doing and  had not asked for their help.  He also stated that he did not appreciate the nature of the mail pieces since they were attacks on his opponent, were contrary to his promise to run a positive campaign and were costing him support.

Republican Chambliss won the seat and did not vote for the charter bill when it first came to the Senate floor.

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education.  larrylee133@gmail.com

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SB-71 - Amendments Show Alabama Accountability Act's Real Purpose

by: countrycat

Sat Mar 28, 2015 at 10:04:01 AM CDT

It is said that "confession is good for the soul."  With this being the case, the legislators who wrote the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 are now sleeping better. When this bill was written the people of Alabama were told over and over that the purpose was to "help kids stuck in failing schools by their zip codes."  In fact the codified version of this bill says on page 2 that it is intended to, "Provide financial assistance through an income tax credit to a parent who transfers a student from a failing public school to a nonfailing public school or nonpublic school of the parent's choice."

However, anyone knowledgeable about Alabama education quickly realized that this was unlikely at best because the bill was not supported by either research or common sense and was built on false assumptions.

Now proposed amendments to the accountability act (SB-71)have been introduced in the current legislative session that remove any doubt the intent  was always about tax breaks--not helping kids in failing schools.

Records from 19 school systems with 34 failing schools show that only 40 students in these schools got a scholarship.  Yet, one scholarship granting organization (SGO) says they have awarded 969 scholarships in the counties where this 19 systems are located.
The only way this is possible is by giving scholarships to students who are not attending failing schools or who are already enrolled in a private school.  In fact this same SGO says they have given out scholarships in 23 counties where they are no failing schools.

The synopsis of the new bill now states "confirm that the intent of the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 is educational choice." 
So two years later we want to unring the bell and publicly acknowledge what many have known all along--that this legislation was never about "helping kids stuck in failing schools by their zip code."

In its original form, the accountability act amendments propose that the state:

  • Raise the cap on individual contributions.
  • Increase the cap on SGO contributions from $25 million to $35 million.
  • Make tax credits retroactive.
  • Move the cutoff date from Sept. 15 to May 15 so that it will be easier for more students from non-failing schools to get scholarships.

In the first year (2013) all SGOs in the state raised $24,787,079 of the $25 million maximum.  In 2014 all SGOs only raised 53 percent ($13,414,758) of the $25 cap.  Yet, the sponsor of the bill now wants to increase the cap by $10 million.

The reason this is important is that every dollar donated to an SGO is a dollar that does not go to the Education Trust Fund, the same fund that has not bought a new library book for any school in Alabama since 2009.  The same fund that has cut funding for new textbooks by 50 percent since 2008.

Amy Hiller is the principal at Meek Elementary in Arley in Winston County.  This is a great school of about 225 children.  Nearly 70 percent of them are on free and reduced lunches.   Amy recently bought new math textbooks.  But to do so, she had to raise $30,000 to pay for them.  Raising this much money in a rural town of a few hundred  people is not easy.

I know Amy well.  Have been to her school many times.  Given the fact that resources are not presently adequate to support her school as it should be, why are we even talking about diverting even more money from the education trust fund?  How do you rationalize this?

There are 733,000 students in Alabama public schools.  Each of them is just as special as any who may get a scholarship.  Why do you try to help a handful of them at the expense of all the others?  

If one end of the boat is leaking, it does no good to move to the other end.  Let's remember all the public school children in this state.  Let's patch the hole instead of going to the other end, which is all the accountability act does.

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education.  larrylee133@gmail.com

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The State Democratic Party Is Quiet, But House Democrats Come Out Swinging

by: countrycat

Sun Mar 22, 2015 at 19:04:25 PM CDT

House Minority Leader Craig Ford's recent post on Facebook brought a smile to my face. After waiting months in vain for the state party leadership to even issue a press release, at least our legislators are fighting the good fight.Craig Ford

Just look at how many of them stood up for equality during the HB-56 debate. (Review Mia's excellent liveblogging of the debate.) The House debate on the charter school bill was similarly hard fought.

We've said here for years - when our Democratic legislators didn't bother to show up for committee hearings or important votes - that "just because you'll probably lose, that's no reason not to take a stand."

Today, Ford offered this:

"Would You Rather Have A Democrat’s Lottery Or Republicans’ Taxes?"

This week is the legislature’s Spring Break, and we are now almost a third of the way through the legislative session. And as last week came to an end, legislative leaders were quick to congratulate themselves on passing their legislative agenda.

I’m sure the taxpayers will be relieved Republicans were able to pass their “Alabama First” agenda. I mean, sure, maternity wards across the state are closing and leaving thousands of mothers without nearby prenatal care and delivery services, but at least we brought back the electric chair.

And, sure, there are hundreds of children in Alabama waiting to be adopted by loving parents but can’t because of budget cuts to the Department of Human Resources. But at least judges won’t be forced to participate in gay weddings. Oh wait, nobody was making them do that anyway.

Well at least now we passed the “Truth in Salary Act” so all those educators and state employees will finally know how much they are getting paid! I mean, sure, there are counties in Alabama that don’t have a single state trooper to patrol them, and many of the state troopers we do have are driving vehicles with more than 200,000 miles on them. But all that has to take a backseat to more bureaucracy and paperwork so that we can make sure our bureaucrats know how much they are getting paid (because apparently they are smart enough to teach our children, but not smart enough to read their own paystubs).

Yes, the Republican leadership has passed their legislative agenda. But what they have not done is offer any real solutions to the very real problems Alabama is facing.

Take, for example, the charter school bill. Let’s assume that every charter school is wildly successful. Even then, there would still be thousands of children still stuck in failing schools. Charter schools and the Accountability Act are not solutions to failing schools. They are escape options from failing schools.

And that is the problem with the leadership in Montgomery: they don’t try to solve problems; they try to run away or hide from problems. But now Alabama is facing some problems that we can’t run away from anymore.

The General Fund budget is facing a hole of at least $265 million. And if we try to pay back all the debt we owe, the budget hole is really closer to $700 million.

After the last four years of gutting our state government, we simply cannot fill the budget hole with more cuts to government. We have “right-sized” to the point of budgetary anorexia. The only way to allow our government to continue to function is with more revenue.

Before the legislative session began, Gov. Bentley proposed a tax package that would raise about $541 million. And to his credit, he included certain proposals, such as increasing the tobacco tax and closing certain corporate tax loopholes that benefit out-of-state corporations and the expense of Alabama business owners, which have been part of the Democratic Party’s agenda for years.

It’s no surprise the Republican leadership in the legislature hasn’t supported the governor’s proposals. They don’t want to be seen supporting anything Democrats have been calling for, and that’s fine. But if they don’t want to consider our ideas, they should at least offer some of their own!

The legislature cannot run away and hide any more. The Republicans wanted to be in leadership, and now it’s time for them to step up and offer solutions.

Of course, if they won’t consider Democratic proposals, then that only leaves one option: raising taxes. Now they won’t call it tax increases. They will call it “enforcement of existing tax laws” or “eliminating deductions”, but the bottom line is that you will be paying more of your hard-earned money in taxes.

Before we start raising taxes, we should at least consider voluntary revenue raising measures like a lottery, a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians and raising the tobacco tax.

The legislative fiscal office estimates that a lottery could raise up to $280 million in new revenue, while raising the tobacco tax by a dollar could generate another $225 million. A compact with the Poarch Creek Indians could generate another $30-50 million.

All of these options are voluntary. People can choose to quit smoking or not to gamble. So why not vote on these measures first? Then, if more money is needed, we can look at other proposals.

If the Republican leadership in the legislature doesn’t offer a solution soon, then you know what their solution will be. The question is: would you rather have a Democrat’s lottery or Republicans’ taxes?

Now, I'm a total lottery skeptic.  Refer to our five-part series on state education lotteries for some of the problems with that as a revenue source.  But Ford is correct that this is possibly the only new revenue opportunity that could get past the legislature and Alabama voters.

Politics is, as Bismark noted, "the art of the possible."  If this is what it takes to shore up our state's safety net, it might be the best of all the bad solutions we have on the table.


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Charter School Bill Passes Legislature Without Needed Amendments

by: countrycat

Thu Mar 19, 2015 at 12:50:11 PM CDT

Got a question about politics in Alabama? "Follow the money" is the best answer you'll get, and it's surely the explanation of what happened yesterday in the Alabama House. With indicted Speaker Mike Hubbard presiding, and his checking account already fattened by a $7500/month consulting contract from a charter school company, our legislators passed the charter school bill and rejected an amendment that would have prevented legislators from having any financial relationship with charter school operators. 


Decatur Rep. Collins wouldn't even allow Rep. Mary Moore from Birmingham to finish describing the amendment before shutting her down.  Collins said she "hadn't seen the amendment," and so she wanted it tabled. Now, it's not hard to pass out a copy of an amendment that's essentially a couple of sentences long.  Still, the assembly voted to table Moore's motion without even discussing it.

Perhaps Hubbard & Marsh prefer the "Michigan model" for Alabama's charter schools:

Only two years after the state’s first charter schools opened, Michigan officials sounded an alarm that charter school laws were inadequate to prevent rogue operators from scamming the system for their benefit. But the Legislature failed to act until passing a law in 2011 that still leaves huge loopholes.

Follow the money.

It's interesting that Collins' sudden interest in the bill's content and the content of an amendment came after a dust up with Huntsville Rep. Laura Hall.  

Early in the debate, Hall pointed out that the copy of the bill's amendments she received in committee had different wording than the copy that Collins had on the floor.  What was up with that? The ensuing scramble led to a huddle on the House floor that lasted almost half a hour.

When Hall took the floor again, she announced that "a third party" outside the Legislature was making changes to the bill. Charter school supporters shrugged.  So what? That was no big deal, but Moore's amendment about legislators profiting from charters couldn't even be debated.

Follow the money.

Selma Rep. Darrio Melton said it best in response to assertions that the charter school bill was primarily designed to give parents and students "more choices" and educational options.

"This is about taking money from one bank account and moving it to another bank account."

Except the bank accounts in this case will no doubt be the for-profit charter school management companies that make big bucks on other states. This salary data is something that charter school companies like to keep secret. Some Philadelphia parents & public schools had to scramble at the beginning of this year to accommodate a number of students from a charter school that closed abruptly due to financial problems:

Over the years, Palmer has faced criticism that executives were too highly paid and that management employed nepotism in hiring.

According to the most recent two years of tax returns filed with the nonprofit database GuideStar.org, Palmer's daughter Dara worked as a pre-K instructor and earned roughly $50,000 a year. Palmer's son Amir Joshua worked in "student support" and earned $72,000 in one year.

And his related nonprofit Palmer Foundation earned $180,000 for "curriculum development" supplied to the Palmer schools.

Daira Hinson, the Palmer school's director of administration, invoked the Fifth Amendment 22 times in hearings last month regarding how the charter school's budget was overseen.

Hinson's son Trent also worked for the school and earned just over $48,800 and $58,000 in two consecutive years, according to Form 990 filings, which are public.

When faced with stories like this, our Legislature should be skeptical of charter school supporter's claims of greater parent input and school accountability. Just take a look at the swarms of blue-badged charter school lobbyists who have clogged the halls and wined and dined lawmaker at every opportunity. Does anyone really believe that these guys are here because they care about the future of Alabama students?

Follow the money, because that's why they're here.

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SB-45 - Charter School Double Talk From The GOP

by: countrycat

Sun Mar 15, 2015 at 16:14:19 PM CDT

The Alabama House could vote on SB-45, the charter school bill, as early as next week. While proponents are justifying the move as step forward in the name of "choice" and "competition." As indicted Speaker Mike Hubbard puts it, poor schools should "go out of business." It's surprising that a party whose rank and file is so anti-evolution in biological terms should be so gung ho for "survival of the fittest" in education policy.

Alabama charter schools 

From education expert and commentator Larry Lee:

Some of us can recall when Art Linkletter did a segment on his radio show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  He would ask questions of children and in their wonderful innocence they would give answers that often made us laugh.

I read or hear comments from politicians that deserve to also be called “the darndest things.”  But there is no innocence involved.  Instead, my usual reaction is, “Do they really believe what they are saying?”

Recently Speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, spoke to a Republican group in Huntsville.  Among his comments was, "In the real world, if you're doing a poor job of servicing your clients, you go out of business," Hubbard said. "Well, public schools never go out of business no matter how bad they are. So we're providing competition for those schools."

In the political world that was a great sound bite, which is why it was reported by al.com.  But it would have been better had it been true.

  • Number one: if a classroom full of 8-year olds isn’t the real world, what is?  The Speaker needs to spend some time in schools before he dismisses the work they do so flippantly.  
  • Number two: Schools “go out of business” all the time.  Records from the state department of education show that 125 schools have been closed since January 2010.  Five of the “failing” schools as designated by the Alabama Accountability Act a year ago are no longer around.  

As to the value of competition in improving schools, listen to Margaret Raymond, Director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes, one of the nation’s foremost education policy and research groups, as she recently discussed an extensive report about charter schools in Ohio.

“One of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl (is that) the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career.  Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.  It’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance.”

Other researchers have come to the same conclusion.

“School choice and competition simply have not helped, neither in the United States nor in countries like Chile that have wholeheartedly embraced them.  Rather than offering all students better opportunities, vouchers and charter schools have used tax dollars to help some students while leaving many others even more segregated and disadvantaged,” says David Berliner in his best-seller, 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools.

Not only do research and facts not back the Speaker’s statement, neither does logic.  By his logic we would close the fire station in the neighborhood that has the most fires.

This is not the approach we take to economic development.  Would we ever go to a struggling business in a community and tell them we’re recruiting one of their competitors to move to town?

Hardly, but we would probably contact one of the 10 small business development centers in the state to see what help they could provide the struggling company.  Or we might enlist the help of one of the 14 units of the Alabama Technology Network.

Contrast the Speaker’s comment about schools to this one from the same speech:

"When you have a good corporate citizen already providing jobs, we need to be able to help," Hubbard said. "Not to give a hand out, but to reward them and make the path clear for them to make new jobs."

He is exactly right.

So why not also help struggling schools and struggling communities?

According to the Alabama Accountability Act we have struggling schools in places like Louisville, Clayton, Union Springs, Abbeville, Lafayette, Eutaw, Greensboro, Fort Deposit, Notasulga, Marion, Reform and York.  So we should pull the rug out from under them?  To take away perhaps the most important thing they have, the one thing that rallies small communities together?

Real world?  These places are just as real as any others in Alabama.  Where real mamas and daddies long for success for their real children.  Where real people drive to real jobs and go to real churches on Sunday.

Why do we even think about turning our back on them?

Larry Lee led the study, "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools," and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.  larrylee33@knology.net


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