Friday, May 4, 2012

Educators defeat massive charter expansion bill*

Ah, Alabama.* You give us hope. If only you were nearer, so we might see more easily the lessons you offer.

Word from Montgomery this week informs us that the Alabama Senate has defied its more radical ideologues -- the far right-wingers demanding an immediate dismantling of public education in that state -- and replaced a massive expansion of Alabama charter school statutes with a bill restricting the impact area and attaching a more rigorous approval process.

And how much sadder it leaves us feeling, that in the same week that educators and public schoolchildren win in Alabama, educators and public schoolchildren lose here in South Carolina.

The Press-Register reports it:

The Alabama Senate passed a version of the Education Options Act Wednesday night, but the proposal was so watered down that even supporters doubted whether a charter school could ever be created under the bill, should it become law.

The latest incarnation of Senate Bill 513, sponsored by Pike Road Republican Sen. Dick Brewbaker, added several strict limitations to how and where charters could be created in Alabama.

A charter school could only be approved in the counties that contain Alabama’s four biggest cities: Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville, Brewbaker said. The bill previously required that no more than 20 charters could be created statewide, and only as replacements of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Wednesday’s version kept those provisions.

Perhaps most significantly, the new version of the bill would require the local school district’s superintendent — and every state lawmaker representing the area — to approve a charter school before it could be created, according to Brewbaker. They could not be overruled.

That would include lawmakers like Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.

"Just leave us alone," Smitherman said on the Senate floor. "I don’t want ‘em (charter schools). My citizens don’t want 'em. ... I am a full believer in public schools."

Say that man's name again: Senator Rodger Smitherman!

And listen to his words once more: "Just leave us alone," Smitherman said on the Senate floor. "I don’t want ‘em (charter schools). My citizens don’t want 'em. ... I am a full believer in public schools."

Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.

Senator Smitherman, tribune of the people, restorer of faith in the democratic process.

But the howling has begun, and it rolls around the halls of the Capitol still.

"There ain’t no way you’ll ever have a charter school in this bill," Sen. Trip Pittman, a Montrose Republican who voted for the legislation, told reporters with a laugh, when asked about the bill’s new restrictions.

Brewbaker disagreed, saying that if their district superintendent strongly supports a charter proposal, he thinks lawmakers will go along.

He added that another change to the bill requires the state superintendent to take over schools that are consistently low-performing. If lawmakers refuse a charter, they’ll likely see such a state takeover, Brewbaker said.

"The same schools have been failing students year after year, and it just goes on like that," Brewbaker said in an interview. "If this becomes law, a year after that day, at least one thing will change, and that will be who’s making the decisions at those low-performing schools, and that’s important."

The bill passed the Senate 23-12, on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against.

A House version of the legislation has yet to pass that chamber, and Brewbaker anticipated that House lawmakers would focus on his version, now that it’s through the Senate.

The first incarnation of the Education Options Act mandated that only non-profit organizations could run charter schools in Alabama. Brewbaker went further in the latest version, barring non-profits with poor performance records from running Alabama charters. Additionally, he said that the new bill would only allow non-profits to sub-contract work to for-profit companies if traditional schools in Alabama use for-profit companies for similar work.

In addition to its charter and state-takeover provisions, the bill also allows local school districts statewide to apply for waivers that would let them bypass state regulations.

Alabama Education Association head Henry Mabry, once a staunch opponent of the bill, said he was pleased with the changes Brewbaker made.

"The way it came out of the Senate is a marked improvement of the way it was introduced," Mabry said. "It’s certainly something that we could live with."

In fact, it's Mabry, the teacher leader, who is being given credit by the Alabama Political Reporter, a publication similar to Andy Brack's Statehouse Report here.

One of the big ticket items on the GOP list of “must pass bills” was charter schools. What posted out of the senate last night resembled a charter school bill in much the same way a skunk resembles a cat. Both are furry but most people wouldn’t let a skunk sit in their lap.

As an adult -- and not a politician -- when you are wrong you should admit it.

I thought and wrote that the AEA would lose the charter school fight. I thought AEA head Henry Mabry could not pull off the coup de grĂ¢ce of killing charter schools with a GOP super majority in control. I was wrong, Mr. Mabry, I apologize. You won, plain and simple.
If there was any doubt that the AEA is still the most powerful political organization in Alabama last night’s vote in the Senate should remove all doubt.

Now, let me make this clear, I am not opposed to the AEA. I understand its purpose, I just wish it were a teacher’s union and not a labor union. I mean really, do we need to promise bus drivers tenure and a lifetime pension? I think not. Teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow for Alabama’s children. I wish we could pay teacher 200k a year like we pay some government officials. If I were not a journalist I would be a teacher, in my later years I would like to teach “real journalism” something of a dying profession.

With this bill we can only pray that it will be a start toward pulling a few of our children out of failing schools. I have little hope. I really care about education. My teachers and professors helped shape the man I am today (some may think they didn’t do a very good job), but with all my failings I work hard to do my job to educate people about Alabama politics.
I commend Senator Brewbaker for getting this bill through the Senate, you did the best you could under tremendous opposition and wavering from within your own party.

But the real winner last night was Henry Mabry. He fought with guts and conviction, working the floor and making the rounds.

Congratulations from a humble journalist.

So let's ponder this question: What do educators in Alabama know, that educators in South Carolina do not?

I have to wonder: Does unity of purpose, and unity of action, have something to do with their victory?

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