By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Legislation to potentially replace Alabama’s elected K-12 board of education with a commission of governor appointees will be voted on in a Senate committee on Tuesday.
The proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has the support of Gov. Kay Ivey, who is also president of the board of education.
“As we know all too well, statistic after statistic — and study after study — shows that our children are not getting the best education possible or even the best education that is available,” Ivey said in a letter to board members last week.
She said that’s not the fault of students or “our many good, dedicated teachers and administrators all across the state.”
“… the fact is our current system of governance is broken and desperately needs fixing.”
Senate Bill 397 changes the board of education to the “Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education.” The governor would appoint the nine members, the Senate would confirm them. Instead of a state superintendent of education, the commission would appoint a secretary of elementary and secondary education.
Marsh has been involved in much of the major education-related legislation in recent years, including the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows public dollars to follow students to private schools, and the creation of charter schools.
“If we look at some of the problems we see in education, I think we can track them back to that the elected board isn’t working as smoothly as you’d like it to,” Marsh told Alabama Daily News.
Marsh said he’s not pointing fingers at anyone, but his proposal would take politics out of K-12 governance.
“They need to stick to policy,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he’s “a little apprehensive” about the bill and intends to talk with education groups about their support for or concerns about it.
“I do agree that governance is an issue,” Singleton said. “I want this (bill) to better education. But I don’t want to make changes just to make changes.”
Singleton said Marsh’s bill would likely get an additional black member overseeing public education. There are now two.
The bill says membership of the commission should reflect the “geographical, gender, and racial diversity of the students enrolled in public K-12 education in the state.” Black students make up about 32 percent of the student population.
The Alabama Constitution says the state board oversees public schools and “shall be elected in such a manner as the Legislature may provide.”
Ending the elected board takes voter approval and the constitutional amendment would be on the March 2020 ballot, along with the presidential and U.S. Senate primaries.
Marsh said the legislation is one of about a half dozen priority bills he wants to see passed in the remaining weeks of the session.
Alabama is one of only six states with an elected school board.
States that are performing at the highest level all have governor-appointed boards, Marsh said.
“I don’t see why we’d be any different,” he said.
Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts and Missouri have the governance structure Marsh’s bill would create, according to the Education Commission of the States.
“What are those states spending on their kids?” Singleton said.
With the exceptions of Florida and Missouri, all those states spent more per pupil than Alabama’s $9,236 in 2016, according to Governing Magazine.
And other factors to be accounted for, he said.
“I’ve got kids that have to travel 30 minutes to an hour to get to school,” Singleton said. “And then, they may be in a school with a leaky roof.”
Board member Jeff Newman, a Republican whose northwest Alabama district includes the Shoals, Lawrence County, western part of Limestone County and northern part of Tuscaloosa County, said he wasn’t surprised by Marsh’s bill, given recent suggestions from the State House.
In 2016, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, sponsored late in the legislative session a bill to allow the governor to select the state superintendent.
In 2017, Marsh said doing away with the elected K-12 board could be part of a larger discussion of how to streamline K-12 through post-secondary education.
In 2018, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, sponsored legislation to make the state superintendent a governor appointee who would then select a “board of counsel.” That legislation did not advance out of committee.
“Elected board or appointed board, the challenges aren’t going to go away,” Newman said about factors like schools’ funding, special needs populations and students living in poverty.
In 2015, lawmakers created an appointed board to oversee the state’s community college system. Members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
“That’s worked very smoothly,” Marsh said.
But Singleton said he doesn’t feel like he has “the authority to say anything” to those board members.
“I feel like it’d be the same with this new K-12 board,” he said.
Newman and other board members last week said they’ll respect the public’s vote, should the constitutional amendment get on the March ballot.
“I respect the right of the people to vote, but I also believe in elected officials,” Newman said. “You’re connected directly to the people that way.”
Board member Yvette Richardson, a three-term Democrat whose district includes Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, said she’s heard rumblings of an appointed board since she began serving.
She said Ivey called board members on Wednesday before the legislation was filed Thursday.
“I told the governor when you’re a leader, you have to do what you think is best,” Richardson said. “But I am happy that it will go to the constituents. It allows (Ivey) an opportunity to do what she thinks is best, but also allows the people an opportunity to decide how to proceed.”
She also said the partisan board works well, “unifying to make the best decision on behalf of students.”
Board member Cynthia McCarty, R-Anniston, is in her second term. Her district includes Morgan County.
“Yes, we have faced challenges in Alabama education, not least the budget cuts during the Great Recession, but serving our children is always the first priority,” McCarty said. “I support giving Alabama citizens the right to decide what is best.”
The bill has 20 Republican co-sponsors. Senate Education Policy chairman Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, expects the committee to approve the bill Tuesday.
“We’ve got to get our kids more competitive,” Melson said. “Our kids are just talented as any in the country, but we’re not bringing it out of them.”