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Senate votes to scrap elected school board

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill that would replace the elected state K-12 board of education with a new commission appointed by the governor passed unanimously out of the Senate on Thursday.

If approved in the House and then Alabama voters, the constitutional amendment would be a monumental overhaul of public education governance in the state and end Alabama’s status as one of the few states with an elected board.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who is sponsoring the bill, said it allows for more scrutiny of potential education decision makers.

“The nominations have to go through a vetting process in the Senate before confirmation,” Marsh said. “Right now, citizens are taking a shot in the dark. Most citizens don’t really get to know those individuals (they vote for), so it’s a shot in the dark because there is not background checks or vetting process for them.”

The proposed new nine-member Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education would consist of members — including one from each congressional district— appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The commission would appoint a state education secretary who would replace the state superintendent. That position would also have to be confirmed by the Senate.

The legislation says the governor “shall ensure” that the commission membership reflects the geographical, gender, and racial diversity of the public school enrollment. Members would serve six-year staggered terms.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, voted for the legislation but said he still has concerns.

“I want more oversight, more accountability, more transparency,” he said, adding that he’d like to see the new commission give regular reports to the Senate Education Policy Committee. He’s hoping to get that language in another bill still pending in the Legislature.

Singleton said he’s concerned that the new K-12 commission could become like the appointed community college board created in 2015.

“The junior college system, they don’t really answer to anybody,” he said.

Senators who support the bill say that this is a needed change to get the state out of the bottom of national education rankings.

The legislation includes a directive for the new education commission to replace Common Core curriculum standards.

“I do think that looking at what has taken place over the last several years with Common Core, that the statistics are very clear,” Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said. “We haven’t made any significant gains at all and have fallen short of the benchmarks, so it’s one that needs to be looked at and I think the senator’s attempt to do that is one that we should support and have an open mind to.”

Developed the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core standards were meant to address deficiencies in several states’ curriculum standards. They are also meant to align the varied curriculum standards across the country, providing portability between states that is particularly coveted by military families. Forty-five states have adopted the standards, including Alabama in 2010. But pushback in recent years has lead to multiple bills in the State House to drop any connection to Common Core.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, also supports the bill and thinks that Alabama should join how the majority of other state’s where governors appoint board members.

“I think you have to look at the whole debate on this because you’re looking at not just the Common Core issue but also the school board,” Ward said. “I think there are only 6 or 7 states left that have an elected school board, so I think having that dialogue is good.”

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, was a co-sponsor and said that he supports the bill because it’s time to fix Alabama’s education issues.

“We’re 50th in the country in education so we’ve got to make some changes. I know nobody likes to make changes, but our kids are getting the short end of the stick and it’s time to see what we can do to help them,” Melson said.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was a co-sponsor on the bill. He said other states with this form of governance are better ranked than Alabama. He thinks an appointed board will move the state forward.

“The best thing is the people will get the right to vote on it so the case will need to be made to (get their approval),” Orr said. “It’s a very clear decision they’ll have to make at the ballot box.”

Some senators were concerned about the repeal of the Common Core and the level of direct democracy that would be taken away from people’s ability to vote for school board members.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he supports Marsh’s efforts to try to correct education problems in the state but doesn’t like aspects of the bill.

“… We are taking away the direct vote on a recurring basis for the citizens to vote on their representation,” he said.

Marsh said people will vote on the referendum during the March 2020 presidential primary, but that having the board appointed instead of elected is better in the long run because it takes the politics out of the process.

“As far as I’m concerned, all of those members already on the board who wish to put their name in the hat to the governor to be appointed can do so,” Marsh said. “But we will have an appointed board that won’t be worried about being reelected and instead be worried about fixing education in the state of Alabama.”

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, thinks the change is needed to improve education statewide.

“I think it gives us an opportunity for our state to change our direction in how we’re going because where we are is not where any of us want to be. So I think it puts us on the right foot going forward,” Roberts said.

Earlier this session, Marsh sponsored legislation to eliminate Common Core. The School Superintendents of Alabama opposed that bill but are neutral on this new bill.

“(We) support the will of the voters in Alabama,” SSA executive director Ryan Hollingsworth said.

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