MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- Education groups are taking opposing sides on legislation being pushed by Republicans in both houses of the Alabama Legislature to allow local school systems more flexibility on budgets, curriculum, staffing and other issues.
Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Henry Mabry said the flexibility bill could lead to charter schools, which AEA has opposed. Mabry said the bill could lead to a loss of accountability and lower curriculum requirements and hiring standards.
"Standards could certainly be weakened and there would be no way to police what was going on at the local level," Mabry said.
The AEA represents teachers, school support workers and other education employees and retirees.
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, which supports the bill, disputed Mabry's assertion about charter schools.
"This is not a charter school bill, whatsoever," Howell said. She said school boards support the measure as a way to bring more innovation into education.
"It's very frustrating when you try to look at innovation and reform and the same organizations consistently throw up hurdles and obstacles," Howell said. "We all want our students to learn at higher levels and our schools to succeed. And we need to look at new ways and different ways of making that happen."
State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, today pre-filed the Local Control School Flexibility Act for the legislative session that begins Feb. 5.
"Of utmost importance to me is the fact that we should not use a one-size-fits-all concept for education," Holtzclaw said in a news release. "Every community knows what is best for their students and the flexibility provided by this legislation encourages innovation, tailored to the uniqueness of each community, and will improve academic outcomes and maximize use of available resources in each system."
Holtzclaw's bill is identical to one pre-filed Wednesday by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Mobile. Fincher's bill is part of the agenda announced last week by the House Republican Caucus.
The bill would allow school systems to enter contracts with the state Board of Education allowing more flexibility on curriculum, budgets, staffing, personnel, scheduling and other matters. School systems would seek waivers from education policies and laws to obtain the flexibility.
Howell said the legislation includes safeguards against weakening curriculum or standards, as Mabry contended could happen.
The bill says that to "be considered as an innovative school system" under the act, school systems would have to meet requirements set by the state Department of Education for flexibility contracts. Among those requirements would be:
--- Submission to the state Department of Education of a document of assurance that the local school board would provide consistency in leadership and a commitment to "state standards, assessments, and academic rigor."
--- Submission to the State Board of Education a resolution passed by the local school board supporting the flexibility contract proposal and the anticipated timeline of the local school system.
--- Providing an opportunity for full discussion and public input before submitting a flexibility contract proposal to the State Board of Education.
--- Ensuring that the proposal is easily accessible to the public on the website of the local school system.
The bill lists requirements that could not be waived under a flexibility contract. Some of those listed are:
--- Requirements imposed by federal laws.
--- Requirements related to the health and safety of students and employees.
--- Requirements imposed by open records or open meetings laws.
--- Requirements related to financial or academic reporting or transparency.
--- Requirements designed to protect the civil rights of students or employees.
--- Requirements related to participation in a state retirement system or state health insurance plan.
The bill also says: "This act may not be construed to allow a local school system to compensate a current employee at an annual rate that is less than the amount the current employee would otherwise be afforded through the State Minimum Salary Schedule."
In addition, the bill says: "This act may not be construed to allow a local school system to require any employee to involuntarily relinquish any rights or privileges acquired by that employee as a result of attaining tenure or nonprobationary status."
Mabry said the legislation could lead to a "domino effect" where one school system is awarded waivers and others apply pressure for the same treatment.
"Another school system will say, 'If school system A got it, why can't we have it?' Then there will be political pressure put on them to give these waivers to state laws," Mabry said. "Before you know it, you'll have school systems all across this state doing something different with no accountability and no transparency. And the taxpayers of this state will not stand for that."
Howell said the flexibility would allow school systems to come up with innovative ways to address specific problems. She said those innovations would range widely from small tweaks to larger changes.
For example, she said state law requires schools to deliver 10 minutes of character education a day.
"Well, that's probably not the most effective way to deliver that instruction," Howell said. "This way a school system could get an exemption from that requirement and do something we think would probably have more lasting results for students."
Another example would be greater flexibility in hiring those with business or occupational experiences as teachers.
"We can do some of that already," Howell said. "This allows us to do that with greater ease. Look at retired engineers, what they can bring and are bringing to school programs. It's not that it's not being done. But it could be done without having to jump through many hoops and hurdles."
Mabry said hiring flexibility could be used in ways that hurt schools.
"They could easily replace someone that has 25 years of experience who has a master's degree or a doctorate and replace them with somebody wet behind the ears who has no experience just to save money," he said.
Mabry said the AEA would support more flexibility for local school systems "where it helps the teachers teach and where it helps the students learn. But to just try to pass legislation that circumvents everything that this state and past leaders have worked for the past 80 years in one fell swoop is irresponsible."
Howell said last year, when charter school legislation failed to pass, she heard opponents say they supported flexibility, just not charter schools. She said the bill introduced by Holtzclaw and Fincher provides that.
"We spend over $5 billion on public schools in Alabama," Howell said. "Why would we not give the schools that we've already invested in the ability to innovate? ... The other point I think is so very interesting is that during last year's legislative session, folks said, 'Oh, I'm all for flexibility and innovation. I don't want charters.' Well, here is a pure innovation bill. Based on what everybody said last year, they would support this."