A group of GOP senators is aiming to restructure Alabama’s State Board of Education (SBOE) by ending public elections of members and switching to a system of gubernatorial appointments.
The changeup is proposed in a bill filed last week by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. As written, SB 397 would scrap the board as it exists today and replace it with a new entity called the “Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education.”
Currently, the board’s eight members are elected from each of Alabama’s U.S. Congressional districts, but the commission outlined in Marsh’s vision would have nine members — each of whom would be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
In addition to changing the selection of SBOE members, the bill would also abolish the current position of Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education currently held by Eric Mackey and replace it with a new one dubbed the “Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education.”
Mackey hasn’t taken a strong position for or against the proposed legislation, but did release a statement last week touting “positive changes” in Alabama’s education system that have happened since he took over the post from Michael Sentance in April 2018.
“Should any roles or responsibilities relating to my job or the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) change … I will have to cross that bridge if it comes,” Mackey said.
Marsh, who has been a driving force behind a number of shifts in Alabama’s education policies in recent years, said last week that changing the makeup of the state’s school board would be a crucial component to fixing Alabama’s “broken” public education system from the top down.
“Currently, one of the reasons that education is consistently the most pressing issue for most Alabamians is because our state school board is completely dysfunctional,” Marsh said in a statement to the press. “Our teachers and students are the ones who suffer from this the most.”
He also noted SBOE has gone through five state superintendents in three years.
It’s no secret Marsh and other state leaders haven’t been the biggest supporters of SBOE’s leadership as of late. Marsh led an effort to repeal Alabama’s Common Core standards earlier this year that also aimed to strip the board’s authority to set statewide academic standards.
By statute, Gov. Kay Ivey serves as an ex officio member of the board, but over the past two years she’s taken a more active role than many of her predecessors. However, Ivey has already thrown support behind Marsh’s plan and has says Alabama is failing to provide “a quality education.”
“We have been listed at the bottom of just about every education ranking you can find,” Ivey said in a May 9 statement. “With this bold change, we’ll establish accountability and stability at the top, improving educational outcomes for all students across the state.”
Supporters of a change blame SBOE for the state’s historically poor performance on measurements like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has shown Alabama to be performing at or near the bottom in multiple academic subject areas for years.
According to Marsh, some of the states consistently outperforming Alabama have appointed SBOEs, and as of 2017, Alabama was one of only seven states with a fully elected board.
Reaction to SB 397 has been somewhat mixed among SBOE members, but several are strongly opposed to Marsh’s proposal, including Jackie Zeigler, who represents Southwest Alabama.
The day after the bill was filed, Zeigler told Lagniappe she’s 100 percent opposed to ending public elections for SBOE members, adding it should raise red flags for everyone when “legislators and governors think their views are more valuable than [citizens’].”
“I am appalled Montgomery politicians want to take away the voice of the people,” Zeigler wrote via email. “If the community is not happy with board members, they can vote the members out of office. If they’re happy, then vote to keep them. Your power to do so will no longer be an option with an appointed board selected by a governor with legislative confirmation.”
While Marsh’s bill would end voters’ direct say in who shapes the state’s education policies, it would ultimately have to be approved by the public in a statewide referendum vote that would take place during the presidential primary in March 2020.
As written, the bill also has some built-in limitations and requirements for board members.
Members would only be able to serve two six-year terms, as opposed to the current system, which has no term limits. The newly created commission would also be required to match the “geographical, gender and racial diversity” of Alabama’s public school system.
One of the local co-sponsors of the bill, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, was pretty direct with his criticism of SBOE, which he said has failed to develop and implement a “cohesive education plan.” He’s also been pretty open about his feelings about Mackey’s performance so far.
That’s at least partially driven by Mackey’s handling of the disagreements that arose and to some extent still persist between the Baldwin County Public School System (BCPSS) and the city of Gulf Shores, which is in the process of starting its own school system.
“I think it’s safe to say I’m no fan of [Mackey’s]. His handling of the Gulf Shores city school system split was atrocious,” Elliott told Lagniappe. “He was absolutely an obstacle in that process, and I think his departure will be a welcome one for folks in Coastal Alabama.”
Elliott said he understands some of the concerns opponents of the bill have raised about undoing the public’s direct role in selecting members of SBOE for their areas, but believes state legislators will be able to fill the gap between local communities, local schools and Montgomery.
“We think we can do this better by having the governor set policy and having the legislature’s input. These are folks who are responsible to the public and known to them — I would say more so than the members of [SBOE],” Elliott said. “To me, this is a better way for the public to deal with education, and I think you’ll see a decentralization of the authority of ALSDE and see more control in the hands of local school boards.”
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