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 released a statement last week touting what he called “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. “Until then we will continue to work hard with SBOE to support students and schools in this state.”
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 pointed to the fact that Alabama’s SBOE has gone through five state superintendents in three years. Others noted board members have recently failed to agree on relatively routine matters like approving appointments to the state’s charter school commission.
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.
Zeigler, who spent 37 years in education as a teacher and administrator, also expressed frustration with the amount of focus legislators have placed on assessments like NAEP. She said those assessments give educators at the school level valuable data, but said such information should be used to drive instruction in the classroom, not statewide educational policy.
“Way too much emphasis is placed on pulling out test results in isolation without thoroughly looking at valuable teaching opportunities being afforded to our talented, hard-working teachers,” she added. “SBOE is being viewed as the problem when in reality we are the voice of our students and parents. We are looking at the whole picture.”
One of the local co-sponsors of the bill, Sen. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, said he’s both a product and a supporter of public education and has nothing against the board members, but thinks Alabama’s performance on things like NAEP show why there’s a need for change at the top.
“I think most people support wanting to make education better in our state, but you’ve got to take steps to make that happen,” he said. “The current board has not seemed to be an overly effective body. I’m not saying this is a better approach, but you don’t know until you try.”
Sessions said he understands some of the concerns opponents of the bill have raised about undoing the public’s role in selecting members, but believes the state Senate would “take seriously” its role in “making sure nominees are qualified” to serve on SBOE.
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