The only common question on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots next week is one of education. Proposed Statewide Amendment One seeks to remove the right of voters to elect representatives to the state school board, and instead replace the elected board with political appointees of the governor.
But the ballot language itself isn’t so clear. It doesn’t acknowledge the existing, elected school board, but rather defines the proposed amendment intending “to change the name of the State Board of Education to the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education” and “to provide for the appointment of the members of the commission by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate.”
In effect, it would dismantle the board as it exists today. The governor’s appointed school board, under the amendment, would be tasked with naming a secretary of elementary and secondary education, replacing the existing state superintendent’s position. The secretary would also have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Finally, the amendment would allow the governor to “appoint a team of local educators and other officials to advise the commission on matters relating to the functioning and duties of the State Department of Education.”
Today, Gov. Kay Ivey serves as president of the Alabama State Board of Education, but as she insinuated last year when the Legislature voted to put the amendment on the ballot, and again at her State of the State Address Feb. 4, the change is designed to obtain consistency in leadership and improve the state’s dismal rankings in national education assessments.
“We’ve gotten all too complacent to being at or near the bottom of national education rankings,” she said during the address. “Sadly, too many of our third graders are not proficient in reading.
“In fact, according to the Nation’s Report Card, we are 49th in the nation in reading and we are 52nd in the nation in math,” behind even Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
“This isn’t the fault of our hard-working teachers, principals or local superintendents … it starts at the top,” Ivey said, also noting how the board has cycled through five superintendents in the past five years.
According to the nonpartisan Public Research Affairs Council of Alabama (PARCA), which published its analysis of the amendment last week, Alabama is one of 11 states that have an elected school board. Its report explained the process used for the selection of state school boards along with superintendents or secretaries “has implications for accountability, decision-making and setting priorities for a state’s K-12 education system,” PARCA distinguished four different models of state education systems nationwide.
The existing, elected model in Alabama, PARCA suggests, likely leaves the governor “in the weakest position to craft or control the education agenda, compared to the other models.”
When alignment is not present across state leadership, the report warns, “states will likely face limitations in pushing for and sustaining ambitious policy changes. At the same time, an elected board will be highly responsive to voters and will seek out their opinion, preferences and needs.”
Alternately, in the proposed model, “the governor still has power in shaping the education agenda, but has less direct control over the implementation of policies through the superintendent’s office,” PARCA found.
Twelve states already follow the proposed model, including Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut, which have some of the highest educational performance in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which publishes the Nation’s Report Card cited by Ivey. But others with appointed boards, including West Virginia, Arkansas and Alaska, only rank slightly higher than Alabama.
The governor’s office said Amendment One is not a power grab, but rather an accountability measure that will place any failures of public education in the state squarely on the shoulders of the governor.
“Gov. Kay Ivey is passionate about improving Alabama’s education system, and there is no stronger example of that than her support of Amendment One,” a spokesman offered to Lagniappe last week. “We must give our citizens the opportunity to make systemic changes such as implementing term limits. She is urging Alabamians committed to improving our rock-bottom test scores to vote ‘yes’ on Amendment One on their March 3 ballot.”
Amendment One will also create term limits for the state board, with no member being allowed to serve more than two six-year terms. “Equally important,” Ivey said, “the newly constituted board will reflect the racial, gender and geographic diversity to reflect the makeup of students in our public school system.”
The nine-member board is currently comprised of five white women, two black women and two white men who, with the exception of Ivey, were elected within one of eight districts.
In its analysis, PARCA gave no opinion about which model is preferable.
“The selection process for state school boards and state superintendents is important, and there are reasonable arguments for both elections and appointments,” it concluded. “Regardless, the selection process will not remove politics. The nature of the task — setting and implementing the state’s K-12 education policy — means state school boards will likely always be politicized to some degree.”
Ivey claims Amendment One is supported by 80 percent of the Legislature, but it is not without its opponents. The conservative nonprofit Common Sense Campaign (CSC) has been against the proposal since last year, claiming the ballot language is deceptive, it removes the right of the people to vote and it “locks Alabama in” to national standards.
“Our examination of the evidence concerning the success of appointed boards versus elected concluded performance wanes if governors can appoint agency leaders and members of state education boards,” CSC reported, citing a 2006 presentation of professor Paul Manna to the American Political Science Association. “There is little correlation between an appointed board and success. Three of the top 10 states have elected board members, six of the bottom 10 have appointed board members.”
Similarly, Jackie Ziegler, who represents South Alabama and serves as president pro-tem on the state school board, said she was “vehemently opposed” to Amendment One not only because it takes away the will of voters, but also because the board is on the cusp of making significant strides.
“We’ve already started looking at what’s working and what’s not and we are making plans,” Ziegler said. “But what needs to be understood is nothing is going to be a quick fix. You are not going to be turning it around in a year’s time, or even two or even three.”
When improving education policy, Alabama cannot simply adopt what may work in other states, Ziegler said, without considering the implications it may have on existing standards and protocols.
“It’s an all-encompassing array of issues that need to be addressed. You have to deal with poverty, you have to deal with the medically fragile, the learning disabled … Then when we keep adding all these social ills, we turn to the schools and say we need you to fix them,” she said. “What we can do is take it piecemeal or take what would work for our needs in Alabama, but we need to build that foundation upon which to grow.”
Ziegler downplayed the NEAP rankings, calling it “false information” based on “a random sampling of fourth and eighth graders.”
“It was never meant to be used as a ranking,” she said.
Elected in 2016, Ziegler said she wasn’t a part of the superintendent turnover that plagued the board before Dr. Eric Mackey was appointed in 2018, and she believes they are nurturing a long-lasting relationship.
“I think we’re definitely on the same page,” she said of Mackey. “The communication is improved. I talk to him constantly, and if I need something he’s there. The staff is working on areas with him to address certain issues. He’s new at it and with that you do have some little bumps in the road, but it appears that things are leveling out very well and we’re moving forward and I think the time is now for us to be together on wanting what’s best for the kids.”
But one of her primary complaints about the amendment is the ballot language.
“They’re not lying about [it], just misrepresenting the huge impact it will have by not allowing the people to have a voice and vote for their elected officials,” Ziegler said.
State Sen. Chris Elliott, one of the many cosponsors of the legislation accompanying the vote, said he believed the amendment is giving voters that exact voice.
“My big thing is and has been and remains: Education is broken in Alabama and everybody agrees. This is how we manage it. This gives voters the opportunity to look at it and see if this is a possible solution,” he said.
State Rep. Matt Simpson voted last year to put the amendment on next week’s ballot.
“It creates a level of accountability that is currently not there,” he said in January. “Everybody is pointing fingers at each other and if you do this appointed system, there is no more finger-pointing; all that accountability falls back on the governor. Then the Senate will be involved so there are checks and balances there. The bottom line is it can’t be any worse that it is now because we’re 50th.”
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