Last-minute switch was bad strategy

Published 11:42am Thursday, March 21, 2013

There must have been a better way to get the thing done.
That was my first thought when the fire storm erupted over HB84, the one-time school flexibility bill that morphed at the last second into a charter schools gateway.
It was once a seven-page bill to allow school systems to apply for leniency from burdensome state regulations. It had the full support of the state superintendent of education, and local superintendents spoke glowingly about its prospects.
Then boom.
In the course of a single conference committee, it tripled in size, turned into something else, and the shock waves from the bill’s metamorphosis will likely be felt throughout the session.
The new version of HB84 created tax breaks to help parents with kids “trapped in a failing school” to move to a nearby private school. I dropped the scare quotes on “failing schools” there because no exact definition has been given, nor official list established, and much confusion persists on that point. The tax credits would be paid out of the Education Trust Fund, up to 80 percent of the cost of schooling a child. There were also tax credits extended to businesses or individuals that provide scholarships to move kids from failing schools to approved private ones.
Maybe it’s a good bill, or now law, I guess, since Gov. Bentley signed the new and improved HB84 just as soon as the state supreme court struck down a challenge filed by the Alabama Education Association. Maybe it’s not.
It just seems to me it should have maintained the basic ideas on which it was introduced and debated over the first month of the session.
On one hand, it’s not hard to understand. Republicans have a powerful majority and, as they say, elections have consequences. But the way Democrats dominated the Statehouse over their 13-plus decades in power was not what I expected when the balance of power tipped the other way.
I’m OK with playing hardball with the opposition, fooling with and fighting the lawmakers and lobbyists on the other side of the aisle.
But the flexibility bill attracted strong support from rank-and-file educators. Elmore County School Superintendent Jeff Langham was among the supporters when we discussed it. But then, after being drawn by the bait of innocent “flexibility,” suddenly “the bottom fell out.”
It wasn’t the same bill he’d read, the one he’d gone on the record in support of. Langham and his fellow superintendents found their lawmakers hard to reach that Thursday night, suddenly unavailable after so many past overtures soliciting their support.
State Sen. Bryan Taylor defended the move in an email the next week. He said the tax credits were the right thing to do, to help students “trapped in failing schools.” It’s completely within the rights of lawmakers, he said, to replace a bill in conference.
And indeed it is, the switch is recorded right there in the bill’s history, as “flexibility” was substituted for “accountability.”
I don’t dispute either point. But just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. And if there’s an unqualified good — like a solid education for every child — it shouldn’t be hard to sell it to the public and be open about the initiative.
Instead, they sold the state some happy, harmless flexibility and switched it with a stalking horse for the same charter school ideas that GOP lawmakers couldn’t get their own colleagues behind in last year’s session.
Taylor and others have insisted the bill won’t affect Elmore County. But we’ve seen enough “Adequate Yearly Progress” lists with the word “failed” next to our hometown schools to be alarmed.
I believe charter schools could be an answer to save students in poorly performing school districts. But it should be dwebated honestly on the merits.
I fear the last-minute moves for “school accountability” will make that problematic. After the AEA lawsuit failed, Democrats began a symbolic filibuster to gum things up in the last two legislative days before spring break.
When they return, lawmakers in the House will take up the budget. Hopefully hurt feelings over faux flexibility won’t doom another session at the Statehouse to pointless gridlock.

David D. Goodwin is political editor of The Wetumpka Herald. Email him at

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