The 2012 Legislative session ended Wednesday with mixed results for Alabama students.
School Grading and Rewards Bills
A bill empowering the State Department of Education to use letter grades for schools and create a reward program based on the grades is awaiting the governor’s signature after passing the Legislature. HB588 would require the SDE to use letter grades based on a school’s effectiveness, and it would also put into motion a process of rewarding high-performing and improving schools.
This would work in tandem with the SDE’s new assessment and accountability system being developed.
The Legislature passed an Education Trust Fund budget late Wednesday night for next year. A substitute bill was introduced in conference committee yesterday that differed slightly from previous versions of the budget bill, SB318 because it maintained funding for teacher units that would have been cut under other plans. The governor is expected to sign it.
The new budget maintains funding for programs that have proven effective at improving student achievement in Alabama. Funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative, and pre-k has been maintained, while funding for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and Advanced Placement saw an increase. State funding that aids Teach For America’s presence in the Black Belt took a 6.37% cut.
Flexibility and Charter Schools
The Education Options Act intended to allow for the creation of public charter schools in Alabama and give charter school-like flexibility to traditional public schools, did not pass. The bill began as a strong example of accountability that would have fostered high-performing public charter schools and freed traditional schools from being hindered by bureaucratic limits. However, by the time the Senate passed SB513, the Education Options Act had been amended to the point that it would not have offered real flexibility and or created a charter school. The House Ways and Means Education committee killed the bill instead of voting on it.
The Alabama Education Association, School Superintendents of Alabama, and local superintendents actively opposed the Education Options Act in the House, as HB650. This version never came up on the House floor. The Alabama Association of School Boards initially opposed the bill, but withdrew their opposition prior to favorable committee action when changes to the bill satisfied them.
The School Superintendents of Alabama and AEA did not oppose the senate version, SB513, which was from the beginning a weakened version of the Education Options Act that passed the Senate. “It will be very difficult to have any kind of charter school in Alabama,” said AEA head Henry Mabry in an Associated Press story after the Senate passed the amended version of SB513.
After the House WME Committee killed the SB513, Speaker Mike Hubbard noted it was not worth passing. “What the Senate sent us was totally unacceptable, unworkable and meaningless,” Hubbard is quoted as saying in the al.com story.
School Calendar Bill
The Flexible School Calendar Act (HB360) that limits school systems ability to set their own calendars has become law. This bill—a perennial favorite of the tourism industry and summer camps—restricts school system calendars to beginning no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day and ending no later than the Friday before Memorial Day. The bill converts the requirement for schools to have 180 instructional days to the equivalent number of instructional hours, which is 1080 (not including time for lunch and recess).
No school system in the state met both the start and end date requirements under their old calendars, and systems are now reassessing their calendars for next year. Some systems have begun adopting alternative plans, many of which cut the number of instructional days to 170-176 while adding 8-20 minutes onto each day.
The Alabama Education Association and School Superintendents of Alabama supported the calendar bill as a way to save teacher jobs in a deal that would commit extra revenue from increased tourism to the ETF budget. The Legislative Fiscal Office refused to produce a fiscal note confirming this. The Alabama Association of School Boards opposed the bill due to its provisions limiting local school board control.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice is encouraging systems to maintain 180-day calendars. He has discussed the negative effects of the “summer slide” that results in a loss of learning over the summer, touching on points made in an op-ed by A+ that ran during the session. Bice notified systems that they will have to return the equivalent amount of child nutrition funding for any days they cut from 180. Additionally, adding minutes to each day could create complications with extra overtime pay, and it could cost the systems money when they try to restore days after the bill sunsets.