If you are an old-timer like me, or maybe just someone who listened while your Daddy told you about the “good old days,” you know that Dick Tracy was the square-jawed detective in the comic books and Sgt. Friday was the star of Dragnet back in the days of black and white TV. Like all good detectives, they always got to the bottom of things.
Which is exactly what we need right now in the case of the state charter school commission. We need to find out why they have ducked and dodged and failed to look out for the best interests of students and school systems in their unabashed zeal to sprinkle the landscape with charter schools–whether the local community wanted them or not.
Unfortunately, we tend to pass laws in this state and then never look back to see if they are working as we thought they would. We just create things, forget about them, and have no oversight.
Would we buy a new car and then expect it to run forever without changing the oil from time to time, getting new tires, checking the air filter, getting new brakes and on and on? Why don’t we treat legislation the same way?
And goodness knows, if we have learned anything from the Washington County charter debacle, it is that we need to ask lots and lots of questions about how the state charter school commission operates. In other words, is their oil running low?
Either the Senate or the House education policy committee needs to open an investigation and interview all the players from both sides.
Here are some of the questions that need to be asked:
The law says before a charter is approved, the commission will look to see what the current situation is in regards to the quality of local schools. In this case, Washington County schools got a B on the last state report card. That is as good as any county system in southwest Alabama and better than several. In addition, there is not a private school in Washington County, which speaks volumes as to how the local community feels about its public schools.
The law says the commission should determine how much local support there is for a charter school. One of the ways they do this is by holding community meetings to hear from the pros and cons. The commission did this. One of the meetings was at the Chatom library. I have been told that about 50 people came. Those who opposed the charter greatly outnumbered those in support. A commission staff member videoed the meeting and said she would show the video to commission board members. Was this done?
This same staff member later said the commission was unaware of opposition. Yet, prior to the commission taking up this application on May 14, 2018, opponents sent several hundred postcards to commission board members expressing their view. (And then were rebuked for having done so when they came to the meeting.)
Why did the commission ignore the recommendation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to deny the application of Woodland Prep and approve it instead? NACSA tells me they have reviewed at least 500 charter applications in the past 10 years, so it would seem they should know what they are doing.
NACSA was hired by the commission to review applications from the beginning. Records show the state paid them $113,000 for their work. However, the commission no longer uses them and instead, uses the Auburn Center for Evaluation. Try as I might, I can not find out if this group has any experience in evaluating charter applications.
Does the commission do its due diligence on applications? There were 22 “support” letters submitted with the Woodland Prep application. But a review of them calls several things into question. Why were some not signed? Is an unsigned letter legitimate? One of the letters never mentions Woodland Prep, or even charter schools. How is this a support letter? At least one of the writers of a letter has documentation that they asked the Woodland Prep folks to not use their letter. But it was submitted anyhow.
The application lists someone as a “team partner” without their knowledge. This was posted on the charter website for a year before this person discovered what was done. They are beyond irate now.
Since the charter commission is a public body, why are not all their meeting minutes posted on the commission website? Minutes from meetings in 2018 and 2019 are posted. But not ones from 2015, 2016 and 2017. The commission had held 17 meetings since August 2015. More than half of them have been teleconferences, including five of the last six. How conducive is this to being open to the public?
Where is state superintendent Eric Mackey? For months now he has said over and over that he is powerless to monitor the state charter commission. However, on page 25, line 18 of the original charter law, it plainly states: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act.”
I have shown this to a number of lawyers, and without fail, each has agreed that it DOES give the state department jurisdiction over the charter commission. Mackey’s lawyers can’t seem to figure this out, though.
State board member Ella Bell, whose district includes Washington County, recently asked the superintendent to give her the status of Washington County.
Here was the written reply she got, done by state department staff members:
“There have been many questions posed regarding the department’s oversight of Woodland Prep in Washington County. At present, Woodland Prep is not a school; therefore, we have very little oversight nor can we hold them accountable for any action thus far. Based on our review of its recent actions, Woodland Prep has not violated any of the Charter Commission rules. A retired superintendent (Dr. Bobby Hathcock) has been contracted to provide assistance to the Washington County School System.”
That’s it. One paragraph. Four sentences. Seventy-five words. How did they reach this conclusion? Apparently by asking the charter commission. They certainly did not talk to anyone in Washington County because they have documentation of deadlines missed and other non-compliance issues. And the mention of Bobby Hathcock is definitely disingenuous because he is working with the county on another matter. In fact, when someone with the school system there asked him about the charter school, he quickly told them that he knew nothing about it.
Yes, we need both Dick Tracy and Sgt. Friday working to get to the bottom of this. But since they are both now in retirement, we need to ask the Alabama Legislature to get involved. After all, they are the ones who enabled this stuff to all happen.
Both the Senate and House have education policy committees. This is the logical place for an inquiry to begin.
In the Senate, Sen. Tim Melson (firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs this committee. Sen. Donnie Chesteen, a former educator (email@example.com), is vice chair and Sen. Vivian Figures (firstname.lastname@example.org) is ranking minority member.
In the House, Rep. Terri Collins (Terri@terricollins.org) is chair, Rep. Danny Garrett (email@example.com) is vice chair and Rep. Rod Scott (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is ranking minority member.
Send them each an email and politely ask them to open an investigation into what the charter commission and the state superintendent are doing--or not doing. Or just forward this article to them. Who knows, they may know where to find Dick Tracy.
(Larry Lee led the study, “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools,” and is a long-time advocate for public schools. Lee researches and writes on educational topics and Alabama public schools. His email address is email@example.com.)