School flexibility act approved by House committee

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A House committee Wednesday approved legislation that would allow school districts to apply for waivers from some state laws.

Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes

The committee amended the proposal after complaints from opponents that it allowed schools to opt out of a wide variety of laws, including those related to ethics. However, the legislation as amended would still allow school districts to apply for waivers from the state’s competitive bidding law.

The legislation is a major part of the House Republicans’ “We Dare Defend Our Rights” agenda. Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, the sponsor of the legislation, told a packed meeting of the House Education Policy Committee Wednesday afternoon that would allow local districts to design educational approaches best suited to their areas.

“It allows schools to request relief from rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability,” Fincher said. “We have a system where one size fits all education. We have small systems, we have large systems . . . I think that’s why it’s important we break out of hat mold of one size fits all.”

School districts can currently apply from state Department of Education rules and regulations; Fincher’s bill would allow school districts to apply for waivers from state laws.

The proposal has the support of State Schools Superintendent Tommy Bice, the School Superintendents and Alabama and the Association of Alabama School Boards, among others. Bice said “innovation and creativity at the local level” gave the best chance of improving results.

Supporters also said that with limited resources to fund education, they hoped to find ways for better results through policy. Janet Womack, superintendent of Florence County Schools, said achieving innovations in her own school district had “rekindled teachers’ creativity.” She said additional flexibility, particularly on teacher certification rules, could lead to new educational opportunities, such as bringing local musicians from the Muscle Shoals area into classrooms.

“We’re asking to be able to be able to search for ways to innovate, so our children will be successful,” she said.

Opponents, including the Alabama Education Association, said the bill did not give parents and teachers enough ability to participate in the waiver process. Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, which opposes the legislation, said the legislation was a “back-door” means of bringing charter schools to the state and attacking tenure laws.

Prior to the meeting, Mabry said education-related laws had their place.

“There was a lot of forethought, and they went through a deliberative process in the House and Senate and with the governor,” he said, adding that opting out of laws “at whim appears extremely dangerous.”

Vi Parramore, president of the Jefferson County American Federation of Teachers, said the bill did not specify a for those working closely with children.

“There is no part that speakers to the part parents, students and teachers will play,” she said.

Under the legislation, a school district interested in pursuing a waiver from a state law would have to submit a proposal to the state Department of Education after holding a period of public input, including a public hearing. The district could not seek waivers that would allow them to pay employees below state-approved salary schedules, or from tenure requirements.

Committee members amended the legislation after Fincher, under questioning from Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, acknowledged school districts could apply for waivers from the state ethics law and competitive bid law. The amendments tightened language on salary and tenure requirements, and forbade waivers from the state’s ethics law. However, the bill would still allow districts to apply for waivers from the state’s competitive bid law.

“Superintendents felt that they needed that flexibility,” Fincher said after the meeting.

Black also objected to an absence of language requiring the state Board of Education to vote to approve the flexibility plan. Each flexibility plan would be considered a contract between the district and the state Board. Fincher said the board would vote on the contract through its review of contracts with individual districts.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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