School flexibility bill approved by House of Representatives

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The Alabama House of Representatives’ chamber in the State House.

The House of Representatives Thursday approved a measure that would allow schools to apply for waivers from certain state laws, including the competitive bid law.

The final vote was 65 to 37, and came after about four hours of debate. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Democrats Charles Newton of Greenville and Patricia Todd of Birmingham joined 62 Republicans and one independent caucusing with Republicans in supporting the measure.  Reps.  Todd Greeson, R-Ider; Steve Hurst, R-Munford and Mike Millican, R-Hamilton voted with 34 Democrats in opposition.

“I’m very excited about it,” said Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, the sponsor of the bill. “I really feel like we broke the status quo of education in Alabama.”

In the Montgomery delegation, Republicans Jay Love and Greg Wren voted for the bill; Democrats Alvin Holmes, Joe Hubbard, John Knight and Thad McClammy voted against.

Under the legislation, a school district looking to apply for a waiver would send an application to the State Superintendent of Education, who would have 60 days to decide whether or not to recommend the application. If the superintendent signs off on the proposal, the State Board of Education would be required to approve the final contract.

Supporters, including the Alabama Association of School Boards, say the legislation would foster innovative approaches to education. Lawmakers pointed to the possibility of school districts being able to prioritize spending, such as moving money for transportation toward textbook purchases. Love,  the chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, said tying funds to specific expenditures had hurt school districts during recent hard budget times.

“The real policy (leads districts) to get rid of teachers, because the dollars don’t match up, because they don’t have flexibility,” he said.

The law prohibits districts from applying for waivers from the state ethics law, from opting out of the state retirement or health care system and from moves that would involuntarily remove teacher tenure or lead them to pay less than state requirements. However, the law would allow districts to offer teachers the chance to work on a non-tenure track, in exchange for other benefits, such as extra pay.  School districts could also apply for waivers from the state’s competitive bid law.

Opponents, including the Alabama Education Association, claim the legislation is a “back-door” attempt to introduce charter schools into the state, and some lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of the tenure protections in the bill. Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, said the practical effect of the tenure options would be limiting tenure options for teachers by allowing school districts to hire teachers into non-tenure track positions.

“They can buy the tenure rights of employees or future employees,” he said.

Fincher said school districts would have to offer the option of tenure for all employees.

The current legislation includes a line saying the bill can not be interpreted to allow the formation of a charter school; however, the bill does not define what a charter school is, a point of contention for Democrats.

“It’s a back door approach to charter schools,” said House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden. “They can opt out of hiring teachers with degrees.”

Republicans disputed that, saying a charter school definition was not needed in the bill because the legislation was not a charter school bill.  Fincher said a charter school would require a separate governing body, while his bill would keep the local school board in control of schools.

A bill authorizing charter schools died in the Legislature last year after encountering opposition from Democrats and some Republicans. The flexibility bill replicates similar flexibility language in the 2012 bill; many opponents of the charter bill said they supported that language.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, referenced last year’s defeat in comments after the vote, saying he believed the legislation would help schools tackle drop-out rates and improve performance.

“You never like to lose a battle, especially when you know you’re right and the opponents were putting out information that was not true,” he said.  “I hope this continues this reform mission of education in Alabama.”

Attempts to reach Henry Mabry, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, were not immediately successful Thursday afternoon.

Democrats filibustered the bill throughout Thursday morning.  Republicans clotured debate early Thursday afternoon.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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