House committee approves school flexibility bill
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 07, 2013 | 5235 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Despite the objections of the state’s largest teachers’ organization, the Alabama House of Representatives is moving ahead with a bill to provide local school systems more administrative flexibility.

The House Committee on Education Policy voted unanimously Wednesday to send HB84 to the full House for a vote, which would allow school districts to enter into “flexibility contracts” with the state for exemptions to state regulations.

Supporters say the bill would allow schools to fix their problems with localized solutions, without having to go through bureaucratic red tape.

“As an educator, I see this as a vote of confidence that’s been lacking for a long time,” state school Superintendent Tommy Bice said.

Bice said the best solutions to educational problems come at the local level, though the state hasn’t trusted local schools to come up with those solutions.

Alabama Education Association officials oppose the bill, saying it would give local school boards the power to erode protections for teachers and other employees. The bill, as originally drafted, included wording that protected tenure for teachers who already have it. Still, AEA officials said, the wording would allow schools to eliminate the potential of tenure for newly-hired teachers.

Representatives of the American Federation of Teachers, a teacher’s union, also spoke against the bill, saying it was written with too little teacher input. “Throughout the bill, there’s not one mention of the word teacher,” said Vi Parramore, of the Jefferson County branch of AFT.

Critics of the bill were outnumbered in the hearing by proponents, many of them current or former school administrators. Retired Tuscaloosa principal Shelly Jones said schools once encouraged innovative thinking by teachers. She said the flexibility proposal would bring some of that creativity back.

“Teachers and administrators must be given flexibility to do what they know is best,” she said.

Janet Womack, superintendent of Florence City Schools, said that because resources are scarce, districts needed the ability to be creative. “We do not see a basket of money falling from the sky any time soon,” she said.

Proponents of the bill also pointed out that the process of opting out of state rules would come with safeguards. School systems would have to apply through the Alabama Department of Education, and would have to show academic goals they intended to achieve with any changes. There was also a provision requiring public input before any changes could be made.

Committee members asked whether “public input” entailed a public hearing. They also asked where the bill would draw the line in permitting exceptions to state law.

“If you’re listing the ones that you can’t flex, then that means everything else you can flex,” said Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia.

Black asked if the bill would allow exemptions from the state’s ethics law. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, said yes. Black said it was a “serious deficiency” in the bill.

Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, proposed amendments to remove the possibility of exemptions to the ethics law and to change wording that critics said would allow school districts to abandon personnel rules such as the state’s pay schedule. The amendments passed, and the bill was approved by the committee soon afterward.

Bice, the state school superintendent, said the bill wasn’t really intended to be about sweeping issues such as tenure or the ethics law. He said the measure could give schools the power to make smaller changes, like altering the start time for schools.

“If we really wanted to serve high school students more effectively, we wouldn’t start school at 7:30,” he said.

The bill was among the first considered in committee in this legislative session. Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said she wasn’t sure what to make of the proposal, because she hadn’t seen the bill as currently worded

The flexibility bill was just one among a raft of bills that Republican leaders considered part of their 2013 agenda, dubbed “We Dare to Defend Our Rights.” All the bills on that agenda passed out of committee Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Hubbard reported. Those bills include new restrictions on abortion clinics, an amendment that would double down on the right to bear arms and a request for the federal government to provide Medicaid as a block grant.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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