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Inside the Statehouse

April 1, 2015:

In recent years, the Republican Party has taken control of the legislatures in all of the southern states. Alabama’s legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. The GOP holds a 25 to 9 majority in the State Senate and an equally dominating 72 to 33 majority in the House of Representatives.

Our supermajority GOP legislative body appeared to take on every conceivable ultraconservative reactionary issue during their first four year reign from 2011 to 2014. However, they forgot one. Charter schools.

The idea of charter schools is a hot button litmus issue within the Republican legislative ranks. Alabama has now joined the ranks of states that allow for charter schools. Both the super majority Republican House and Senate passed the measure like a shot out of a cannon within the first two weeks of the session. The vote fell right along party lines with most GOP legislators supporting the proposal.

Simply put, the concept is schools that are publicly funded but independently run. In Alabama, the legislators who are the strongest proponents are from areas that have weak public schools. The most obvious senator and, therefore, the most vocal is Sen. Dick Brewbaker of Montgomery County. The Black Belt and especially Montgomery whites have abandoned their public schools and most of the white students attend private schools.

This proclivity is precisely what has been the case in other states. Research reveals that charter schools worsen segregation of children along income levels and racially. Unquestionably, charter schools take money away from already underfunded traditional schools. They also cherry pick their students. Thus, leaving the purely public schools to educate and deal with the children with disabilities.

The hypothesis that free market competition between charter and traditional public schools will give rise to academic improvement has not played out in other states. In fact, studies have revealed that charter schools are not a panacea to public school ills.

In other states when charter schools are not held strictly accountable scam artists have stolen millions of taxpayer dollars. Some have paid enormous salaries to administrators. They have hired people with criminal backgrounds. They place students in buildings that do not meet basic building code requirements. The lack of transparency has allowed outright fraud by claiming to be nonprofit, but funneling funds to for-profit companies.

A study of charter schools in Ohio came to the conclusion that for-profit charter schools offer little or no benefit. Their study also says it encourages fraud and corruption and little or no account-ability.

The most ardent proponents for allowing charter schools in Alabama have been state senators Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and Dick Brewbaker R-Montgomery). They neither are calling for a carte blanche move to charter schools, but are only wanting a limited number of pilot schools to determine how it will work. Brewbaker says, “The more choices we can give parents the better off we are going to be.” Marsh says that under the proposed legislation, “There would be a limited number to start with and a lot of local control.”

There was adequate opposition from the obvious opponents. The Alabama Education Association opposed the measure because it drains dollars from an already underfunded Alabama public school system. The Democratic House and Senate caucuses opposed charter schools for the same reason. However, both of these groups have been relegated to irrelevancy in this legislative process.

A third leg of opposition came from the Alabama Association of School Boards. Sally Howell, their executive director, has strong beliefs that local school boards should be the ones to decide whether a charter school is allowed. She stated that “Alabama underspends on education and when you are creating more schools you are going to further diffuse those resources.” She further said, “Let’s make sure if we look at this effort we’re putting it in a place where public schools have not been performing well.”

Whether or not this educational concept enhances learning standards in Alabama is irrelevant. If it sounds or looks like a reactionary Republican right-wing issue, this group of ultra-conservative elephants will embrace it. We will see.

March 25, 2015:

Our good doctor governor, Robert Bentley, has done a thorough physical exam on the state’s finances and his diagnosis is that the General Fund needs additional revenue. His Republican comrades in the legislature have been trying to starve the patient for the past four years. If the patient is an analogy to the state government, the approach over the past four years has been to put the patient on a rigid diet of starvation and bleeding to death in pretty much the same way that George Washington’s doctors did in his day. The patient according to basic tenets of medicine or government should weigh about 180 pounds. The legislature has starved the patient/government to 120 pounds of skin and bones.

In defense of these ultraconservative legislators, if truth were known, they would probably do away with state government altogether or simply let the patient die. However, in reality, we actually need roads to drive on and state troopers to give aid to motorists. Some people like to have a court system to punish people who commit heinous crimes and if you have a judicial system and the judge sentences someone to prison then you have got to have a prison to house them.

The counter argument or solution that the Republican super majority would offer is to just give everybody the electric chair, then you do not need any prisons. On the other hand, there are some bleeding heart liberals that think the poor wayward lawbreaker may need a trial first. I am afraid the federal judiciary might step in and say that you have to have a court system and penal system and you have to give some backslider a trial.

Indeed, that is one of the acute problems we are facing at this time. The federal courts may very well take over our prison system and run it from their courtroom. The remedy that judge may render could cost a pretty penny to implement. Our state prison system has reached a crisis point. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating physical and sexual abuse at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for women. Our prison system is built to hold 13,000 inmates. It currently holds over 25,000. That, in itself, would portend a federal jurist to hold the legislature and governor in contempt and place the Alabama prison system into federal receivership.

In short, if the aforementioned patient/government scenario is continued, then more than likely nine out of 10 doctors’ diagnosis would be the same as our doctor governor. We cannot starve the patient any longer. We have to give him some food or pull the plug and allow him to starve to death.

Raising taxes will not be easy. These legislators are real Republicans. They have sworn not to raise any taxes or new revenue. Bentley is just as Republican as they are. He has been a part of the starvation remedy for the past four years. He has had a Damascus Road conversion because he has taken the Hippocratic Oath to not deliberately kill his patients.

He has reluctantly asked his fellow GOP colleagues to raise $540 million in revenue. He is offering a plan that will not require voter approval, only legislative action. He is proposing a revenue package that will include closing corporate loopholes and increasing sales taxes on automobiles and cigarettes.

In his speech to the legislature on March 3rd Bentley said, “I’m the doctor of 5 million people in the state and these Alabamians expect government to operate properly and the General Fund is not doing that.” It will be an interesting and probably contentious session. The legislature has a super majority Senate and House in place. A good many of these legislators are reactionary conservatives who have taken a no tax pledge. Where the Democrats land will be important. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. We will keep you posted on the progress.


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