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Deciding what to do about failing schoolscomment (0)

March 28, 2013

By Jim Williams

The hottest issue in the current legislative session is what to do about failing public schools. This is a critical matter for our state. Eighty-seven percent of Alabama students attend public schools. State and local taxpayers spend $6 billion a year to operate them and have $10 billion invested in school facilities. It is important not only for the students but also for the state’s economic development that these investments pay off.

Alabama has many high-performing schools, but there are some in which large numbers of students don’t meet expectations on statewide tests. The question is: what’s the best remedy? 

One approach is to allow students to leave schools that persistently fail to produce good results. The Legislature has passed and the governor has signed a controversial law to allow tax credits for parents who transfer a student from a failing public school into another public school or a private school. Legal challenges remain, and it is not clear whether the law will be implemented.

Another approach, already a part of Alabama law, is to fix the failing schools. A 1995 law defines a “school in need of assistance” as one in which a majority of students do not make a passing score on statewide tests. The law creates a remedial process beginning with assistance but leading ultimately to consequences for the school staff if improvement does not occur. 

First, the school’s faculty develops an improvement plan with parental input. If results do not improve, a state team is appointed to make recommendations. If this too fails, “the State Superintendent of Education is required to intervene and to appoint a person or persons to run the day-to-day operation of the school.”

The state used this intervention law for a few years but then began to follow federal “No Child Left Behind” rules. A number of schools have been allowed to languish on low-performing lists.

The State Department of Education is developing a new system for evaluating schools. Working with 44 other states, it has created tougher student learning standards and will use new tests to evaluate student performance in terms of career and college readiness. These are necessary developments.

However, it is not enough simply to raise expectations for student performance. The state should begin once more to follow existing law for assisting and fixing failing schools, improving the process where necessary to get results. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Williams may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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