MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The Alabama House of Representatives on Friday voted to eliminate the elected state school board and replace it with a panel of gubernatorial appointees that supporters argue will help spur much-needed reform.
There’s just one catch.
Because it amends the state constitution, supporters must persuade voters to go along. That means Alabama residents would willing give away their power to elect their own representatives to the Board of Education.
Several Mobile residents on Friday said they did not know a lot about the proposal but expressed skepticism that it would improve their children’s education.
“I think that we should still be able to elect our own school board members, since we’re the ones really, like – our kids are in the schools, you know?” said Shanna King. “They shouldn’t be able to just do it legislatively.”
Veronica Johnson agreed.
“I think people should be able to make their own decisions,” she said. “I don’t think one person should dictate everything that happens.”
Linda Horn said education in Alabama has its problems. But she said taking away people’s ability to elect their representatives is not the answer.
“At least we have a little control over it that way,” she said.
The referendum will be placed on the presidential primary ballot on March 3 next year. Supporters said it would take politics out of making education policy and give the governor a freer hand in improving that state’s perennial basement rankings of educational performance.
“It is time that bureaucracy no longer stands in the way of our educators, and most importantly, our students,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.
Ivey has not always seen eye to eye with state Superintendent Eric Mackey. She pressed him to delay presenting new math standards to the board in March, and she gave him low marks in his job evaluation for “goals” and “performance and key job responsibilities.” She faulted him for failing to produce a strategic plan.
President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) praised the vote in the Legislature for the constitutional amendment.
“For far too long our children and our teachers have been held hostage and used as a bargaining chip and we have seen the sad results – last in the country in education,” he said in a statement.
Making the switch would move Alabama in line with most other states. According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, the state is one of just 11 states that elect some or all state school board representatives. In one of those states, Nebraska, the board has both elected and appointed members. And the New Mexico board is only an advisory panel.
But Jackie Ziegler, who represents southwest Alabama on the state Board of Education, argued that giving the governor control over the school board would make education more political, not less.
Zeigler said parents and residents will find less responsive ears if they try to share their concerns with unelected appointees rather than elected officials who can be voted out of office.
“I am always adamantly against any time the voice and the vote of the people are impacted,” she said. “I think we need to preserve that and, therefore, I am totally against this bill that was presented and passed today.”
Zeigler acknowledged that the state has experienced a “rough patch” in educational achievement.
“But that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said.
She also rejected the argument that gubernatorial appointments would allow the governor to assemble a team of subject-matter experts to make the best decisions about education policy.
“We already have subject-matter experts. They’re called the teachers,” said Zeigler, a former educator.
The Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education, as the new board would be called, would be required to reflect the racial and geographic diversity of the state.
If voters approve the change, it would not be the first time school board members were appointed. Prior to 1970, state school board members were gubernatorial appointees, and voters elected the state education superintendent.
Marsh’s original bill also called for the superintendent also to be appointed by the governor. But lawmakers removed that provision.
There is some recent precedent for appointed education officials. In 2015, the Legislature removed two-year colleges from the state school board’s jurisdiction and created a new appointed board to oversee them.
“It’s a drastic change to make, but I think if voters do approve this, it could be a new day for education in Alabama. … It could be a true game-changer.”
The chairman of that community college board, Al Thompson, had been on the elected Board of Education when the state created the new panel. He said the success of education involves many more factors than reforming the way board members are selected.
But Thompson said the switch could be beneficial.
“It’s a drastic change to make, but I think if voters do approve this, it could be a new day for education in Alabama. … It could be a true game-changer,” he told FOX10 News.
Among Mobile and Baldwin County representatives, all Republicans sided with the majority in the 78-21 vote. Democrats were divided. Reps. Barbara Drummond and Adline Clarke of Mobile voted for it, while Rep. Napoleon Bracy (D-Prichard) voted against it. Rep. Sam Jones (D-Mobile) abstained.