- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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Feb. 1

The Decatur Daily on placing teenage criminal offenders in the state prison system:

The Southern Poverty Law Center is urging the Legislature to take action to better separate teenage offenders from adults in the state prison system and in other lockdown facilities.

Ebony Howard, an attorney for the Montgomery-based advocacy organization, told a meeting of the Legislature’s Prison Reform Task Force that more must be done to keep young offenders away from adult offenders. She said creating separate facilities for teenage offenders is the best solution, and would help the state meet the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

Ideally, Howard said, young offenders should be held under the auspices of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

While prison reform legislation passed in 2015 provides for separation of juveniles from adults in state prisons, that may not be enough given the severe crowding in state prisons. With prisons bulging at the seams, there aren’t enough corrections officers to adequately do their jobs.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the task force, said there isn’t enough money available to do what Howard suggests. He agreed, however, improvements can be made.

But with the Republican-controlled Legislature showing no signs of providing significant new revenue to fix prisons and a myriad of other problems plaguing Alabama, there is little chance these important changes will occur.

Jim Perdue, Department of Mental Health commissioner, said anywhere from 40-55 percent of state inmates have mental health issues, some of them severe. Adequate funding for mental health specialists would make rehabilitation efforts more effective, especially for young offenders.

Lawmakers this year will explore ways to reduce prison crowding, which could include more community corrections programs. That could help, but not unless money is provided for probation officers and counselors.

Lawmakers, who begin the 2016 session this week, must decide whether they are loyal to the GOP’s aversion to reasonable taxation or to providing adequate government services to the people of Alabama. If they choose the former, they will not find any solutions to the state’s problems.

Online:

https://www.decaturdaily.com/

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Feb. 2

The Dothan Eagle on the start of the Alabama Legislature 2016 regular session:

The Alabama Legislature begins its regular session in Montgomery today with last year’s gaping budget hole right where lawmakers left it when they cobbled together a short-term fiscal plan with duct tape and baling wire.

Little has changed. The House Speaker, Mike Hubbard, is the same man who has been under indictment on a raft of corruption charges; he has refused to step down despite being asked to do so by officials of his own political party. Although he’s scheduled to go on trial before the session comes to an end, he told the Associated Press this week that he didn’t care to discuss contingency plans, such as who might oversee the House during that time. Perhaps if he ignores it, it will go away.

There’s no plan to solve the chronic revenue problems beyond an evergreen plan to start a state lottery, a solution that seems only slightly more sound than purchasing Powerball tickets with the dream of hitting it big enough to close the state’s budget gap.

One small change is that Gov. Robert Bentley, who put forth a package of tax reform bills that would generate several hundred million dollars, has made no such arrangements this year after lawmakers rejected his plan last year.

“They know what they need to do,” the governor said.

Perhaps. However, what they think they need to do depends on who they think they’re working for.

If lawmakers truly had the good of the state in mind, at the top of the agenda would be the removal of Hubbard from the Speaker’s seat. While he’s innocent until proven guilty, the perception of a House led by someone facing 20-odd felony corruption charges does the people of Alabama no favors. Instead, the majority of House members appear to support Hubbard’s continued speakership, and two who have publicly voiced opposition have been shuffled from their prominent committee assignments.

If lawmakers have the good of the state in mind, they’ll develop sound and long-overdue strategies to generate adequate income to operate state services, standing up to special interests whose invisible hands have dictated policy for so long. They’ll ensure that Medicaid is funded adequately, that enough money is directed toward corrections that the state isn’t under constant threat of federal intervention. They’ll invest in public education instead of crafting bailouts for some students’ families while hanging the careers of teachers on the outcome of often dubious standardized tests.

The question isn’t whether lawmakers know what needs to be done. If they don’t know, they shouldn’t be there. The question is whether they’ll act for the good of the people.

Online:

https://www.dothaneagle.com/

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Jan. 28

The Montgomery Advertiser on the proposed RAISE act:

If the RAISE Act had to do only with giving Alabama teachers a salary hike, we’d be all for it.

As proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the Rewarding Advance in Instruction and Student Excellence Act could indeed put extra dollars in some educators’ pockets.

They deserve it, having labored since 2008 with only one two percent pay raise, and even that was largely nullified by increased health care and retirement costs extracted from paychecks.

But Marsh’s proposed bill, not yet finalized, comes with any number of bad ideas that won’t encourage more skilled professionals to enter or stay in the classroom.

As the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, drafts of RAISE call for changing teacher tenure, adding a nontenured compensation track for new hires and any current teachers who opt into it.

Teachers don’t really have tenure, as in an assured job for life, and bad teachers can already be fired for cause. What teachers do have, under the current system, is some amount of due process protection against being fired for no reason, or for political reasons. Asking educators to give up those needed protections for a potential bonus or slightly higher pay level is an insult.

There may be some merit to the idea of paying teachers who choose to work in struggling schools in impoverished counties at a higher rate. But the real answer to improving such schools is to better fund them so they can buy textbooks and technology and repair crumbling buildings. That, however, would likely require serious legislative reform of Alabama’s unfair property tax system, a sacred cow Marsh and others refuse to touch.

Then there are proposed changes to how teachers would be evaluated under RAISE, starting in 2017-2018. Marsh has most recently said his bill, when introduced, won’t tie teacher pay to performance judged by standardized testing - or at least won’t too heavily rely on such measures. We hope that’s true and doesn’t change in the legislative process. Giving too much weight to test scores encourages a robotic, teaching-to-the-test approach to education that serves students poorly.

Over-reliance on high-stakes testing in teacher evaluations also crowds subjects beyond math, science and reading out of the classroom. History, the arts, foreign language offerings, physical education - courses where student achievement is harder to quantify by filling in dots on a test sheet for a computer to grade - too often get scrapped.

And too many dollars that should go to support schools, teachers and students get thrown at highly profitable testing companies whose lobbyists are great pals with political leaders.

Many improvements are needed to public education in Alabama, but the RAISE Act raises too many red flags and has rightly alarmed state educators.

Marsh should scale back his ambitions and concentrate on getting better funding to all Alabama classrooms and rewarding teachers for their dedication and service.

Online:

https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/

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