Follow The Money

Even an amateur swami with a cloudy crystal ball could have told us how the recent vote to approve charter schools in Alabama would play out.  In fact, he didn’t even have to look at his ball, they could have looked at 2014 campaign financial disclosures instead.

There they would have found a trail of contributions of thousands and thousands of dollars from charter supporters to friendly legislators.

This bill passed the Senate 22-12 the first time it was voted on.  One senator did not vote, eight Democrats voted against it, as did the one Independent and three Republicans.  All yes votes were Republican.

The “Big Three” donors supporting charters last year were Bob Riley’s Alabama 2014 PAC, the Business Council of Alabama’s Progress PAC (run by Billy Canary) and Speaker Mike Hubbard’s Storm PAC.  (These three have also been strong supporters of the Alabama Accountability Act.)

Together, they spent $5.1 million dollars in 2014 in hopes of having friendly politicians in place.  Obviously their plan worked well.  This money came from an assortment of sources.  While BCA depends on their Alabama members for support, the Riley and Hubbard PACs cast a wider net and got checks from across the country.  Companies such a Pfizer, General Electric, Anheuser Busch, Cemex and International Paper donated.  As did pay day lenders and  charter supporters like StudentsFirst and K12.

And while BCA did contribute $37,500 to 11 incumbent Democrats (10 of them House members), Riley and Hubbard only supported Republicans.

Let’s take a closer look at how the pot was split in the Senate.

None of the eight Democrats or the lone Independent who voted against charters got a penny from Riley, Hubbard or BCA.  The Republican who did not vote got $1,000 and the three Republicans who voted “nay” got a total of $77,000, mostly from BCA..

Of the 22 Republican “yea” votes, one who few thought would win, got nothing.  Of the remaining 21, six had either no opposition or token opposition.  They only received $8,000 total.  The remaining 15 got $987,815 in all, an average of $65,854 each.  However, some were more equal than others as five got more than $100,000 each.

In addition to contributions from the “Big Three,” StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, CA group with 10 lobbyists in Alabama, spent $61,958.  And the Alabama Federation for Children, which was solely supported by checks from millionaires in California, Michigan and Arkansas spent $101,748.  Evidently “Alabama values” include California millionaires.

In all, the 15 senators who had substantial challenges got $1,142,522 from the charter supporters just mentioned for an average of $76,168.

Of course, every legislator says they are representing “the home folks.”  But when you see who is paying the bills to get them elected, you have to wonder who they are really listening to.

Editor’s note: In looking at hundreds of pages of financial reports, the most interesting thing I came across were two letters.  One from July 11, 2014 from the treasurer of the Riley PAC to candidate Clyde Chambliss of Prattville and a follow up of July 30, 2014 from Chambliss to the PAC.

The first informed the candidate that he should disclose $8,500 for polling and $35,916.79 for mail pieces.  The reply from Chambliss explained that he had no knowledge what the Riley group was doing and  had not asked for their help.  He also stated that he did not appreciate the nature of the mail pieces since they were attacks on his opponent, were contrary to his promise to run a positive campaign and were costing him support.

Republican Chambliss won the seat and did not vote for the charter bill when it first came to the Senate floor.



Contrary to what many think, miracles still happen these days. In fact, one just happened in Alabama concerning public education—though no one seemed to notice.

I refer to recent news from the Alabama State Department of Education that four schools formerly on the “failing” school list were removed because of their improvements in test scores.

(The Alabama Accountability Act requires that ALSDE rank all schools by test scores and declare those in the bottom six percent in three of the last six years be designated as ”failing”.)

So why was this a miracle?

Because the leadership of the legislature says the only way to improve public schools is by taking money away from them to help private schools and creating charter schools to make the “education marketplace” more competitive.

Their reasoning is that schools are like businesses and they either become more competitive or go out of business. By their logic, it was impossible for these “failing” schools to get better unless they were competing against a nearby charter. And since Alabama does not have any charter schools at this time, this logic turns out to be, well, not so logical.

Dr. Brittany Larkin recently joined the faculty at Auburn University. A native of Florida and a special education teacher for ten years prior to getting her doctorate, Larkin’s dissertation was a comparison of charter schools and traditional schools in Florida.

She does not buy the “competition” line of thought. “To believe this would really work, you first have to assume that the schools being compared are identical, she says. “Of course, this is no more true than assuming that all houses in a neighborhood are identical. This reasoning is like saying that the football teams at Auburn High and Auburn University should be competitive with one another because they both wear shoulder pads.”

Larkin also notes that parents seldom pick a school for their child based totally on reading and math scores. (According to the Alabama Accountability Act, “failing” schools are judged solely on reading and math scores.) Parents look at a number of factors; what is the makeup of the student body, where is the school located, do they have a good music program, can my daughter play softball there, do they have a specialized curriculum, etc?

Larkin’s research also shows that Florida charters spend considerably less than public schools for classroom instruction, while a sizeable portion of the budget for charters operated by for-profit management firms is spent on marketing campaigns.

“When we’re told that parents vote with their feet,” says Larkin, “we need to be aware that these parents are often the target of intense advertising campaigns conducted by charter schools.”

This is borne out by the fact that Florida gives public schools a letter grade and data shows that a large number of students switching from public to charter schools leave a school with an A rating. So it is impossible in such cases that a student is leaving a public school for a better performing charter.

In her most recent best-seller, Reign of Error, the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch states “The principles of competition and choice sound good, because they echo what we expect when we shop for clothing or automobiles. But competition among schools for students does not improve the quality of education.

“People shop for their shoes and their jeans and their homes, say reformers, why not shop for their children’s school? Competition may produce better shoes and jeans, but there is no evidence that it produces better schools.”

No doubt the faculty and students at Lafayette Eastside Elementary in Lafayette, Pickens County High in Reform, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Huntsville and Westlawn Middle in Tuscaloosa agree with her.

These are the schools removed from the “failing” list and they did it because of their own initiative and hard work—not because some politician said they needed competition.