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Ivey: Can we stop labeling schools ‘failing’?

By Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday indicated she’d like to stop labeling some Alabama schools as “failing.”

At an Alabama State Board of Education meeting, Ivey, who presides as president of the board, asked if the term could be changed.

“I know that the law says you have to identify the bottom 6%. Can we call them something else besides failing?” Ivey asked department staff, generating a round of applause and overwhelming support from  state school board members.

Board member Yvette Richardson, D-Fairfield, said the ‘failing’ label hurts schools more than helps them.

“It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Richardson said.

The 2013 Alabama Accountability Act mandates schools in the lowest 6% of performance on standardized tests be listed as failing. The designation is more than just a label. Under the law, students in failing schools qualify for tax credit-funded scholarships to attend better performing private schools.

There are currently 75 schools dubbed as failing, and changing the term would require legislative approval.

Rep. A. J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, this year tried to change the term to “challenged school.” His bill was approved in committee but never got a vote on the House floor. On Thursday, he said he’d try again in the 2020 session.

“We’re trying to come up with a more positive terminology because ‘challenged’ is not as dire as ‘failing’ but I think we can come up with language that is a bit more positive and would indicate the same idea,” McCampbell said.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey told reporters that he agrees the terminology needs to be changed, but also said he wants to look at how that bottom 6% of schools is determined.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who chairs the House Education Policy Committee, told ADN she supports changing the “failing” label, but believes the state should continue focusing on improving the lowest-performing schools.

“I think if you are wanting to just find those schools that are truly wanting to increase their proficiency rate in reading and math, then you need to concentrate on the bottom 6%,” Collins said.

A spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said that Marsh had already proposed legislation to change the label several years ago, but it ultimately did not pass.

Marsh was the original sponsor of the Accountability Act and he supports any measure that helps schools succeed in the state, his office said.

“Since we are ranked last in the nation in education, programs like the Alabama Accountability Act are vital to many students and parents and we welcome any good faith discussion that would help strengthen this program,” William Califf, Marsh’s spokesperson, told ADN.

Some education groups have never liked the label, or that the law requires a designation of some schools.

“With Gov. Ivey taking the lead, we are very hopeful it will pass during this session,” Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama. He said the Accountability Act, which intended to give families the choice to transfer from the low-performing schools, is in conflict with the law that gives each school a letter grade.

“We have schools with a B or C on the report card but they are on the failing schools list,” Hollingsworth said. “What does that tell the community?  The legislation needs to be revisited that requires the bottom 6% to be placed on any type of list.  Under the current law, if all schools had every student on grade level, we would still have the same number of schools on the failing school list.  This makes absolutely no sense.”

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said struggling schools need additional resources and to be rallied around.

“We may need to renovate and repair, but we don’t need to tear down,” Smith said. “The name should designate the process that we want to happen, not be a condemnation of the past.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.

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