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Marsh gauging ‘real interest’ in education for 2022

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Gearing up for his final regular legislative session, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said an education reform bill will be his priority — if he can get support from his State House colleagues.

“I’m frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a real interest in the education problems in the state,” Marsh told Alabama Daily News on Monday. He spoke about the possibility of legislation in 2022 on Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal over the weekend.

In the 2021 regular session, Marsh, R-Anniston, filed the “Alabama Open Schools Act” to allow students from outside a system to enroll in its schools for a fee. It cleared the Senate Education Policy Committee but didn’t get a vote in the full chamber.

“There just wasn’t time to educate people on what we’re trying to do,” Marsh said.

He cites recent stats that put public school students’ achievement in reading and math near last in the nation.

“You would think there would be a concern there, but I can’t find it.”

He said he’s preparing legislation, but hasn’t finalized any. Exactly what it looks like will depend on support, he said.

“I hope there will be (interest in moving a bill), but right now I don’t know that there will be,” Marsh said.

Several education groups in the spring opposed Marsh’s open enrollment bill, saying that many systems already have open enrollment policies but shouldn’t be forced to adopt them.

“I guess my question is, what are they doing to solve the problem?,” Marsh said. “Do the superintendents of the state, do the school boards, do they believe there is a problem?”

About the time Marsh’s open enrollment bill was stalling in the Senate, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, was struggling in the House with her own bill to allow local tax dollars to follow students from traditional public schools to charter schools. That bill failed in the House with a majority of Republicans voting against it.

“I hope that one day we will get serious about using all the tools that we have available for improving education,” she said. “… We’re in a great position to do some exciting things, but we have to have the votes to get them done.” 

Collins on Monday said she will likely bring the charter school funding bill back in 2022.

“It was never the intent of the Legislature that the local money didn’t follow the student,” said Collins, who helped get the 2015 charter school bill through the House.

Marsh stepped down in late 2020 as president pro tem of the Senate to focus on his personal legislative priorities in his remaining two years: Gambling and education.

He worked on a wide-ranging gambling bill last year that got out of the Senate but died in the House. 

Marsh said he isn’t planning to bring gambling legislation during his final session. 

“I think people of the state would like to vote on this issue, but until the members of the Legislature, and especially in the House, are prepared to let the people make that vote, I’ve spent enough time on it.”

He expressed similar frustration with his education bill.

“I just don’t know how much interest there is in real education reform in the state of Alabama,” he said. “You’d think there’d be a lot. But thus far, I haven’t seen it.” 

Last month, the Alabama State Department of Education revealed initial results from spring 2021 testing. As expected, they showed learning loss attributed to COVID-19’s disruptions to education delivery.

Marsh said education officials can’t put all the blame on the pandemic.

“These numbers were there before COVID,” he said.

Meanwhile, Collins said she is supportive of the concept of open enrollment throughout the state.

“In theory I am, I think logistically, we do so much with local control, it would be a challenge, but I think it can be done,” Collins said.

“… I still think that regardless of the ZIP code you live in, you should have the opportunity for an excellent education.”

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