House candidates put emphasis on education

Published 1:35 am Saturday, September 1, 2018

For both candidates vying for the District 89 seat in the Alabama House of Representatives, education is a key issue that the state must address moving forward.

Democratic candidate Joel Williams, local attorney, said funding K-12 education is the top priority on his platform.

“Oftentimes, you hear people talk about economic development; I don’t think you can skip over education and talk about economic development,” Williams said. “You want a trained and educated workforce. You can’t skip over education and talk about prison reform; the lack of education often leads to prison. It’s the basic building block of state government.”

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Republican Wes Allen, current probate judge, said his top concern regarding education is the freedom for local school boards to determine their own needs.

“My philosophy is that a top-down approach doesn’t work,” Allen said. “Decisions are best left to local elected board members, superintendents to tailor schools around the needs of their community. They need resources and the autonomy to go out and make decisions about whatever they need. Local communities know their parents and know their children. Let local communities make the decisions.

“If they want to institute a great new advanced learning center, that’s tremendous – that’s just one thing Dr. (Mark) Bazzell and the (Pike County Schools) board have recognized that this community needs. Local superintendents and local teachers can make decisions about what’s best for them.”

Williams also expressed concern that the legislature can become too involved in choosing how educators educate.

“The legislature shouldn’t be picking textbooks,” Williams said. “I don’t tell my doctor how to practice medicine, I don’t want to tell educators how to educate. We have professional educators. We hire them to make that choice. I want to leave that decision to the educators. I think the legislature can overreach and try to micromanage things.”

Williams said some of the funding issues within education can be dealt with by eliminating the accountability act, which allows for children in “failing schools” determined by the state to be transferred to a different public or private school. Children transferred to private school receive a tax reimbursement from the state.

“It’s totally illogical,” Williams said. “It takes money out of public education. Some people are making money off of it. Some people are getting their children’s private school education subsidized. Money being rerouted from public education never made sense to me.

“These schools designated as ‘failing schools’ – there is no such thing; failing parents send students to school. Say there are 500 students at a ‘failing school’ and a child opts out, they’re going to take that accountability money and put them in private school – now there are just 499 kids in a ‘failing school.’ I’m certain that does not benefit the state as a whole.”

Williams said the difficulty about the accountability act is that it was “sold in a package of lies” and that the terms “failing schools” and “school choice” have become engrained into people’s minds.

“It creates a false perception; the reality is, there aren’t failing schools, but we’ve created that label and it soaks in. When you hear things like ‘school choice’ – how can you argue with that? It’s conjuring up false images to pass things that ultimately just put money in rich people’s pockets.”

Allen said the accountability act uses private donations to provide the scholarships.

“The Accountability Act allows scholarships to go to low-income students,” Allen said. “These scholarships are privately funded by donations from individuals, businesses and corporations. The goal of those scholarships is to allow low-income students who are trapped in failing schools to have access to a quality education.”

Allen added that it has not been an issue in District 89 because there are no schools considered failing in the district.

“We are blessed with good schools, administrators, teachers and staff throughout District 89,” Allen said.

Williams said there are situations though in which even a wealthy family from a non-failing school can qualify for the tax credit from the act.

“I know of someone wealthy whose child was not in a failing school that is subsidizing his child’s education in a private school,” Williams said.

In practice, just 24 percent of students receiving scholarships are from failing schools. While those students are prioritized, it is also open to students who are not in failing schools.”

Williams also said the legislature should look into modifying the rolling reserve act to allocate more money toward current needs instead of continuing to save up for pro-ration.

“There are now hundreds of millions in that reserve,” Williams said. “Building the reserve while choking the budget makes no sense. If we cap it at what we have now it would get us through a decade of proration.”

Allen said the act was a smart budgeting move made by Republicans after constant pro-ration when the legislature was controlled by Democrats.

“We haven’t experienced pro-ration since 2010 when Republicans took control of the legislature,” Allen said. “Under Democrat control, every three years they were averaging pro-ration. Smart, responsible budgeting is key. We all sit around own kitchen tables and make our own budgets and we can’t live outside our means.”

Allen said generating new revenue is not necessarily the solution for the education budget, which was one of the largest ever last year at $6.8 billion.

“We can’t just say we need to raise revenue, that’s not the answer,” Allen said. “They’re passing budgets that are growing. This was the second-largest education budget ever. I don’t know if I can know the answers without seeing how much is sitting over there.”

Both Allen and Williams have had children in the private school system and both said they are supportive of private and public education.

“We live in a great country that allows my wife and I to choose how, when and where we educate our children,” Allen said. “We chose to educate our children in private schools and I’m not ashamed of that; I stand by what’s best for our children. I support public education because I pay taxes. I know how important it is to our communities. I’ve seen how important it is out on the campaign trail.”

Williams said he supports private education, but believes it should remain truly separated from public education.

“I love private education, love it, but I want it to be private – that means no government interference and no government money,” Williams said. “If you’ve chosen to enroll your child in private school, you’ve made the choice of where to spend your money; I’m supportive of that – I did it. But if they’re receiving any form of subsidies, they should be accountable to report their performance and standards.”

Williams and Allen will compete for the seat on Tuesday, November 6. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Photo identification will be required.