Alabama state superintendent says failing label meant to ‘humiliate’ schools

Eric Mackey says it causes ‘frustration and problems in high poverty communities’

Alabama State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey listens during the Alabama State Board of Educations regular meeting on Feb. 9 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama schools superintendent said Thursday afternoon that state laws that label a set number of schools as "failing" were meant to humiliate struggling communities and push scholarships to private schools.

In remarks at an Alabama State Board of Education work session that followed comments from two Senate leaders, State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey said that students in high-poverty schools are showing "remarkable growth" and receiving "Cs" on the report card but remain on the failing list.

"And so, one thing they can do is just shift that language and do away with this bottom 6% that was designed to humiliate schools," he said. "It was designed to humiliate schools and to cause frustration and problems in high-poverty communities so it can be used as an excuse to fund scholarships."

The remarks were some of the strongest public criticisms Mackey has aired against the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act. Under the law, the bottom 6% of schools by test scores are defined as "failing schools," regardless of their scores or any yearly progress.

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Students zoned for failing schools are eligible for scholarships to attend other participating schools. Low-income students are also eligible for scholarships under the act.

The legislation, shaped by former Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was modeled after a bill created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that creates model legislation for state legislatures. Marsh was a proponent of charter schools and public money following students to those schools.

Critics of the Accountability Act have said the "failing" label is stigmatizing and that calling the bottom 6% of schools "failing" does not necessarily reflect work done in those schools or the challenges they face.

Michael Sibley, communications director with the Alabama State Department of Education, has said previously that "failing" is not a term the Department of Education uses.

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Jefferson County Superintendent Walter B. Gonsoulin Jr., whose district has several failing schools, previously told the Alabama Reflector that the "label can weigh negatively on your emotional state."

Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden, has sponsored a bill that would redesignate failing schools as "lowest 6% schools." The measure passed the House Education Policy Committee on Wednesday.

Mackey's comments came after Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, spoke to the board members about the test scores of students.

Singleton, whose district is in the rural Black Belt, said he's not happy that so many of the schools that end up on the "failing schools" list are schools with high rates of poverty.

"My children are smart," he said.

He asked the board for more flexibility and professional development for those schools that struggle to stay off the list.

Reed said he wanted to echo Singleton's thoughts and hoped other lawmakers would watch how the Literacy Act and Numeracy Act played out over the next few years. The laws provide funding and coaching aimed at getting elementary and middle school students to perform at grade level. The Literacy Act requires third grade students who do not read at a third grade level to be held back.

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Reed said he often has questions about the rate of school improvement and the failing schools list.

"It's not really accurate in describing what's really going on in some of these schools," Reed said.

Mackey said after the lawmakers left that the Alabama Accountability Act had been poorly written and that he had spoken with legislators to do away with the failing schools list. The superintendent said he wanted to use state report cards to measure schools. Unlike the current list, the state report cards encompass factors beyond achievement, including improvement.