Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:
The Gadsden (Ala.) Times on the StudentsFirst report:
The key thing to remember about the StudentsFirst report released recently, in which Alabama was one of 11 states to receive an F, came in a statement made by Andy Solon, the organization's Alabama director. "It's our agenda, it's aggressive and certainly not a reflection on student achievement," he said.
Alabama is routinely at the bottom of lists ranking the quality of public education, and at first glance the StudentsFirst report seemed just more of the same. But in this instance, Alabama and virtually every other state for that matter was playing against a stacked deck.
The rating was based on three categories — elevate teaching, empower parents and spend wisely and govern well.
StudentsFirst is headed by Michelle Rhee, former head of Washington, D.C., schools. When she took over there in 2007, she implemented a controversial set of policies and won the authority to fire anyone whose work didn't meet her expectations. Those expectations were built almost entirely on improving standardized test scores. And gains were made — some of them so dramatic that critics questioned whether cheating was responsible.
Rhee closed numerous schools and fired hundreds of teachers, having negotiated for a one-year suspension of tenure in return for significant pay increases. After three years, with her approval ratings falling even more dramatically than test scores were rising, she resigned and formed the lobbying reform organization StudentsFirst.
When you're making up the rules, as Rhee has done with her group's report card, you get to pick and choose the things you like. Rhee likes charter schools, which Alabama doesn't have. Put a mark in the minus column. Alabama rewards teachers monetarily for having advanced degrees, something Rhee doesn't like. Another mark in the minus column. Rhee believes states should have scholarship programs for low-income students "trapped in persistently failing public schools." Alabama doesn't, and by now you know where the check mark is going.
The StudentsFirst report can't be completely disregarded. Anytime observers from outside the established educational system evaluate that system, especially if they are qualified, and Rhee does have some credentials, it's worth listening to what they have to say. Some of it makes perfect sense and some of it doesn't. ...
... There may be some value to the report, but we certainly hope state officials keep their salt close at hand while studying it. They're going to need more than a few grains, we believe.
Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser on a utility rate review:
Alabama utility customers were done a considerable disservice recently when two members of the Public Service Commission rejected the third member's sensible call for a formal review of return rates for three of the state's largest utilities. These rates have been in place for as long as 30 years without formal review by the PSC.
That does not necessarily mean that the rates should be adjusted, but much has changed over the years and at the very least it makes sense for the PSC to revisit the rates in formal hearings. Commissioner Terry Dunn, to his credit, has been pushing the PSC to do that, but PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden have balked at the idea.
The return on equity rates for Alabama Power Co., Alabama Gas Corp. and Mobile Gas long predate any of the commissioners. Dunn and Cavanaugh were elected in 2010, and Oden was appointed to the PSC late last year after Cavanaugh was elected president of the commission.
The Advertiser continues to support Dunn's call for formal hearings, rather than the informal conversations Cavanaugh and Oden say they favor. Formal hearings are more like legal proceedings, conducted publicly under oath with cross-examination and expert testimony.
It is, of course, entirely possible that these rates of return which have been in effect for so long are still justified today, but surely there is nothing wrong with requiring some formal demonstration of that. Letting rates remain unchanged and largely unexamined for years, even decades, is at best a dubious course for a regulatory body. ...
Striking that balance, and then maintaining it, should be the PSC's objective. How can consumers have any confidence that this is happening when they see return rate ranges that, for Alabama Power and Alabama Gas, have been in place since President Ronald Reagan was in his first term?
Decatur (Ala.) Daily on a state gun law involving the mentally ill:
A state law passed with the goal of reducing access to guns by the mentally ill has been a failure.
Farron Barksdale bought a semi-automatic rifle in December 2003, while he was on leave from a mental health treatment program. Days later, he used the gun to kill two Athens police officers, Sgt. Larry Russell and officer Tony Mims.
Barksdale was able to buy the gun, it turned out, because the state was not providing data on involuntary commitments to the FBI's National Instant Background Check System, known as NICS. Gun dealers use the system as a quick check to determine whether a prospective buyer is barred from gun ownership.
Even with complete cooperation from states, NICS is far from fool-proof. At best, it only prevents felons and people whose mental illness has resulted in an involuntary commitment from buying a gun from a dealer.
The Alabama Legislature, however, wisely concluded that it should at least make sure NICS had involuntary commitment data. Some tragedies would be averted.
The problem is that the law it passed in 2004 had a huge loophole. Probate courts may only report involuntary commitments to NICS when a police officer testifies the person used a weapon or was a threat to use a weapon. That rarely happens.
State probate judges added only four names to the NICS database in 2012, even though thousands of Alabamians were involuntarily committed as a result of mental illness. About 250 Alabama records have been added to NICS since the law passed in 2004, a tiny fraction of the state's involuntary commitments.
The state law includes a little-used appeal process. Because the procedure does not meet due-process requirements, its main significance is to prevent the state from applying for federal grants under the NICS Act Record Improvement Program.
There are no home runs in controlling America's rampant gun violence. The issues are complex, and emotions surrounding gun control are intense.
No single law will solve the problem of gun violence or of mass shootings, but the state Legislature should at least look for easy fixes.
Amending the 2004 law — so that all involuntary commitments are added to the NICS database and so that the appeals process does not prevent the state from receiving federal grants — would be a good start.