The year Alabama legislators took over schools
by Wayne Flynt
Special to The Star
Mar 10, 2013 | 31336 views |  0 comments | 125 125 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gov. Robert Bentley talks with reporters in Montgomery last week. Photo: Dave Martin/Associated Press
Gov. Robert Bentley talks with reporters in Montgomery last week. Photo: Dave Martin/Associated Press
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My father grew up poor and never finished high school but was incredibly resourceful. He could “figure things out.” He did his own plumbing, wiring and construction. But on occasion, Dad’s chief asset became a liability. So confident was he in his ability to fix anything that he refused to admit that he didn’t know everything.

That is a good description of the new Republican Legislature. They were elected for good reasons: The hubris, arrogance, excesses, patronage abuse, corruption and demagoguery of Democrats. But the 2013 Legislature reminds me lots of the Democrats they replaced.

Republicans, who hold all state offices and a veto-proof majority in the Legislature, have decided that they know better than anyone how to do everything.

Take education, for instance. Three successive reform-minded state school superintendents — supported by a business community concerned about the loss of one-third of Alabama manufacturing jobs since 2000 and fearful that schools were not producing a labor force skilled enough to compete in the global economy — began reforming education.

They introduced model early childhood programs, world-class math and science curricula, a reading initiative widely copied nationwide, tougher graduation standards, and took over failing schools and malfunctioning systems characterized by patronage politics and financial profligacy (think Birmingham).

Education reformers organized A+ Education Partnership and joined this battle. Their hugely successful “best practices” center and life-changing college-readiness program that enrolls record numbers of students in demanding advanced placement courses constitute instances where Alabama set national standards rather than followed them.

So what does the new Republican Legislature do? Demand all this be turned over to them. As a convert both to charter schools and fully funded vouchers for students in failing schools, I sympathize with the goals but have no confidence whatever in the legislators.

For one thing, they don’t know what they’re doing. Their secretly orchestrated school flexibility plan required failing schools to provide transportation when a child leaves. But some systems have no public transportation. The new law requires that failing public schools continue to provide costly special education services to students who withdraw and take their state funds with them to private schools. But how will the failing school, already horribly underfunded by national standards because of Alabama’s low property taxes, fund this?

Gov. Robert Bentley dismisses such concerns, telling us just to trust Republicans to work out such troubling details later. But in light of the Legislature’s total lack of transparency, public input, consultation with local school superintendents, the state school superintendent or board, the state Association of School Boards, the state PTA, A+, or business leaders who will employ the products of their new system, why should anyone trust them?

In rational U.S. legislatures, lawmakers do their research and hold hearings first, then craft laws, not the other way around. And if legislators seriously care about poor children, why not provide 100 percent school vouchers for them rather than 80 percent? Middle-class families can provide the missing 20 percent. But nearly one-third of Alabama children live in poor families, and half of them survive on half the national poverty level. Obviously finding 20 percent for private school tuition, which increases at an average of $400 annually, is not an option.

And the legislation’s charitable foundations, which will provide a few of them scholarships, reveal only the vaguest glimmer of how they would work.

As for the Legislature’s effort to transfer school curriculum decisions from the State Board of Education to them, even the dumbest, blindest dog in Alabama can sniff out that scam. Joe Legislator, eager to please constituents and insulate state pride from graduation failure rates typical of poor states, will be besieged by parents: “Just because Junior doesn’t study is no reason the boy shouldn’t graduate. You need to ease up on the kid.” Trust me. I know. It happened at Auburn University when I taught there. It happened when I was facilitating the equity funding lawsuit. I didn’t capitulate. But then, I wasn’t elected.

After all, carrying a high school diploma away from Useless High School is more important than knowing how to cipher and spell.

And when Billy Joe Senator tells us he needs this power because we don’t want Obama dictating school standards, Republicans have travelled full circle back to the demagoguery of Democrat George Wallace, who always assumed we were dumber than we are.

Do your own homework on this. Why should you trust politicians to think for you? Obama did not develop national core curricula. It came from state and local school leaders and business people determined that what happened to me will not happen to my grandchildren: I attended 12 schools between ages 6 and 14 in two different states and was usually completely lost because each school curriculum (three in the first grade alone) taught different subjects at different times in different ways.

America’s global economic leaders have seen enough of this kind of educational waste and inefficiency, especially in a world where so many countries do it better than we do. If you think legislators of either party understand this or will maintain tough, world-class core curricula, I own some land in the Mobile Delta I will sell you.

If Alabama business leaders favor transferring core curricula power to state legislators, why don’t they say so? Why didn’t legislators ask them? Because GOP legislators don’t need to consult anyone. They already know everything.

Wayne Flynt is a distinguished university professor emeritus at Auburn University.
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The year Alabama legislators took over schools by Wayne Flynt
Special to The Star

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