Despite the chaotic world American adults have bequeathed their children, we expect public school teachers to be surrogate parents, firm disciplinarians, understanding mentors, role models and experts in their subjects. No matter how psychologically wounded and unprepared children are for school, we expect them 12 or 14 years later to emerge as globally competitive, responsible citizens.
All this is supposed to occur in some Alabama schools where plaintiffs in the 1992 equity funding lawsuit discovered there was no air conditioning, roofs leaked and broken sewer lines disgorged human waste onto playgrounds. In many of those counties, low land values and minimal local taxes resulted in average expenditures per student hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than in affluent urban schools.
Janet Lefever, a transplanted Pennsylvania speech teacher, and Opal Lovett, an Alabamian who taught English, are my model teachers, along with my mother and my wife. The first two taught me debate, drama, rhetoric, communication, how to write, the glories of literature, all part of their professional training. More importantly, they taught me that I was not dumb, that despite family moves back and forth between Alabama and Georgia that left me hopelessly behind in science and math (tragically, there was then no “common core”), plus my dreadful standardized test scores, I could even excel.
My mother, a fourth-grade teacher, and my wife, a middle/high school English teacher, practiced their profession expertly. But when congestive heart failure ended mother’s career, I learned that her Retirement Systems of Alabama pension was only a few hundred dollars a month. My wife began teaching at a tough Etowah County high school in 1960 for $2,500 a year. A year later she began teaching in Tallahassee, Fla., with a 40 percent raise.
Despite claims to the contrary, money matters. When I speak on this subject, someone invariably interjects: “You can’t solve the problem by throwing money at it!” How would we know?
When has Alabama paid teachers or funded students at or above the national average? Does that same logic apply to hiring and retaining head football coaches at Auburn University and the University of Alabama? Should we let other universities outbid us for them? How about for our best teachers? In the long run, who makes more difference to your child’s future, the head football coach or the best teacher?
Here is what we know. There is a correlation between expenditures on education and economic well-being. A 1995 Birmingham study found that school systems that spent most per student had the highest ACT scores. A 2000 study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama found that Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Hoover, Anniston and Auburn paid the highest property taxes, and five of the six communities also ranked highest on SAT scores. Five of the top 10 property tax communities had the lowest high school dropout rates. Six of the top 10 states with highest percentage of college graduates also have the highest median and household incomes. My research revealed that the six states with the highest median family household incomes between 1984 and 2011 also had the highest property taxes and the highest SAT scores. If we taxed property at the same rate as our poor neighbor, Mississippi, we would generate an additional $800 million a year for education.
The good news is that conditions have improved. Alabama has one of America’s best early childhood programs. Same for its superb math, science and reading initiatives as well as its A-plus College Ready Plan to enroll low-income students in advanced-placement courses. The bad news is that state funding for these programs is inadequate and sometimes depends on outside foundations that seem to care more about our children’s future than we do.
I do not hold the Alabama Education Association blameless. I favor extending tenure decisions from three to seven years; stronger accountability standards for teacher performance; higher GPA averages before undergraduate students can enroll in education schools; easier alternative certification programs for college graduates who want to teach; streamlining procedures for dismissing teachers for academic or moral problems; one well-funded charter school in each congressional district paid for by a new tobacco tax and given 12 years to determine whether it can work; increased public funding that will guarantee that middle- and high-school faculty will teach only in their fields (yes, that does mean that coaches who teach history will have to major in history); special pay to recruit fully competent science and math teachers (last time I checked, more than half the science and math teachers did not major in these subjects); and merit pay for our best teachers in our most difficult schools.
If the first seven paragraphs infuriate the Tea Party and right-wing evangelicals, I am sure the last one ticks off the AEA. That is not a bad thing. If Alabamians want any kind of future at all, they must understand the connection between health, jobs and education. But they also must read more, study harder, think deeper and search for information not shackled to ignorance, fear, demagoguery, political ambition or special interests.
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University.