Bob Davis: An advocate for education
Jul 28, 2013 | 3987 views |  0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fourth-fifths of the Anniston City Council made it clear last week that if city schools want a share of a 1-cent sales tax increase, somebody’s going to have to come up with a plan.

Consider what follows the start of a plan.

The Anniston district, according to state figures collected from the 2011-2012 school year, had the lowest graduation rate in Calhoun County. The figure in Anniston was only 65 percent; only 34 high schools out of more than 500 in the state had a lower graduation rate.

So, improvements need to be made and a portion of the money from the 1-cent sales tax increase approved in early 2012 can help. Money, while vitally important for quality public schools, isn’t a cure-all. It’s a matter of properly targeting the money and finding someone who can parlay these dollars into a larger windfall.

So, for starters, we need to make a new hire.

The community could use an education advocate. In our plan, this role is key to allocating city dollars to Anniston City Schools initiatives. The role model for our education advocate (or EdAd, if you prefer) is Carolyn Akers, the executive director of the Mobile Area Education Foundation. That organization works closely with the Mobile district on big projects, yet it’s not afraid to call out the district’s shortcomings and encourage it to make corrections.

Our advocate would be someone with enough clout in education circles to open doors and, more importantly, pocketbooks at education-based nonprofit foundations such as the Hunt Institute, the Gates Foundation and many others interested in rewarding districts that are doing innovative work.

He or she should possess the successful track record in public education that would allow a credible and insightful analysis of what’s working and what isn’t working in the Anniston system.

He or she should be able to effectively communicate the values of a top-notch public education system broadly — to the city school board and administration, to the City Council, to the news media and to the public.

In a community divided by mistrust, our advocate can build trust through accountability and telling it like it is, both the good and the bad. He or she would in some ways function as an independent city schools watchdog whose door is open to hear from the public and its views on the schools.

We need a “critical friend,” someone who knows how to apply praise and pressure in proper proportions. He or she must be relentless in pursuing successful policies, applauding the system when it’s doing something right, calling it out when it’s off track and spreading our success stories to the wider world.

Our education advocate would be hired with a five-year contract, a lucrative one that would attract top-notch candidates. A salary would be from a combination of sources, each agreeing to offer seed money to this project. Some could come from the city’s 1-cent sales tax, some from the business community, some from civic organizations and so on. We all have a stake in seeing Anniston’s schools prosper, and thus a deep pool of money from many sources would bind the community together.

Now, let’s turn to the sales tax revenue.

The city projects that the 1-cent sales tax increase will amount to about $4 million annually. Of course, some of it is already committed to other spending priorities. Because sales tax revenue goes up and down based on retail activity, the portion budgeted for the schools should be directed to specific projects and not tossed into the general fund as if it were found money.

Looking for a targeted project? Let’s start with keeping kids from dropping out.

The city school board in coordination with the independent education advocate can devise strategies based on surveying the public’s views, the school board’s long-term goals, best practices and other sources. Something similar is already happening in Mobile, where the education foundation and the school system are working closely together to reduce its dropout rate.

If the council approves the plans, Anniston’s advocate will be expected to offer regular updates on the progress (or lack thereof). These will be delivered to the council, the school board and to anyone who will listen, another exercise in trust-building. If the news is bad, adjustments should be made. If it’s working, however, our advocate can appeal for more dollars through a network of national foundations looking to help struggling districts like the one in Anniston.

Beyond these program reports, our advocate should regularly provide residents with a State of Our Schools update, grading the district on academics, safety and fiscal matters. Call it a report card, which seems like an appropriate method given our subject.

Anniston residents pay quite a hefty price for living in a city with a weak school system, in terms of economic development, in terms of home values, in terms of quality of life. More importantly, Anniston City Schools students deserve an opportunity to receive a first-class education that will improve their lives as well as the prosperity of their city. An education advocate puts us on the road to success.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or Twitter: EditorBobDavis.
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