How we really stack up: Do your homework before criticizing Alabama public schools
by Larry Lee
Special to The Star
Apr 27, 2012 | 3005 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Because of my interest in public education and what I see in Alabama schools, I was mystified at Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead’s recent column about public schools. (“Alabama deserves options,” April 19)

Unfortunately, he offered no facts or examples, only gave a blanket condemnation to the job our schools do and only served up the very tired politically-inspired platitude that every evil in the state is because of the Alabama Education Association.

But then, if your only reason for writing is to push a political agenda, this is understandable.

However, it would be far more helpful if Armistead remembered that school kids make a very poor rope in a political tug-of-war, which is the only way to describe the current debate about charter schools.

Armistead writes if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep on getting what we’ve been getting. He is right. So let’s look at what we’ve been doing in regards to education in recent years.

We’ve slashed funding for classrooms, decreased the number of teachers and still expect principals to do more with less.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed budget for the K-12 education foundation program and for the state department of education is $3.5 billion, a decrease of $312 million from the current budget. In fact, you have to go all the way back to fiscal year 1998-1999 to find a smaller budget.

In 2008, we had 739,327 students and 49,363 teacher units. Today we have 2,988 fewer students and 3,290 fewer teachers. So class size has gone up and estimates are we will lose another 800 teachers next year.

What have we done in the classroom? Thanks to the law known as No Child Left Behind, we’ve narrowed curriculums and told teachers and principals that the only thing that really matters is how their students do on THE TEST.

Does Armistead know this is the yoke we ask teachers and administrators to carry each day? The one conceived by his very own Republican Party and heartily endorsed by President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. (Which begs the question of why is the Alabama Republican Party so passionate about promoting the collection of radical, unproven, corporate-driven notions about education being advanced by the Obama administration?)

Yet, Armistead’s solution to overcrowded classes, deep cuts in funding and eliminating teachers is to advocate for a charter school bill that increases the funding burden, sets up a dual school system that research shows to be only minimally effective, and takes away local school board authority and gives it to a politically-appointed group in Montgomery.

I thought Republicans stood for smaller government and local decision-making — not building new bureaucracies and concentrating more power in a central government — which is what the charter school legislation does.

At least that was the impression I was under every time I wrote a check to a Republican candidate running for office.

No, we are nowhere near where we need to be in Alabama with our schools. But we are not moving in the right direction when we constantly berate teachers and administrators and talk about how we rank “far below acceptable standards” as Armistead did in his column.

Homework is part of schooling. But apparently Armistead has not done his. If he had, he would know that America’s Promise Alliance cites Alabama as a role model for states trying to overcome high dropout rates. He would know that the Alabama Reading Initiative has been extremely successful and copied by other states.

He should also visit schools and seeing what is going on. Travel to Mobile where nine of Alabama’s 13 Torchbearer schools for the most recent year are located. Look at the amazing progress each of these high-poverty schools is making.

He should have been in Lawrence County recently when 2,400 students participated in Agricultural Initiative Career Day and learned that students can receive an advanced diploma with an agricultural endorsement. He should have been in Sylacauga a few nights ago when the Sylacauga City Schools Foundation handed out $65,000 in grants and celebrated having raised $1 million for this system of 2,380 students.

He should have been in Mobile last fall when 8,000 eighth graders from eight counties came to learn about careers at the Worlds of Opportunities event supported by more than 100 industries. He should have been in Selma last fall when 2,000 people came to the Wallace Community College campus to watch teams from throughout the Black Belt compete in a robotics competition.

Or best of all, Armistead should do what I did a year ago and spend a day as a classroom aide in a high-poverty school. See first hand what teachers experience. Look into the eyes of a child who did not have supper the night before. Read a book to a child who comes from a house with no running water. Eat lunch with a child who watched his mother commit suicide.

If Armistead is truly interested in education he should lead Republicans to join forces with others across the state for a serious discussion about education. Engage people from all walks of life and from all corners of this state. Find out what businessmen think an educated teenager should act like and think like. What do teachers and principals think a meaningful, well-rounded education should include? What do mamas and daddies think their child should be prepared for when they leave high school?

Let’s think about children before we think about political brownie points. At best, charter schools are a Band-Aid that may stop the blood in one place while we bleed to death somewhere else.

Let’s seek real solutions. I offer all the help and support I can to help you.

Larry Lee is the former director of the Center for Rural Alabama and coordinated the study Lessons Learned From Rural Schools. He frequently writes about education issues.
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