BUILDING A BETTER GOVERNOR: Ideas for a stronger Alabama

One of our favorite quotes comes from William Winter, the former governor of Mississippi: “The road to prosperity inevitably leads past the schoolhouse door.”

There, in just 10 words, is everything that’s right about some states and, sadly, what’s wrong with others.

If Alabama ever climbs to the top of all the state-by-state rankings that matter, it will do it by improving the quality of its public schools. The politician who in January 2015 is sworn in as Alabama’s governor could learn a thing or two from William Winter.

In the early 1980s, Gov. Winter made it his mission to create school-funded kindergarten in Mississippi. His ambitions were stalled by the state Legislature in Jackson. That’s a story Alabamians know all too well; it just takes a handful of lawmakers in Montgomery to gum up progress.

Instead of giving up, Winter and his allies launched a strategy. They held nine public forums across the Magnolia State, taking their message of education reform directly to the people. This strategic messaging was the difference-maker when lawmakers passed Winter’s plan during a December 1982 special session.

There’s a lot here for Alabama’s governor to chew on.

We can start with the need for consistent and persistent messaging. We’ve seen far too many bad examples in Alabama over the past four years. The Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 is a head-shaking case study. It started as a bill to allow local school boards to experiment. Behind closed doors during the legislative session, it morphed into a sort of school-choice policy with scholarships for kids in “failing schools” and was quickly signed into law.

Setting aside the pros and cons, the selling of this policy was a disaster. Let’s not forget that by the end of the 2013 session, Gov. Robert Bentley was distancing himself from the version he had signed months earlier and was attempting to convince the Legislature to pass an alternate version. That effort failed, by the way.

What the law produced, at least initially, was confusion among Alabamians.

Imagine instead if Bentley and legislative leaders had spent the months before the start of the 2013 session selling their brand of school reform. Public forums would be assembled to hear feedback from parents, teachers and others with a stake in public schools. The governor’s State of the State would highlight his desires to see these policies put in place. Legislative committees would hear expert testimony to weigh the good and the bad.

None of this happened.

The instinct was right — improve Alabama schools. The salesmanship was shoddy. And early results of the act are thus far unimpressive.

Even if the Alabama Accountability Act proves to be a great success — and you can count us as skeptics — the work to improve Alabama schools wouldn’t be finished. In fact, it’s just beginning.

The state has a strong superintendent, Tommy Bice, but it lacks an unwavering cheerleader in the governor’s office. Yes, that includes words, but it also includes actions. Alabama schools need our help. Our future is tied up in the quality of public education. Our governor’s job is to sell, sell, sell education reform ideas that work.

If the Legislature drags its feet — and that’s likely given the crowd in Montgomery — then it’s time for the governor to hit the road. Take it to the people, sharing the message that Alabama schools must improve, and we must do whatever it takes.

A 2012 city election forum in Oxford provides an excellent lesson. When asked by a voter if there was a limit on the amount of money the city should provide the Oxford school system, the answers from the assembled candidates was sure and certain: We’ll give as much money as needed to make our schools the best. No one at the forum objected, and for good reason. Ample spending has made Oxford schools among the best in our area, and nobody wants to see any backsliding.

Is there a school district in the state that wouldn’t want the same? Of course not.

We need a governor who will remind Alabamians, “The road to prosperity inevitably leads past the schoolhouse door.”

Our next governor doesn’t have to have a tattoo on his arm, but we wouldn’t object if he did.