After Gov. Robert Bentley’s recent plan for Alabama relying on failed, century-old economic strategies, I crafted my own, rooted in new economic realities and massive education reform.
Educate and graduate our children to the limits of their capacities. Create high-skill apprenticeship programs such as those in Germany beginning about age 15. For those who change their minds and decide later on a college-track program, create such options in the community colleges. Extend merit pay to the state’s best teachers and for those willing to teach in the poorest under-performing schools.
Change tenure laws. No administrator should hold administrative tenure, nor should bus drivers or custodians. Teacher tenure is intended not to satisfy patronage or guarantee employment but to protect academic freedom. (For instance, for this former Auburn University professor who was threatened by various politicians and special-interest groups for columns like this one, or for public-school science teachers trying to teach biology based on the scientific method rather than parental views based on the Bible, Koran or Veda, which they cannot reconcile to Darwin’s Origin of Species.) If tenure cannot be determined for college professors until the sixth year of employment, how can it be determined for public-school teachers in three years?
Teacher tests in all subject areas are vital. How can teachers successfully teach subjects they do not understand? All teacher certification beyond elementary and special education should require students to major and minor in academic disciplines that they will teach.
Colleges of education should guarantee their products. Except for elementary and special-education students, all applicants should seek admission to such colleges after their first two years of general curricula and major/minor courses based on their grade-point averages. Once graduated, if teachers fail to make satisfactory professional progress, their alma mater should be required to provide remedial training. The state should also contract such colleges to provide continuing in-service training. Each college of education should have a close outreach relationship to a specific region in which it is located.
The state should establish seven charter schools, one in each congressional district and in different demographic areas, funded by an appropriate increase in tobacco taxes. According to the American Cancer Society, each additional penny tax on tobacco products prevents thousands of children from smoking. That saves their health and lives. It also saves taxpayers billions in Medicaid/Medicare costs. It also helps convince us that the self-proclaimed ethics reforms enacted by the Legislature have not merely swapped halls full of gambling lobbyists who pursued their own interests with halls full of tobacco lobbyists pursuing theirs.
In order to prevent the same corrupting influence by charter-school lobbyists, hire a respected non-Alabama, non-Republican or Democratic or teacher-union education organization to prepare immediately a set of standards for evaluating the success of a charter school. Evaluate the charter schools in their third, sixth and ninth years to determine if they are making any difference in student performance. Then let our conclusions about Alabama charter schools follow the data.
If Alabama teachers must learn to live in a riskier new world, so should taxpayers. And don’t insult my intelligence by complaining that Alabamians are taxed to death. (We pay the lowest combined taxes in the United States, and the last time I checked, Americans paid the third-lowest taxes of any industrialized nation). Or that we can’t solve education problems by throwing money at them. (How would we know? Name one generation, one decade or even one year when Alabama funded schools per student at the national average.)
We claim to be a child-friendly state. But every recent poll reveals that we care more about our post-tax disposable income than the educational skills of our K-12 children or the new knowledge created by under-funded research universities. There is a moral concept known as delayed gratification. It holds that people should discipline themselves by postponing short-term gratification in order to gain better long-term outcomes. For all of Alabama’s moral pontification, we have not measured up to this basic standard in our tax policy.
One of my sons’ family lives in Washington state. He pays five times more property taxes than I do for a similarly sized house built at nearly the same time. But my two grandchildren also attend schools at least five times better than typical Alabama schools. My son would rather not pay the taxes. But he is willing to postpone acquisition of things he would really like for the sake of the future those schools provide his children.
Gov. Bentley and Alabama legislators of both parties, listen to us. Think beyond the next election cycle, even beyond the decade or two more you will occupy this very special piece of earth called Alabama before you are buried in its soil. Give us dreams and visions, not bromides and illusions.
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University.
Part 1: Mired in a mess: Who has solutions to Alabama’s many problems?