On Sept. 9, 2003, the voters answered with a resounding no. Amendment 1, the ballot name for Riley’s tax- and education-reform proposal, was rejected almost 2-to-1.
The governor did what any leader would do. He dusted himself off and proceeded to manage the state as best as he could in spite of the stifling limitations the people had imposed on their schools. Riley pressed for education reforms and full funding of programs that helped Alabama schoolchildren with the building blocks of education, reading, math and science. He worked hard to wire up remote schools so that those students could have the opportunity to take classes once exclusive to the high-dollar suburban districts.
These upgrades weren’t the result of Alabama conservatives’ magical thinking — i.e., starving our schools to greatness. No, they came because Riley made them a priority and because the economy favored Alabama’s favorite form of education funding — sales taxes.
The latest payoff arrived Tuesday with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Alabama fourth-graders showed gains in math and reading.
For the first time, Alabama fourth-graders reached the national average in reading. When you’ve been down as long as Alabama schools have been, average looks pretty darn good.
The results are based on tests given in 2009, about the time a sinking economy put the squeeze on the taxes that fund Alabama schools.
In Alabama, we call it “proration,” which is a fancy word for cutting the budget. With multiple rounds of proration, Alabama’s school budget is leaner and meaner than normal. How lean and mean? The most recent example involves long-time educators who have decided to bail out now before cost-saving measures kick in. A handful of Calhoun County public-school educators recently joined others from across the state in announcing their retirements. Most cited the state’s change in teacher benefits that could cost them thousands of dollars.
With a Dec. 1 deadline on the benefit changes looming, Alabama can expect to see more experienced teachers walk out of the classroom. We can hope hard-earned student achievement won’t suffer, but that may be wishing for too much.
Alabama owes Bob Riley a thank-you. His hard work paid off. Yet, luck also played a part. Riley had the good fortune to govern at a time when revenue was flowing to state coffers. His successor, Robert Bentley, isn’t so lucky. The Great Recession has meant less revenue. Bentley’s best boast is that he’s working to keep school funding level, not much to brag about given how far behind Alabama was to begin with.
With a persistently weak economy limiting the investment the state can make toward educating its children, the hard work will be maintaining these improvements.