The most recent figures from the Census Bureau tell the tale. A 2009 report found Alabama spends $8,391 per pupil, far below the national average of $9,666 and almost half of what the top states spend. That probably goes a long way in explaining the state’s historic poor performance when compared to how other states educate their children. Alabama received a C grade in the most recent Quality Counts examination by Education Week.
Economic developers doing their best to recruit high-tech jobs to a state with weak public schools will also agree.
In the middle of the Great Recession, Alabama public schools are getting by with even less.
A coalition of parties intimately involved in public education visited The Star’s offices recently. Joining us were Dr. Susan Lockwood, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, Sally Brewer Howell, executive director of Alabama Association of School Boards, and Eric Mackey, the Jacksonville City Schools superintendent who recently announced he was leaving that post to work for School Superintendents of Alabama.
Their grim message: The Legislature drawing up a state education budget only to slash it when projected dollars never come is no way to do business.
They brought the results of a survey of the state’s school districts. Many, perhaps 1-in-5, noted cash-flow problems so severe that they would soon have to borrow money from commercial lenders to stay afloat.
Our visitors said the Education Trust Fund budget leaves local districts holding the bag during times of proration, when projected revenue doesn’t match expenses. The cure, the superintendent and school board groups say, is to have more flexibility in drawing budgets.
Grant this coalition credit. They are Cassandra-like in raising attention to a serious problem. They want Montgomery to write a budget that more realistically projects revenue and expenses, and properly balances the two. While they gave lip service to finding new revenue sources, most of the solutions would have to come from cuts.
Why not adjust one of Alabama’s grossly upside-down taxes that rewards the haves and punishes the have-nots?
Well, it’s a political season, comes the response.
And, during this political season, which serious politician wants to run on his or her ability to take dollars away from public schools?
(It’s a rhetorical question, you “proud Alabama conservatives” attempting to move the state back to the 19th century. For goodness sake, put your hands down before someone from Hyundai, Mercedes or Thyssen-Krupp sees you.)
The strong suggestion from Lockwood, Howell and Mackey is that local districts need relief from state mandates. One could read that as permission for districts to either lay off or furlough teachers.
Well, that might explain why no one from the Alabama Education Association was at the table with us. Had it been invited to join this coalition? No, was the short answer.
Let’s hope no one is left wondering why AEA honcho Paul Hubbert has so much power in Montgomery. Sure, he’s a veteran of the ways of Goat Hill. Sure, he knows the system. Sure, his organization is a generous contributor to state politicians.
Yet, the real power comes from teachers in Alabama. They are the public servants we ask to educate our young. And we often ask them to do it:
n For modest pay.
n In broken-down school buildings older than their grandparents.
n So miserly students’ parents must pick up the cost of basic toiletries.
n With tattered textbooks.
n And amid a statewide climate that in almost every way shouts that Alabama doesn’t prize knowledge the way other states do.
None of this is new.
In the middle of the Great Depression, 75 years ago, the state was so short on funds it was paying teachers with IOUs.
Alabama teachers are justified in feeling vulnerable. A twist on the old cliché would be, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they don’t properly value the job you do.
The AEA and Paul Hubbert are a refuge in that storm, an ally to fight for teachers. A detached observer, much less an ideological opponent, might view many of the AEA’s actions as excess and/or a barrier to better governance in Alabama.
It’s a valid point, yet we can practically hear the collective “so what?” shrug of AEA members.
Talk of teacher layoffs or furloughs?
Of all the likely outcomes to result from that discussion, the surest seems it will hand more power to Paul Hubbert.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/Editor