By Larry Lee
Special to The Star
Any good deep fried, sweet tea washed Southerner is familiar with “bless his heart.” And while we might not be able to really define it, we know what it means.
As much as anything, it’s a way to verbalize someone hanging their head and slowly shaking it from side to side. It is not an expression of great satisfaction.
So when Gov. Robert Bentley recently said that he wanted to somehow take money from education and use it for incentives to lure businesses to Alabama, my first thought was “bless his heart.”
Reaction from both the education community and members of the Legislature was swift and predictable. They were not at all supportive. Later the same day the governor was trying to “walk back” his comments and said, “They were basically somewhat misinterpreted.” However, the reporter who covered the meeting where the governor spoke told me that his statement was not ambiguous when he made it. (And remember this is the governor who signed the Alabama Accountability Act last year and took $1,000 out of every classroom in the state.)
What troubled me most was not that the governor said whatever he may have said, but that he even thought about it.
Dr. James Cobb of the University of Georgia is one of the South’s premier historians. His longtime focus has been on the interactions between the economy, the history and the culture of the South. My copy of his book, The Selling of the South, has dozens of underlined passages.
I emailed him a copy of the article about the governor’s statement. His reply: “Sadly, this is a two-headed snake — an absolute loss of perspective on industrial subsidies and further evidence of the de-valuing of education.”
The Book of Matthew tells us about the parable of the wise builder who built his house on rock so it would not fail, whereas the foolish man built his house on sand that fell with a great crash when the rain and wind came.
For decades Alabama has failed to see that an educated people are one of the rocks for the foundation of a viable economy. Instead we have tried to mask this by getting into an arms race of incentives, tax abatements, free land, free buildings, etc.
I understand how this game is played because I was a local economic developer for five years. And on more than one occasion our community benefited by having incentives available. But I also noted that every single project I worked asked about the quality of our workforce long before they asked about incentives.
If you spend time on the Census Bureau website you find that Alabama ranks No. 46 of all states in median household income, No. 44 in percent college graduates, No. 45 in percent high school graduates and No. 6 in level of poverty. On the other hand, Maryland is No. 1 in median household income, No. 3 in percent college graduates, No. 23 in percent high school graduates and No. 49 in level of poverty.
How Alabama came to where we are today is a complicated and complex journey, impacted hugely by an agrarian economy, reconstruction, the Great Depression, two world wars and race. Equally as meaningful has been our willingness to listen to the wrong voices who called our attention to who was going to school, not what was being taught.
Incentives are not new in Alabama. In 1897 we passed a law exempting anyone who invested $50,000 in a textile mill from all state, county and municipal taxes for 10 years. By 1900 we had 31 textile mills. That same year the average annual wage of a male working in manufacturing in Alabama was $309, while his counterpart in Massachusetts made $527.
Ironically the governor made his comments at Chatom, county seat of Washington County that borders Mobile County to the north. It is 35 miles from Chatom to Calvert, home of the former ThyssenKrupp steel operation. A little less than 10 years ago the state of Alabama moved heaven and earth to land this operation. We invested millions and millions of dollars.
Yet figures from the Alabama Department of Labor show that employment in Washington County in 2013 was 21 percent less than in 2000. And 89 school systems spend more per pupil to educate students than Washington County.
Governor, we need more rock, not more sand. But first we need someone who understands the difference.
Larry Lee — firstname.lastname@example.org — led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.