Public education in Alabama has resided historically near the bottom of the nation’s rankings because Alabamians have been devoted to low taxes and a perplexing acceptance of second-rate education as unofficial state policy.
If that weren’t the case, Alabama’s politicians, educators and electorate would have done whatever was necessary to improve the state’s public schools, especially those in low-income, rural counties that are among the nation’s worst performers. Instead, the proof is damning.
Consider this prescient passage from noted historian Wayne Flynt:
“The commitment of so many Alabamians to keeping their taxes low seemed at the root of Alabama’s education problems,” Flynt wrote in Alabama in the Twentieth Century.
And this one:
“Reams of paper from seemingly endless special commissions documented educational deficiencies at every level. But citizens routinely elected legislators who insisted education problems could be solved by less waste and more efficiency … that higher property taxes were unnecessary and unfair …”
And this one:
“Citizens in well-educated, affluent communities such as Auburn, Hoover, Homewood, Vestavia Hills Mountain Brook and Huntsville tended to vote yes (on tax increases for schools) … But elsewhere — Jasper, Mobile, Montgomery — property tax increases usually suffered crushing defeats.”
When you combine Flynt’s analysis with Star reporter Tim Lockette’s work from last Sunday’s Star, you get a toxic mixture that makes it virtually impossible to take public education in Alabama into the nation’s upper echelon. Lockette’s story (“Voters say education is a top political issue. So why is Calhoun County’s state school board representative running unopposed?”) exposed a gaping hole in the premise that Alabamians care about education.
That gap is illustrated in election years when state and party officials have trouble rustling up candidates for the Alabama Board of Education. Anniston resident Cynthia McCarty, the board’s District 6 representative, is the perfect example. She’s running unopposed. This has nothing to do with McCarty’s job performance, which we would rate as very good, but plenty to do with others’ willingness to put in their two cents on public schooling.
“There have been years,” Eric Mackey, director of School Superintendents of Alabama, told The Star, “when the deadline was getting near and we wondered if anybody was going to run.”
That begs this somewhat-rhetorical question: Can a state that struggles to find qualified candidates for its school board truly care about public education?
Granted, Alabama has had victories in education, perhaps none bigger than the reform efforts from Gov. Bibb Graves’ tenure and the pre-K push of Gov. Bob Riley. But the reality is that Alabama voters are generally more committed to the priorities of low taxes and protection of business interests, from timber sales to banking to farming, than they are to improving our schools.
Modern-day Alabama will never reach its true potential until it realizes that public education drives the train. If Alabamians aren’t willing to give a little to get a little — either in taxes or serving as education advocates — then our schools are what they are.