Alabama State Board of Education logo

For a reminder of how public education is intertwined with Calhoun County’s future, let’s head south to Montgomery and meet Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Earlier this week, Cotton delivered a speech at Leadership Montgomery’s Education Summit. Here’s a snippet:

“I’m running into a problem. I can’t find faculty,” he said in the Montgomery Advertiser. “I’m having a hard time getting folks to apply to be faculty members here as I’m trying to lure them away from schools in the Northeast, schools in Washington, D.C., schools in the Midwest, schools from San Jose — Silicon Valley — and once again the feedback I get is pretty simple: It’s about the school system.”

The Montgomery system — the third-largest in Alabama — is a longstanding mess, beset with financial distress and a bloated number of low-performing schools. Repair efforts have largely failed and Montgomery’s suburbs and neighboring schools have gorged on residents seeking better public-education choices. Sixteen months ago, the Alabama Board of Education took over operations of 27 of the system’s schools. (The board calls it “intervention.”) And the timing of the state’s switch to Superintendent Ed Richardson from his predecessor, Michael Sentance, hasn’t helped matters.

Schools matter. In essence, that’s what Cotton told his audience. Schools matter because of the education they provide children and teenagers. But they also matter because low-performing schools are repellents against progress. They hamper economic growth, they cause population declines and, in Cotton’s case, they make it hard for him to recruit faculty.

What’s more, Cotton called out one of the innumerable websites that purport to rank schools on a variety of metrics. The lieutenant general pointed to, saying it was a detriment to his ability to bring families to Montgomery.

“There is not a spouse in the United States Air Force that doesn’t pull up that website ... and when you have schools that don’t even show up on it, it scares the heck out of people and they decide they’d rather separate their family and have them stay in other locations than come here.” That’s quite a condemnation from a high-ranking Air Force officer, but there are a few points to consider.

First, those statistic-driven websites are notoriously unreliable, or worse. Their information is routinely incorrect, misleading or out of date. Tread lightly if you click.

Second, our top concern isn’t Montgomery’s schools. It’s the schools in Calhoun County -- specifically Anniston City Schools, which no longer has the state-mandated one-month reserve fund, and Anniston High, which the state board considers a “failing school” because of several low-performing academic measures. Anniston needs more results like those seen at Randolph Park Elementary, which the state board is rewarding for its improvement on third-graders’ reading scores.

Montgomery and Anniston share this problem. Public education that stunts economic growth and repels families hampers more than just the children in their classroom.