This is an open letter written by Larry Lee after he sat through a meeting of the Alabama House Ways & Means Education Committee last week during a hearing on HB541, a bill known as the “Education Options Act of 2012.”

Lee, of Montgomery, is the former executive director of the Covington County Economic Development Commission and the West Central Partnership of Alabama. He writes often about education.

HB541 is intended to:

* Allow local school systems to have more flexibility by entering into a contract with the Alabama Department of Education that allows flexibility from state laws, including state Board of Education rules, regulations, and policies, in exchange for academic and assorted goals.

* Authorize the establishment of public charter schools in the state, which current has none.

This is Lee’s open letter:


As I sat in the hearing room at the statehouse last Wednesday listening to the discussion about charter schools, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind. But the over-riding one was “once again, we can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Here was all the firepower we could muster, from the Business Council of Alabama to the Birmingham Business Alliance to the superintendents association to the school board association, and of course, the AEA [Alabama Education Association].

All were well-intentioned and believed strongly in their cause. But I kept wondering why, visiting all the high-poverty schools that I visit and talking to all the principals and teachers I talk to, the subject of charter schools NEVER comes up.

Instead, principals talk about counting the days until they can retire, about how discouraged their teachers are as they are called upon each year to do more with less, about how they would not encourage their child to become an educator, etc.

And I will never forget Jackie Ergle, principal at Phil Campbell elementary which was hit by a tornado last April, telling me one day, “There is no joy in education these days, for either students or teachers.”

I wondered how many of those speaking for or against this legislation have heard the same conversations I have? How many of them have spent a day in a high-poverty classroom as I did last spring? How many of them have raised money to put a shower in an inner-city school so that kids coming from homes with no running water could bathe?

How many of the 10 Republican and five Democrat members of this committee had gone to this effort to understand the context that today’s schools and teachers must deal with daily?

Or do they simply see this as one more battle in Montgomery that is much more about us vs. them than what can we do to improve education throughout the state?

Frankly, I think this fight has far more to do with political power than educational policy.

If it wasn’t, why wasn’t the state superintendent of education, Dr. Tommy Bice, who was present, called upon to comment? Why are lawmakers considering legislation that could potentially impact every school system in Alabama but not want to hear from the state’s No. 1 education official?

The Speaker of the House says that the status quo will no longer be an option. I could not agree more.

But here is the $64 thousand question: What is the status quo?

Is it the fact that Alabama’s K-12 education budget has gone down every year since FY 2007-08 and will be about $2.6 BILLION less in the coming fiscal year than in 2007-08?

Is it the fact that you have to go all the way back to FY 1998-99 to find another education budget as small as the one the legislature will pass this year?

Is it the fact that No Child Left Behind, the law proposed by president George W. Bush immediately after he took office and then passed in 2001 by Congress with a 90 percent favorable vote, set us down an impossible path to the land of Lake Wobegon where every child will be “above average?”

This law was rooted in Texas where statewide reforms and increased standardized testing led to the so-called “Texas Miracle” while Bush was governor.

However, as studies have since shown, what happened in Texas was more a “mirage” than “miracle.” In fact, the head of Rice University’s Center for Education said highly touted test results were similar to what Enron did when they overstated profits.

Educators have assailed NCLB claiming that it is leading to narrowing of curriculums as schools are judged almost entirely on how well students perform on multiple choice reading and math tests. It is estimated that since 2007, almost 71 percent of schools have reduced instruction for subjects such as history, arts, language and music.

Is this the status quo we should be addressing in Alabama?

The status quo where nothing matters except how kids do on THE TEST that doesn’t even count toward their grade?

The status quo where the voices of teachers, principals, superintendents and even the state superintendent are ignored?

I sure don’t think so.....

We need to have a statewide discussion to answer one question: WHAT IS EDUCATION?

Is it the collection of radical, unproven, corporate-driven notions being driven from Washington these days? Or is it something far more sensible, anchored in decades of experience and common sense and wholeheartedly supported by those who are charged to impact the lives of students daily, teachers and principals?

We don’t need charter schools in Alabama nearly as much as we need to take a deep breathe and call “time out.”

We don’t need to load a bus with legislators to go to Memphis to visit charter schools, we need to go to Fruithurst Elementary in Cleburne County, where 73% of the kids get free-reduced lunches and math proficiency for third, fifth and sixth graders is higher than in Auburn and fourth-graders are virtually neck and neck. (Comparison to the Mountain Brook system is even more remarkable. This community has the highest per capita income of any place in the state. Not a single student out of 4,490 receives a free or reduced lunch. Yet math and reading proficiency for both Mountain Brook and Fruithurst is 90 percent or higher.)...

I am 69 years old. I have spent my life seeing my native state more as an unkept promise than anything else. And in my heart of hearts, I know that nothing will ever change until we put an equitable, common sense education program into place.

And bouncing from one “flavor of the month” to the next as we’re now doing will never get us where we need to go.


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