This was written by Larry Lee, who led the study “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools,” a look at 10 high-performing, high-poverty rural schools in Alabama. This appeared in the Birmingham News.

By Larry Lee

The collective sigh heard across Alabama recently came from educators pleased to hear Gov. Robert Bentley tell the Alabama Association of School Boards he would not include charter school legislation in his next package of bills.

“There was just very little support for the charter school bill, including among Republicans,” the governor explained.

Any good politician is astute at reading the way the wind is blowing which was obviously the case this time. And when Bentley checked the wind on this issue, here are some things he may have thought about:

* While the governor chairs the state Board of Education by virtue of his office, the majority of this board never favored charter schools because initially the bill cut this board out of the loop, instead creating a statewide “charter school application review council.”

* The numbers just didn’t add up. Research shows that we would end up with about 1,000 students statewide in above-average charter schools. But at an administrative cost of $1,800 per child -- or $45,000 per classroom. Give any school in Alabama that much money for additional staff and materials and you will see a change in performance, whether you call them a charter school or not.

* At the beginning of this debate, every group representing any part of the education community (superintendents, school board members, principals, teachers, etc.) was opposed to the bill. While the Alabama Education Association was the most visible, it’s likely that the opposition of school system superintendents had the most impact on local legislators. They saw the bill as making already difficult local funding situations even more difficult and taking away local control.

As one longtime Republican house member said, “I have an elected Republican county superintendent and four Republican school board members who all asked me to oppose the bill. Do think I’m going to listen to them, or some lobbyist in Montgomery?”

* Is Louisiana education really all that good? The governor visited three charters schools in New Orleans, came home and declared that Alabama is 15 years behind Louisiana. But the truth is that Louisiana’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade reading and math are higher than Alabama in only one out of these four measures. And Alabama should copy them?

* The governor has been a Republican since way before being one was “cool.” In fact, all the way back to when Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964. Given this history, maybe he realized that dyed-in-the-wool, true conservative Republicans should not be promoting creation of more Montgomery bureaucracy and taking away local control of schools, which this legislation did.

* As in Alabama, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature in Mississippi, yet they also denied a push for charters last spring. In fact, Republican Rep. Forrest Hamilton recently told a chamber of commerce meeting: “The most important vote I’ve made in the past nine years was my vote in the education committee against the charter schools bill.”

* Maybe the governor read the letter to The Wall Street Journal that retired corporate executive John Anderson wrote shortly after Airbus announced its decision to put a facility in Mobile. A board member of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, Anderson thinks the Mobile school system and the Mobile Area Education Foundation played a significant role in the Airbus decision. “Good schools equal economic development,” stated Anderson.

The fact that last year, nine of Alabama’s 13 Torchbearer schools were in Mobile gives credence to Anderson’s suggestion.

David Mathews is the former president of the University of Alabama, former Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare under President Gerald Ford and longtime head of the Kettering Foundation. In his book, “Is There A Public for Public Schools?” he talks about “solution wars.” These are the factions that spring up on all sides of education issues, dividing communities into different solution “camps” and usually only leading to ill will and wasted energies and resources.

Last spring’s charter battle was a classic example of this. Obviously, Bentley figured this out and has decided that helping our schools is more important than winning political squabbles.

Now let’s hope members of the House and Senate leadership come to the same conclusion.


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