Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1450: Attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama

  Attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama. The attacks just keep coming. They come from different directions. They come in different forms. They come from different sources. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  I personally know the power of public education. The public schools I attended were very separate and very unequal. However, without public education I would not have gone to school since my family of 15 was very poor (13 children, a mother and father). I certainly would not have graduated from high school or college or law school. I would not be serving in the Alabama Senate. I would not be writing this installment of Senate Sketches. Public education was one of the foundations of any success I may have achieved. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  One such attack comes in the guise of helping children in so-called failing schools. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its real goal is to devour public education. The instrument is the so called Alabama Accountability Act (AAA). It is certainly Alabama. It is certainly an act. It is not, however, accountable.

  AAA was enacted with great fanfare last year. It provided for Alabama taxpayers to designate up to $7,500 each year for private school scholarship programs. It was supposed to provide an alternative for children in “failing" schools. However, after a whole year, few of the students who received the scholarships are from failing schools. Therefore, students in these “failing schools” are now worse off. So are other public school students.  It is another of the separate and unequal initiatives that have plagued Alabama since 1901. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  This year the wolves in sheep’s clothing are back for more. Their appetites have been whetted. They want to increase funding for AAA by 40 percent – from $25 million to $35 million; to greatly increase the tax credit; to increase the pool of “failing schools” by taking the bottom 10 percent of schools in each level – elementary, middle and high – rather than the bottom six percent of all schools. Now AAA will be a “school choice” program rather than a relief from a failing school program. This scheme will further separate and make education unequal. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  The charter school bill passed the Alabama Legislature this week. The governor signed it into law the very next day. It will create private schools with public funds. Moreover, it will result in private businesses operating these publicly funded schools. Worse yet, there will be no certification requirements for teachers, principals or other personnel for most charter schools. These charter schools will become a cash cow for certain businesses while providing less education for charter school students and reducing financial resources for all public schools. The ultimate decision of who will get a charter will be made by a political and profit-motivated commission. This is another scheme that will result in separate, unequal and reduced education for our children. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  There is a broad and deep movement to reduce funding for public education even though there are currently insufficient financial resources to educate our children. Last year the governor proposed to take a hundred million plus dollars from the Education Trust Fund for economic development but backed away after opposition emerged. Then there is the rolling reserve law that will prevent use of education funds that are available. Every legislative session produces another scheme to divert more funds. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  Children are the heart of public education. Teachers are the core of public education. The anti-public education movement has made it far more difficult for teachers. They have had only one raise in the last seven years. It was just two percent while the cost of living increased more than 14 percent over the same time period. Teacher income has actually been reduced because they now pay a higher percentage of the cost of health care and retirement costs. In addition, retirement age for new teachers is now 62, which means teachers will have to work for up to 40 years before qualifying for retirement benefits. All these things are diminishing public education by driving prospective teachers to other vocations. The attacks on public education are mounting in Alabama.

  Not only are teachers and other education workers under attack, but education organizations such as the Alabama Education Association (AEA) are also under attack. One technique makes it more difficult to deduct organization dues. This reduces membership and ultimately weakens organizations. The attacks on public education are truly mounting in Alabama, and public education is being diminished with every attack.

EPILOGUE – Basic public education is central to opportunity in our society. With every attack on public education, opportunity also diminishes. The thing that worries me most is that the blows are delivered in the name of improving public education. We must understand that it is a wolf even though it's disguised in sheep’s clothing.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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