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Column: Alabama has a new State Superintendent of Schools

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

The Alabama Board of Education has voted to hire Dr. Eric Mackey as Alabama’s next State Superintendent of Education.

The Board chose Mackey by a 5-4 vote over previously-perceived favorite Dr. Craig Pouncey, who is Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools. Other finalists for the job included Hoover City Schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy and former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

For the last seven years Mackey has worked as Executive Director of the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA), an organization that advocates on behalf of local school leaders. Before leading SSA, Mackey was a principal in the Jacksonville City School System and later became its superintendent. He first began working as a science teacher at Saks Elementary School in 1993.

State Superintendent is a critical position in Alabama. It’s the CEO of the state’s Department of Education, a sprawling agency of policymakers and educators who work to implement of the directives of the State School Board and the Legislature.

The State Superintendent also serves as the leading public advocate for improving education in a state that needs it. Some superintendents have found success by working hand-in-hand with governors to advance a shared agenda. In the 2000s, Gov. Bob Riley worked closely with Dr. Ed Richardson and later Dr. Joe Morton to advance a series of education programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative, ACCESS distance learning and First Class Pre-K. Their unified approach to reform combined with growing revenue helped lead to some strong gains in education. For the first time anyone could remember, Alabama started ranking in the 30s nationally instead of the usual low 40s.

Times were not as favorable during the early 2010s, when Dr. Tommy Bice served as State Superintendent during most of Gov. Robert Bentley’s term. Disagreements were common over how and when to implement reform initiatives like public charter schools for struggling districts and school report cards that allow parents to see a district’s progress. More time was spent debating the evils of Common Core Standards than on ways to improve academics. That lack of focus plus declining funding from the recession saw many of Alabama’s education gains stagnate. Bentley’s myriad personal problems couldn’t have been helpful either. His resignation came six months after the hiring of Michael Sentance as State Superintendent, whose one-year in the job was politically tumultuous from start to finish.

Now, with Mackey’s selection, the state has an opportunity to push the reset button. Gov. Kay Ivey, who serves as President of the State School Board by virtue of her office, said Mackey’s vision for Alabama schools aligns with her own.

“I was impressed by Dr. Mackey’s embrace of my vision to ensure that our children have a strong start to their educational journey so that they have a strong finish when they enter the workforce,” she said. “That is the kind of forward thinking we need at the helm of the State Board of Education.”

There’s a lot being said in that last part of Ivey’s statement. Dysfunction and discord among members of the State Board of Education has been a big hindrance to education progress the last few years. It has gotten so bad that state lawmakers have proposed doing away with the Board altogether or at least curtailing its authority. Part of the problem is that the Board has lacked effective leadership from a superintendent and governor working together toward a shared vision. If Ivey and Mackey can provide that, it will likely mean good things for Alabama schools.

Mackey inherits his share of challenges. First among them is the messy state intervention taking place at Montgomery Public Schools, the state’s most troubled system. Interim Superintendent Ed Richardson, who is leading the intervention, has lost patience with local school leaders and the Alabama Education Association, which is suing to block a financial turnaround plan and the opening of Montgomery’s first public charter school.

And, of course, it’s an election year, and that means political instability. Though she is leading in every poll, there is no guarantee that Ivey will win her own term as governor. There will be at least two new members of the State Board of Education and dozens of new faces in the State Legislature next year.

Mackey’s task is a tall one, but he seems to have support from within the education community and good working relationships with the state’s local superintendents. Hopefully, this will be a start of a new, positive chapter for education in Alabama.

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