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Matthew Stokes: Back to School

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Contributing Writer

Now that summer is winding down and kids are back in school, our fall elections have turned towards education.  

Gov. Kay Ivey has lately taken to defending her record on education and pledging to continue her policies, while her opponent, Walt Maddox, has noted that a lot is wrong and his lottery is going to fix it.  In either case, most Alabamians would agree that our state’s education system needs improving, though we’re not likely to agree on what that improvement is. For my own part, I am a product of Alabama public schools, and I taught in them for several years.  I want to see our students, and our schools, succeed.

From a conservative standpoint, I welcome the minor education reforms that have been enacted statewide in the last several years.  I say “minor,” because while much of the education establishment howled with outrage over tweaks to the tenure system and payroll deductions to unions, there is a lot of reform left in the conservative playbook should the state GOP choose to utilize it.  

On a fundamental level, I believe that schools should serve students and parents first. While we want to encourage and support a competent, professional class of educators, our policies should bring them along in the process of serving students. Too often our rhetoric is focused on teachers – who deserve our support, make no mistake – when instead we should be asking “what is best for students?”  These two areas typically overlap, but when they don’t, our leaders need to have the courage to support the children in need.

As a matter of policy, I think our state has made subtle steps in the right direction.  I think the Alabama Accountability Act, while imperfect, is a good move. The state should continue to remain open to charter schools, especially if slow growth allows us evaluate the process in real time.  

I also support further reform of our teacher tenure policies, primarily for two reasons. First and foremost, where bad or ineffective teachers exist, it must be easier to remove them. Losing one’s job is painful, as I know from experience, but schools exists to serve students first, and if a teacher has demonstrated that they are a bad fit, for whatever reason, it must be easier to send them on their way.  Secondly, tenure reform can help teachers by making them less fearful of jumping to another school or even an outright career change.

On the other side, there are some ideas that conservatives must hold in tension.  I believe that students come first and we should strive to give parents as many options and as much freedom as possible, but most Alabamians like their local public school.  We should make certain that they are supported as much as possible.

From a funding stand point, that means we should take a hard look over the next decade to see that our tax structure is properly aligned.  Conservatives are right to fear tax increases, for pragmatic, if not philosophical reasons, but it would be unwise to foreclose the possibility that our current structure properly funds and allocates resources.   

My own personal grand bargain would be a major overhaul of retirement and benefits for younger public employees with slow but defined increases in land tax over a period of ten to twelve years with a mandatory cap on the increase.  I may be among the few conservatives to admit this, but our funding could stand an increase, and Walt Maddox’s plan to dump a lottery on a bad tax structure does not help.

There is another element to education reform that is often overlooked, in part because it makes us the most uncomfortable.  Our best schools and school systems are those where students show up to school with a large supply of social capital.

That doesn’t necessarily mean wealth but there’s an impressive amount of correlation between areas with strong schools and those with high rates of marriage, savings, and other social indicators.  Students do better in school when parents read to them, when they’ve been to the library, and when screen time is limited. You might object that many working parents can’t always do such things. While that’s likely true in the extreme, the objection often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a working class community writes off certain behaviors as something for wealthy people, that’s exactly what they will be.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we have all known people who spend large sums of money on travel ball for students who will never play professionally while those same kids never darken the doors of a public library.  I love Saturdays in Tuscaloosa and hunting on the weekends, but if our kids close their books on Friday afternoon and don’t touch them again until Monday morning, there’s going to be a gap in knowledge and in work ethic relative to school.  These are things that funding can’t fix. If our local cultures address these problems upstream from politics, our education system will reap benefits before addressing any political concerns.

By all means, let’s work on funding and policy problems. There remains a large amount of work that can be done by parents – cheaply and effectively – that will have a powerful impact on their students’ education and future.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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