By SAYLOR CUZZORT, Alabama Daily News
As a direct product of homeschooling in Alabama and father of four current homeschool students, school choice is at the forefront of newly elected Rep. Ernie Yarbrough’s agenda.
Yarbrough defeated House District 7 incumbent Rep. Proncey Robertson in the Republican primary and went on to win the general election in November with 75% of the vote. District 7 includes Lawrence County and portions of Colbert and Morgan counties.
Yarbrough, a Lawrence County native, earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and worked at Nucor Steel in Decatur for ten years before becoming self-employed. Since then, he has taught homeschool classes to high school students, managed the local Calhoun Community College math lab and volunteered as a teacher at the Lawrence County Career Technical Center.
“America says we’re going to have a free market and capitalism, where people with ideas, goods and services can come and have a passion and a dream,” Yarbrough told Alabama Daily News. “Then these same people will recognize the value and worth of what they do and take their money there. Well, education is the same way in the sense that parents have the God-given responsibility to be the first line of defense for their children.”
Yarbrough says the solution to problems within education can be answered with his campaign slogan, “make Alabama local again.”
“I have talked to local teachers who confirmed their frustrations toward tax money going away to Montgomery and not being sent back and appropriated in a manner that actually meets the needs of the boots on the ground, even in the public schools,” Yarbrough said. “So, I would love to see a different tax structure where we keep more of our tax dollars local and give local control.”
Expanded school choice is expected to be a conversation in the Legislature’s session that begins March 7.
“School choice advocates like Rep. Yarbrough were elected across the country in 2022, and we’re already seeing a tidal wave of education freedom bills advancing through state legislatures,” said Elizabeth BeShears, American Federation for Children’s director of state communications strategy. “These bills always benefit from the support of members like Rep. Yarbrough, who have seen the power of school choice firsthand.”
Yarbrough is a co-sponsor on the recently pre-filed “divisive concepts” ban bill.
“We want to ensure that our children are not being taught that other kids are evil because of their skin color or their background or whatever it may be,” Yarbrough said. “That’s the best way our children will learn to live in a loving, right, good, true environment, by learning the good.”
Although education was one of his campaign pillars, Yarbrough plans to expand upon his previous experience while serving on the State Government and Children and Senior Advocacy committees.
“I got involved with a company called Hope for Justice several years ago,” Yarbrough said. “When you think of protecting our children and security, it’s not a federal or even a Montgomery issue; it’s, first and foremost, a community issue because we are the front lines of defense for our children.”
Through Hope for Justice, a global non-profit organization, Yarbrough climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with the purpose of raising awareness and resources to fight and end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Following his return to Lawrence County, Yarbrough launched an anti-trafficking and slavery task force.
“In both of those areas (State Government and Children and Senior Advocacy), I will apply our principles of stewardship and hard work, capitalism, liberty and freedom across a wide array of areas and advocate for the groups of people in our community that could be more vulnerable,” Yarbrough said.
Q & A with Rep. Ernie Yarbrough
Q: One of your campaign slogans was “Let’s make Alabama local again.” Can you talk a bit about that, what does that mean?
A: “The idea behind making Alabama local is that the people closest to the opportunities and the people closest to the problems are the people who are best situated to affect the solution, participate in its jobs, or help fix the problems. It’s also the idea of responsibility for our local communities. They belong to us —they don’t belong to Montgomery or DC.”
Q: Beating an incumbent in the primary is no simple feat. How did you do that and what was your message to voters?
A: “No. 1 was we knocked 8,000 doors between the primary and the general — 6,000 before the primary and 2,000 more before the general. So, we believe that people are looking for someone who will go to their house, talk to them and listen to them. They are looking for someone who shares our values and functionally and practically believes in listening to people and being their voice. Our values, our hard work, and our faith are the things that matter to us. And from that, taking our strict traditional freedom American principles and crafting solutions that not only take into account those principles but their voice as well.”
Q: Your children are homeschooled and on your website, you said your parents “suffered and battled” for freedom of education in the 1980s. Can you talk more about that?
A: “So in America, we have this wonderful idea. I use the example of a Pyramid in Egypt. Pharaoh built pyramids with a point at the top to remind the people that he was at the top and it was all about him— he was the God and dictator. America is a unique experiment because America inverts the pyramid and puts them at that single point at the bottom.
When you think of the pyramid the way Pharaoh built it, he built a society on the caste system or group or identity politics, which leads to one or a few people at the top calling the shots. But America inverted the pyramid and said no, we’re not going to build this on some sort of vague general idea of identity politics or group; we’re going to build on the single under God on the single point of individual liberties and freedoms. So if you think about the pyramid inverted, with a single point at the bottom, as you go up the pyramid, it gets wider and wider and wider. The higher you go, the more people are involved in making decisions, not less. But all those layers of groups of people making decisions to help set the country’s direction are all based upon that bottom point of individual liberties and freedoms, so you can never use group force or collective force to destroy individual liberties and freedoms at the bottom of the base. So that’s the unique American experiment. The same concept applies regardless of what you’re talking about, whether it’s buying cars, selling cows or education.
…And parents want to get their kids the best education, which is mental, spiritual and physical, that they can provide for their children. And so, the right to choose is critical because it means you get to look at and survey your options and do the best with the money you have in your particular life situation and circumstances…”
Q: What do you think school choice should look like in Alabama?
A: “As you study unique circumstances, mitigating factors, and various states, the basic concept is the same. Alabamians pay money, pay taxes, whether we like them or not — and we can have the discussion of whether they should be lowered, should certain taxes be eliminated obviously, that’s always a legitimate discussion. But given that this tax structure exists, we have the freedom to choose. We have the freedom to utilize the resources that rightfully belong to us to do what’s best for our kids. Other states have moved forward on this, like Arizona, Florida, and West Virginia, so we have the blessing and the advantage of not having to be the very first state to work some of these things out. So other states have done some good things, but at its core, school choice means that the parents are the first line of defense and have the right to choose, with their resources, what they believe is best for their child.”
Q: Last year, there was, briefly, a bill that would have reimbursed homeschooling parents with state tax dollars. Would you like to see that, or something similar, passed?
A: “Well, there are a lot of discussions, and we’re certainly involved. I like the idea of the education savings account, and there are appropriate levels of accountability you can build into something like an ESA. That doesn’t compromise the existing, and that’s what is really important; we should not compromise the existing and greater freedoms that these alternative school options already have. Because they’re doing a good job as well —the testing, the testing scores show that. Obviously, we want to make sure that the money is actually being used for the good of our children. But I had a meeting with the Alabama Education Association recently, and I would love to see more of our tax dollars stay local to help fund our public schools.”
Q: I know you are an electrical engineer by degree, but you mentioned teaching in the homeschool co-op; can you talk to me a little bit about that and how you got involved?
A: “I’ve taught in all three education sectors; I taught a pre-K through fourth-grade private Christian school, I’ve taught homeschool classes to high schoolers, and I ran the local Calhoun Community College math lab and taught math there for two years. So I taught in the Christian school, the home school and the public college arena in Alabama.
We homeschool our children, and locally, there’s a cooperative of hundreds of kids. It’s a parent-led initiative where we have parents who’ve gotten degrees in math, biology, chemistry, robotics, or you name it, who have structured their life schedule so that we can show up to this big facility with classrooms. And we meet once a week and have guided journalism, robotics, math, chemistry and sports classes. This choice is selected here because we openly celebrate our Christian faith and the fact we want to teach our children what we believe. There are a lot of people who are concerned about the content of our education and whether it is racist or woke or whatever the case is. We all want to have true racial equality and justice, but we don’t want our kids being taught material that we believe undermines our faith and our values and, quite frankly, undermines our country.”
Q: In campaigning, you said there are too many government burdens on businesses. Can you talk more about that — what would you like to change?
A: “So I am an entrepreneur. I have a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and worked for 10 years in the industry. My dad’s been self-employed pretty much his whole life, and he’s a passionate entrepreneur. So I’ve grown up with a lot of respect for the idea that American people can have a business dream and chase it and see it come to life. I’m self-employed, my wife is self-employed, and I have a passion for that because it makes us unique to other places in the world that don’t have nearly the freedom that we have.
One of the reasons, I think, is because they put so many burdens and oppress and suppress their people to the point that there’s not a strong middle class and not a large number of people who run their own businesses. It felt like, even in COVID, war was made against small and medium businesses; the rules were not fair.”
Q: You’re a Lawrence County native. What do you want people to know about the area you were raised in?
A: “I would say we’re a traditional southern area that loves to sit on the front porch and share about our family and the things that matter deeply to us. But we’re also very passionate people when it comes to our freedoms, when it comes to work, when it comes to providing for our families, when it comes to our liberties, when it comes to being willing to sacrifice and to give —we are very much a giving and sacrificing area.”
Q: What are the biggest challenges in your district, what would you like the Legislature to do to address them?
A: “A lot of the discussions that we have are obviously about adding the best kind of revenue to our district and county. The best kind of revenue isn’t tax revenue or grants; it’s businesses and jobs that create local revenue for schools. It’s a tiny world of blessings. So we’re very excited about that.
If you see the blessing of what happens when a big company comes in, and the local dollars from the business bless the schools, the other local companies, and the other micro-economies that spur up around that business. In that case, everybody sees the immediate blessing of something that is local. So I would love to see a tax structure that incentivizes or encourages more of our tax dollars to stay local so that we can use it right here on the front line of defense to serve and bless our community.
Q: Do you have any legislation you hope to sponsor or co-sponsor in the upcoming session?
A: “I would love to see something around the school choice for sure— that’s a passion of mine. And I want to ensure that we take the next step forward to protect the lives of unborn babies. So those are two areas that I will be monitoring closely and praying about.”