It has now been 45 years since country singer Roy Clark came across the airwaves with “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone.” But the song’s title came immediately to mind recently when the Alabama legislature packed their bags and rode off into the sunset, bringing down the curtain on the 2015 regular session.
Once again, those representing public education spent most of their energy reacting to bills that seemed to materialize out of thin air, that would ultimately harm public education and limit its resources. And more often than not, whoever concocted the legislation did not consult with educators beforehand.
We passed legislation to set up charter schools, which will slice the education pie into smaller pieces; we raised the cap on contributions for donations to scholarship-granting organizations so that will deny even more funds to the education trust fund; we talked a lot about combining the education trust fund and the general fund and we continued to declare there is a huge “surplus” in education funding.
We passed an education budget that, for the first time since 2008, began to meet the state’s obligations in funding the foundation program. While this is noteworthy, we need to keep some things in context before we pat legislators on the back too much. For example, we put $1 million in library enhancement for the first time since FY 2008. What that really means is that we have now funded libraries at an average annual rate of $142,857 since 2008.
However, in the same time frame we have funded the Alabama Teach for America program to the tune of $3.2 million. And not a single one of the 105 House members or 35 Senators can tell you what this money is used for.
We amended the Alabama Accountability Act to allow contributions made in 2015 be counted as contributions made in 2014. We increased the contribution cap in this bill from $25 million to $30 million (even though we only raised about 52 percent of the limit in 2014) and we put in law that private school scholarships can be up to $10,000, while we are presently giving $5,800 per pupil to public schools.
I know that it is not easy to serve in the legislature. Members are bombarded by special interests of all stripes to be for or against something. It is impossible to reach objective decisions because members do not have staff to help with homework and separate fact from fiction.
There are members I greatly appreciate. Rep. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa, who chairs the House Education Ways & Means Committee, comes quickly to mind. He is diligent, dedicated, accessible and even-tempered. He takes his chairmanship seriously and works hard at being informed and in touch.
On the other hand, there are those mired so deeply in a particular ideology that such things as comprise or tolerance never seem to cross their minds.
Unfortunately, I see more ideologues and those driven by a need to be totally in control than I do members like Bill Poole.
The lesson public education needs to take from this session is that SOMEONE needs to step up to the plate. SOMEONE must start telling the story of what is going on in our public schools. Contacting legislators is not something that should be confined to just those times when they are meeting in Montgomery; it should be year-round. Now that this session is over and we know how members have voted on certain issues is when they should be held accountable. Let them know someone is paying attention. Ask them to explain why they voted as they did. Ask them to explain how constituents in their district will benefit from legislation they enacted.
If public education is worth saving, we must work at doing so 365 days of the year.