As the fate of Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon hangs in the balance — actually, by the time this article is published, his fate may well be sealed, pending the action of the Birmingham Board of Education at its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 10 — it seems appropriate to stop and consider the decline of the city school system since the turn of the 21st century, or, roughly speaking, the time since the advent of the elected school board in 2001.
At the beginning of the 2000-01 academic year, enrollment in the Birmingham City Schools was just under 40,000 students. Before the end of the decade, that number was below 30,000. When the current school year began in the fall of 2011, just over 25,000 students were enrolled in the school system of the largest city in Alabama.
“We’re losing market share,” Witherspoon told me in an interview last year for an article that appeared in Birmingham magazine. “The question is, how do we reverse that, especially in a climate of reduced funding at all levels? Whether you’re making your case for public dollars or reaching out for private and philanthropic support, you have to be able to answer some tough questions. Is this a good investment? What is the return? How do we measure it?”
In the effort to answer those questions, Witherspoon’s tenure has been one of action. He has initiated a host of reforms designed to improve the system’s fulfillment of its basic educational mission. In doing so, he has run afoul of a majority of school board members, five people who were complicit in a ham-handed attempt to fire him at a special called meeting last week, and now are expected to follow through on their plan at the regular meeting this week.
It’s easy — particularly for those who find some personal or political benefit in oversimplifying complex matters, as well as those who merely are simple-minded — to attribute the deterioration of the school system to the effects of ongoing “white flight,” the decampment of white citizens to suburban locales that began in Birmingham in the late 1950s and accelerated over the next half-century. But nothing is easy in this hard town, least of all this most critical of issues, and one that touches on virtually every aspect of the seemingly hard-wired dichotomies of race and class that have bedeviled us throughout our history.
If you want to put the problems of the decade prior to Witherspoon’s arrival in March of 2010 in a nutshell, you can boil it down to the utter dysfunction of the school board and mismanagement at both the board and administrative levels that would be the stuff of low comedy if it weren’t so deadly serious. With a few notable exceptions, whom I will not enumerate here, the elected board has been peopled with a collection of political hacks, ne’er-do-wells and outright dingbats who are about as qualified to oversee an educational system as I am to perform brain surgery.
Meanwhile, when Witherspoon was hired, he became the seventh person to hold the superintendent’s job in 15 years. Some of his predecessors were incompetent, some were simply the wrong person for the job, a couple were there only on an interim basis — and all ran into problems of one kind or another with the board, usually over the desire to make substantive changes in administrative and academic policies and procedures.
The net effect was the precipitous decrease in annual enrollment figures, which were only the tip of a gargantuan iceberg of related impacts. Graduation rates fell, the number of dropouts increased alarmingly, scores on college entrance exams dropped through the floor, the level of professionalism among administrators and faculty declined. The incidence of poverty among the student population climbed, as the system devolved into a viable educational option primarily for people who could not afford to move to the suburbs or pay for their children to attend private schools.
Another problem has been the unwillingness of the school board over time to embrace the notion that maybe all of these red flags might indicate the need for a different approach to educating the children of Birmingham. Whether from sheer laziness — which is a more charitable term than “ignorance” — or the undue political influence of the Alabama Education Association — an organization once instrumental in asserting, advancing and protecting the rights of teachers that, over a generation, has devolved into one primarily interested in maintaining its political power by, among other things, making it impossible to fire bad teachers — and others for whom the education of children is not at the top of the list in determining who should sit on the school board, the board has implicitly and explicitly made it clear over the years that, even though the situation has long called for fundamental changes, the old way of doing things remains just fine.
This point was brought home to me by Ed LaMonte, one of the most respected educators in the city’s history, in a conversation for the same article for which I interviewed Witherspoon last year. Now retired as a professor from Birmingham-Southern College, LaMonte served as interim superintendent of the city schools in the late 1990s.
“The focus has to be on innovative programs that alter the traditional approach to education in Birmingham,” LaMonte said of prospects for improving the system. “The tendency toward knee-jerk opposition to change and sometimes open hostility toward innovative thinking has crippled the ability of the system to fulfill its basic educational mission.”
Instead, we are treated to the spectacle of a wrongheaded effort to get rid of a man who might be the last, best hope for saving the Birmingham City Schools from the people who were elected to shepherd it. Despite Witherspoon’s best efforts and, perhaps, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s board meeting, the future of the system looks bleaker than ever.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.