Open letter on House Bill 541, ‘Education Options Act of 2012’

Points of view on charter schools...

Editor’s note: The following is by Larry Lee, former executive director of the Covington County Economic Commission, co-author of “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools” and former chamber of commerce breakfast speaker on the subject “Education Precedes Prosperity.” He writes often about education. This letter was written following his recent attendance at a legislative committee session on HB 541.

HB 541 is intended to:

•allow local school systems to have more flexibility by entering into a contract with the Alabama Department of Education that allows flexibility from state laws, including state Board of Education rules, regulations, and policies, in exchange for academic and assorted goals.

•authorize the establishment of public charter schools in the state, which currently has none.

Lee’s letter:

As I sat in the hearing room at the statehouse listening to the discussion about charter schools, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind. But the overriding one was “once again, we can’t see the forest for the trees.”

I kept wondering why, visiting all the high-poverty schools that I visit and talking to all the principals and teachers I talk to, the subject of charter schools NEVER comes up.

What does come up, according to an article Lee wrote for The Blount Countian last August, is the following, much condensed:

•the incessant push to raise scores on standardized tests, to the detriment of the rest of the curriculum.

•targeting too many educational resources on college preparation, as opposed to job and vocational training.

•the pressure of having to do more with smaller staffs and less money as proration shrinks budgets.

•too many good teachers retiring early, because of overwork and underpay.

•criticism of teachers and the teaching profession that is killing morale and contributing to early retirement, sometimes on the job.

Returning to Lee’s letter:

Frankly, I think this fight (over charter schools) has more to do with political power than educational policy. If it wasn’t, why wasn’t the state superintendent of education, who was present, called upon to comment? Why do lawmakers considering legislation that could potentially impact every school system in Albama, not want to hear from the state’s No. 1 education official?

The Speaker of the House says that the status quo will no longer be an option. I could not agree more. But here is the $64,000 question: What is the status quo?

What IS the status quo?

Is it the fact the Alabama’s K-12 education budget will be about 40 percent less in the coming year than it was in FY 2007-08?

Is it the fact that you have to go all the way back to FY 1998-99 to find another education budget as small as the one the Legislature will pass this year?

Is it the fact that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal law sent us down an impossible path?

The law was rooted in Texas where statewide reforms and increased standardized testing led to the so-called “Texas Miracle” while George W. Bush was governor. However, as studies have since shown, what happened in Texas was more “mirage” than “miracle.” The head of Rice University’s Center for Education said highly-touted test results were similar to what Enron did when they overstated profits.

Educators have assailed NCLB claiming it is leading to narrowing of curriculums as schools are judged almost entirely on how well students perform on multiple choice reading and math tests. It is estimated that since 2007, almost 71 percent of schools have reduced instruction for subjects such as history, arts, language, and music.

Isn’t this the status quo we should be addressing in Alabama?

The status quo where the voice of teachers, principals, superintendents, and even the state superintendent are ignored?

What IS education?

Is it the collection of radical, unproven, corporatedriven notions being driven from Washington these days? Or is it something far more sensible, anchored in decades of experience and common sense and wholeheartedly supported by those who are charged to impact the lives of students daily: teachers and principals?

We don’t need to load a bus with legislators to go to Memphis to visit charter schools. We need to go to Fruithurst Elementary in Cleburne County, where 73 percent of the kids get free/reduced lunches and math proficiency for third, fifth, and sixth graders is higher than in Auburn, and fourth-graders are virtually neck and neck.

Comparison to the Mountain Brook school system is even more remarkable. This community has the highest per capita income of any place in the state. Not a single student out of 4490 receives a free or reduced lunch. Yet math and reading proficiency for both Mountain Brook and Fruithurst are 90 percent or higher.

I have spent my life seeing my native state more as an unkept promise than anything else. In my heart of heart, I know that nothing will ever change until we put an equitable, common sense education program into place.

And bouncing from one “flavor of the month” to the next as we’re now doing will never get us where we need to go.