The question I get most often is “why do you spend so much energy advocating for public schools?”
A good and fair question. Supposedly the famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed backs. “Because that is where the money is,” he responded. That is my answer as well, public schools are where the children are. The vast majority of our students go to public schools and seems to me that is where we most need to address our challenges.
As Alabamians we are all in this together. How do we benefit as a society from producing a busload of rocket scientists while at the same time producing a trainload of folks who will never pull their own weight? Of course, a question like that means that some immediately attack me as a “liberal,” whatever that is. No. It means I see the world as it really is, not as some ideologue wants it to be.
I retired in 2011. I am 73 years old. (And feel every minute of it.) I was never an educator per se, though we are all teachers of someone in some form or fashion. I do not claim to be an expert about education. However, I definitely know folks I consider experts and I turn to them time after time. I graduated from Auburn University 50 years ago with a major in journalism and spent more than a decade writing for two farm magazines.
Somewhere along the way I became interested in politics and moved in the direction of economic and community development as a career. In 1994 I ran for an open state senate seat in southeast Alabama as a Democrat and was strongly supported by the Business Council of Alabama. I lost in a runoff. The only elected office I’ve ever held was as a member of the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee about 40 years ago.
(My path was different from most. I was elected as a Republican and ran as a Democrat while many were elected as a Democrat and ran as a Republican.)
My interest in education goes back to 2008 when I ran the Center for Rural Alabama at the state department of agriculture & industries and we studied 10 high poverty, high performing rural schools across the state. Two colleagues and I drove 10,000 miles and conducted 300 interviews in an attempt to learn how these small schools, tucked away in hard to find places with extremely limited resources, excelled. This was made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Alabama Farmers Federation.
It was the most rewarding project I ever tackled. I met wonderful people and learned a lot.
But what was so apparent was that what I saw with my own eyes and the narrative I read and saw on TV about public education were total opposites. I saw tiny miracles happening every day while the public was being told that our public education system in this country was going to hell in a hand basket.
So I simply decided that I would take my lone voice and speak out when possible for teachers and principals and custodians and bus drivers who give far more than required because of their love for the children they interact with.
I have made new friends, people like Martha Peek, Hope Zeanah, Jennifer Brown, Melissa Shields, Chuck Marcum, Joe Windle, Amy Hiller, Ann Eubank and too many more to name.. (For those who don’t know, Ann is a diehard tea party person. She and I agree on some things, and disagree on others. But we always do it with a laugh and a funny tale or two.)
No doubt I have lost some friends as well. I have been challenged in legislative committee meetings and vilified on social media. I tackled the blogosphere with not a clue about how social media works. And I have been amazed at the response from the public. (One recent post got 28,000 “hits” on my blog.)
Because of my journalism background I try hard to get facts and info correct and truthful. I do not begrudge others for speaking out because that is their right, though I am amazed at how irresponsible some folks are who hide behind a anonymous mask. Where is the courage of their convictions?
I am on no one’s payroll. I drove to Auburn last night to sit in on one of the ESSA community meetings. No one bought my gas. I do not say this boastfully or to get a pat on the back, it is just a statement of fact. (And perhaps for the benefit of those who like to claim I work for this or that special interest group.)
Lately I have spoken frequently about the decision of the state school board to hire Michael Sentence of Massachusetts to be our state school superintendent. I bear no ill will toward him at all and hope to meet him soon and offer any help I may to make his time in Alabama a success. However, knowing what I know about Alabama education at this point in time, I do not believe his skill set and past experiences are what we needed to tackle our most pressing needs.
As I look at what has happened to public education in Alabama since 2010, I see little that is truly beneficial and based on honest research and sound common sense.. Instead I see political decisions void of input from professional educators.
Do we have perfect public schools? Of course not. And we never will. But there is a lot more knowledge of what works and is best for our students in our nearly 1,500 schools than anywhere else in the state.
And because of this, I will continue to raise my lone voice.