By Mike Hubbard
Speaker of the House
The first gavel of the 2012 legislative session will sound in less than a month, as lawmakers from around the state descend on the capital to carry out the business of the people. Last month, the legislative leadership made it clear the top priority of this session will be boosting private-sector job growth. We laid out an aggressive agenda aimed at just that, one Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on and work in a bipartisan manner to pass.
While we work to jump-start our economy in the short term, we cannot ignore some deeply rooted problems that perpetually hinder Alabama from strengthening our economic foundation.
I believe the greatest long-term economic threat to Alabama is our drastic dropout rate, which has climbed to as high as 40 percent in recent years. Consider this:
• Compared to high school graduates, high school dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and eight times more likely to be in prison.
• Four of every 10 dropouts end up on at least one form of public assistance.
Consider the impact on our state budgets. Consider the lost economic growth from those who cost the system rather than contribute into it. Most of all, consider all the children who lose the chance to pursue their dreams, not because they weren’t smart enough, but because the system failed them.
In Alabama, the dropout problem is concentrated in a small number of chronically failing schools. Just 13 percent of Alabama’s high schools produce 60 percent of our dropouts.
We can do better. To give our children the opportunities they deserve and ensure Alabama has a globally competitive work force, we must take action to combat our dropout problem with bold reforms that raise instructional quality. The best way to do that is to empower local districts to make changes at the ground level, to encourage performance and hold schools accountable for their results.
Do we need to provide more funding to schools? Absolutely. But money isn’t the only answer. In fact, after record increases in education funding in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Alabama’s dropout problem persisted and even worsened.
The real problem is that our priorities are backward. Our system puts the needs of the education bureaucracy above the needs of students. We saddle schools with burdensome rules and regulations instead of getting out of the way and letting teachers teach.
This week is National School Choice Week, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and I are working closely with Gov. Robert Bentley and his staff to craft proposals that offer parents in failing districts more choices over their children’s education. We all agree that, while we work to improve our overall education system from the ground up, we must also allow parents, educators and community leaders the flexibility to fix local problems in the short term.
We are exploring how other states have succeeded when they allowed local school boards to cut the bureaucratic red tape that keeps students from having the quality education they need to pursue a fulfilling career.
I recently took a bipartisan group of lawmakers and policymakers — some from right here in Birmingham — to Memphis to see the difference innovative public charter schools are making there. We visited seven schools where they are doing nothing short of changing students’ lives.
Scores are up. Kids who would have been destined to be dropouts are now choosing which college they want to attend.
The difference is more accountability and fewer distractions. Teachers and principals are held accountable for their performance. Parents and guardians are held accountable for their involvement. Instead of spending valuable classroom time marking off a checklist of state rules and regulations, teachers are allowed to do what they do best: Teach children.
Charter schools aren’t the panacea that will cure all our education ills, but they would be a valuable tool to raise performance in areas where we are dreadfully behind. Many school systems in Alabama probably aren’t candidates for charter schools, but that can’t be the reason we keep other districts from utilizing a reform that could make a real difference.
I’m an advocate for school choice reforms like charter schools because I believe no parents should be forced to send their child to a failing school with no option to seek a better education. Yet, that’s exactly what is happening in Alabama year after year.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
We can have excellent teachers in every classroom preparing the next generation of Alabamians to be our greatest yet.
We can allow school boards, superintendents and principals to have the flexibility and resources they need to grow success from the ground up.
We can be a state where all children, regardless of where they are from or how much money their parents make, can have a world-class education that offers them opportunities as limitless as their imagination.
We can do all this if we work together.
This week, I encourage you to join the conversation about reforming our education system to allow for more choice for parents and flexibility for schools.
About the writer: Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, is speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives. Email: [email protected].