By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Recently we had the pleasure of speaking with Representative Christopher John England (D) from Tuscaloosa. Rep. England is a man with a mastery of the issues that he champions. His insight sheds light on his thinking toward upcoming legislation and even perhaps the thinking of many in his party.
APR: I was recently a part of forum on school choice, Bill Cosby was the guest speaker. I was able to ask Mr. Cosby about school choice and the prevailing argument made by the AEA and others that if we allow school choice in Alabama then the most disadvantaged and particularly communities of color are going to suffer if there are charter schools and/or school choice. He and the woman who was moderating the event went on sort of a tirade about how that is not true based on the results that they have seen. They said that, if implemented properly, disadvantaged children prospered under school choice and particularly charter schools. I suppose you would disagree with their assertion?
APR: I would have to do more research on it, personally, before I have a more informed opinion. But on its face, I think, choice is a good thing as long as everybody has a choice. I grew up in public schools and they were fine. But, I happened to be fairly studious. Although there were a lot of kids that didn’t do well.
ENGLAND: Well, I think if you offer the superintendents and the principals of the public schools the same opportunity to use whatever ideas they come up with to educate their kids, you will get the same results. The difference is that charter schools can do things that public schools cannot do. It’s not like you are comparing apples to apples.
Also, charter schools also have a good say on how they select their students and what type of student they take so if you don’t have to take any special needs kids then you’re basically controlling the results and the outcome that you produce. If it was the public school system and you say, “We are not going to accept any children with special needs.” Their test scores are going to be better, their results are going to be better. So you can compare apples to apples.
You can have a charter school and a public school in the same place, and the public school is given the same opportunity that the charter school has to massage their curriculum a little bit or change their focus, you will probably see better results out of the public school.
APR: But Alabama really doesn’t have a mechanism to allow that to happen, is that correct?
ENGLAND: You would actually have to change the law to do it. There would have to be a statutory change to give the freedom to school superintendents to make a decision like that.
APR: So, really, it is up to the Legislature to make the first move on it?
ENGLAND: Yes. To allow them the freedom to use some of the techniques that other states are using. If you want to create a school choice system, that’s fine. But let the public schools offer different options for kids that maybe the school could be more focused on math and science or that the school could be focused on other things.
But to say that charter schools are the answer and not exhaust all of your options in your public school system, I think you are kind of defeating the purpose.
Ultimately, there are still going to be people that depend on that public school system. If you don’t do this charter school legislation correctly you are just going to water down the public school system and we are going to have public schools saturated with children at risk.
I am a huge believer in public schools. I graduated from them…my brother and sister…everybody I know did. They did fine. But time has moved on, societal forces have changed, you need a little more labor-intensive effort with kids these days but we are underfunding our effort. I kind of look at it like we created the results in public schools by not funding them properly.
APR: One of the things that I have been looking into, as well as the budgets, and how funds are allocated, a lot of this comes back to how the AEA has built a massive system to control how schools are run. I am not making a judgment on whether that is good or bad. From the way I look at it, when you have a labor union, which is primarily, in my mind, what the AEA is because they also represent custodial workers and cafeteria workers. All of these people deserve good pay, and I am not saying that they don’t. Then you put on top of that the teachers, that are professionals, but you demand that everyone have the same increase in benefits, increase in tenure and this and that, it becomes a behemoth that is uncontrollable because you are not separating out the jobs.
A teacher’s job is fundamentally much more important than the lunchroom worker’s job. I am not saying you need to privatize that necessarily, but there needs to be some distinction in how we allocate those funds because we can’t give teachers a raise without giving a custodial worker a raise under the current situation. I think there is a fundamental flaw in the system, in my mind.
ENGLAND: Anytime you create a budget around education, you are going to create groups that benefit from that budget and they are going to do what is necessary to protect the money that they get. A lot of people believe, maybe rightly or wrongly, if you break rank at any level whether it be school teacher, bus driver, cafeteria worker or custodian, if you break rank at any level [in a union] and allow that employee to be treated different than others in the same building then it is going to erode away the influence and power of the organization. Membership is power. You are going to run into a road block because some people are going to say that it is dwindling away the influence that the organization has.
APR: I do understand the logic behind it but I am just not sure that, in our current situation, I don’t think this holds up. I don’t think that it is any secret that the Republican Party is bent on breaking or at least curtailing the massive influence of that union.
ENGLAND: But, the focus changes when you are trying to take somebody out, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the final outcome has to be right as long as you achieve the objective.
APR: My interest lies solely in how do we have a next generation of kids that can support themselves, support their families, and achieve some semblance of what we, now almost euphemistically, call the American dream which is owning your own home and paying your way through life, having a retirement and those things that seem almost out of reach to anybody under 30. I have been looking at some studies that suggest the same thing that you said that public schools have got to be given the same choices that charter schools are given. If they are not then they will fail even more.
ENGLAND: Again, you are not comparing apples to apples because a charter school comes in and has the opportunity to do all of these innovative things with kids and help them learn in different ways and the public school system is still strapped with the same restraints, well, you are going to get a different result.
APR: So it would go back to more control over the budget locally, more choice locally, is that where we have to go?
ENGLAND: In my very humble opinion, yes. One of the most exhaustive interview processes these days is hiring a superintendent. They go through all of the vetting and trying to get the best person available to run the school system. But when they get here, get the job, 50 percent of what they want to do (and that is just an estimate) they don’t have the legal authority. I think if the person we hired to come here and fix our school system, and we are going to charge them with running our school system, why not give them the freedom to try some things to see if they work?
APR: I would have to agree with you on that. I always think local control is better than any type of mandate on high because you understand the people, the area, and the specific needs that are unique across this state of ours. You are going to see people in Northern Alabama that have different needs than people in the Wiregrass or areas like that. It is different. I think it is not just an interesting debate but an important debate. Charter schools are coming. We hear that from the Governor, we hear that from the Speaker, it’s happening. I certainly hope they look to see what innovations can be made to allow local schools to do a better job.
ENGLAND: I hope that is part of the package. Honestly, there are legislators, both republican and democrat, who, in their mind, have very successful public schools in their district. They don’t want a threat of a charter school coming in and watering down what they have worked so hard to build in their area. So, you are going to have to find ways to convince those folks that they can achieve some sort of benefit from this legislation and not offend those people in their districts that have worked so hard to make their public school systems as successful as it is.
In the next part of our conversation Rep. England talks about technical and workforce training among other topics.