By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Since running for the Governor’s Office in 2010 Bradley Byrne has remained focused on the ideas he promoted during his campaign. Instead of giving up on his vision for Alabama Byrne along with others founded “Reform Alabama.” Byrne describes Reform Alabama as “Do Thank.” not a think tank. One of the areas that they group has been hard at work on is education.
Recently we spoke with Byrne about education and the ideas, methods and programs Reform Alabama has created. The following is part one of a two part series our interview with Mr. Byrne.
APR: OK, let’s talk about your motivation. Why spend most of your free time and your energy on education?
BB: The most important thing state government does is provide public education for people in K-12 through two-year colleges and four year colleges. That one thing the state government does is far more important than just about anything else in state government is called upon to do. Because education has such a tremendous impact, not just on your ability to develop the state economically, but also developing a good quality of life. It’s pretty easy to say, ‘Education, it needs to be a bond when you talk about state government.’ Of course for years, there were things that many of us talked about and wanted to do in education that just weren’t possible because the legislature just wouldn’t bring them up. For years it would take some of it talked about, but they couldn’t get to first base. Now with the (Republican, sic) new majority in the legislature, we have an opportunity to start looking at some reforms that have been bottled up for years; reforms that I think will have a pretty big impact throughout the state of Alabama. The motivation is both because we think education is the most important thing state government does, but also because we think have a new opportunity to work with the legislature with some things that have been battling in the state for a long time.
APR: Normally when we see candidates run for office and they’re not elected, they tend to go back in sort of hiding mode unless they have another office that they’re in. You have not taken to that track at all. Can you share a little bit about what your thinking was?
BB: Sure. Not long after the runoff was over, I got a very nice phone call from Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida. He encouraged me to stay involved and how he lost his first election for governor in Florida. He had put together a foundation after he lost and to push the policy goals that he had been pushing as a candidate, and he encouraged me to consider that. The more I considered it, and talked about it with friends, the board made sense. Because in my race, the important thing was not whether I got elected or not, the important thing was whether the policy objectives we were pushing whether they were instituted. If you approach things that way, that’s the way I approach them, the fact that I was defeated doesn’t mean the effort to try to get those policy objectives put into law. That goal is still there. So this, in one sense, is a continuation of things we were talking about during the campaign, mainly education reform.
APR: I think that everyone is looking at education reform. When your group, which I think you call a ‘do-tank’ and not a ‘think-tank’…
BYRNE: ‘Do-tank’, that’s right.
APR: When you put together this program what are the primary goals?
BYRNE: Well there are some things about children we cannot control in education. We cannot control who their parents are; what the parents do or don’t do for them; we can’t control what’s going on in their households. But what we can do is control the quality of what happens in the classroom. For quality instruction, which very quickly goes in to teachers and teaching methodology, etc., that is the big thing that we can have some control over. In fact we know what happens in other places, if you focus on that you can get amazing results even under difficult circumstances. What we’re focused on and all the things we’re talking about, is raising the overall quality of what we can do in the classroom.
APR: One of the things you mentioned in the blueprint is accountability. Can you give us some ideas, how are we to hold schools and teachers more accountable? What your thinking is on that.
BYRNE: For so long, the way we measured academic success was with regard to inputs: how much were we spending, how many books in the school library, do we have internet hook-up in the school, how many computers we had in school, etc. What we have not done, as we should have, is ‘OK the inputs are fine, but where are the results?’ Are we actually making sure that we are giving children a quality education? Are they getting it? Are they graduating from school, or graduating from school with high standards? Accountability in its truest sense is holding everyone responsible and accountable for the results, not just the inputs. Accountability is at its best is, are we graduating high percentage of our young people from high school and are we graduating them under high standards.
APR: One of the things that we often hear is, we are not putting enough money in education. What comes to my mind, by some of the studies that I’ve read, is there a correlation between the amount of dollars spent and actual success in educating? There are obviously other factors, but is there any correlation?
BYRNE: Money by itself doesn’t do anything, so if we throw money at any problem government gets involved in, particularly in education, if you just throw money at it you’re not going to get anything in return. If you’re going to spend money on something, you have to spend it on targeting things that work. A great example of that in Alabama is the Alabama Reading Initiative; we know it works. But if we spend that same amount of money on a different type of program or not as rigorous of a reading program, we wouldn’t have the same results. Sometimes we spend way too much time talking about money and not nearly enough time on where the money is going to be used for. In Alabama, even despite the recession, if you go back and look at how much money we spend on education in the state today versus what we spent 10 years ago, it is twice as much. There is some inflation during that time but not enough to say it’s been 100 percent. We’re spending more money today on education than we were 10 years ago. I think with improvement with the economy you will start to see funding climbing again for education, and increases in education budgets start again. People will say ‘Well this money is going to be used doing better things for education.’ But if they’re not targeted to things we know work, then it’s just more money we’re not getting anything from. Now the education system in Alabama has been hit very hard over the last four years, no question about that. You can’t keep suffering those kinds of cuts without some kind of effect. So I took account of the negative effects of education, the lack of funding, but if we’re only focused on the money we’re going to miss the things that really matter. Which is what is what really works in terms of education.
APR: Are you working with other groups, that have helped shape the blueprint for education reform in Alabama.
BYRNE: We have worked with Governor Bush’s foundation down in Florida; we actually were able to take, with the generosity of Governor Bush’s foundation, the legislative leadership to the National Education Reform Conference that Governor Bush’s foundation sponsored back in October. We had the Speaker, the President Pro Tem, their staff, some other legislative leaders on education at that conference with us. We have worked very closely with legislative leaders, the Speaker and the Pro Tem and their staff in putting this together. This is largely their view about things; we’re trying to reflect what they think in addition to what we all heard at the conference. We have also worked very closely with the Alabama Policy Institute, A+ Education Reform Organization and with the State’s Superintendent Organization. It’s been a lot of people, there’s no original idea in this thing. You’re exactly right when you said earlier it’s a ‘do-tank’ for Alabama; none of these are our ideas, we picked up on what the people have said and what the legislative leadership thinks, and what they think they can accomplish. We put together a plan that we think can pass and will work for the state of Alabama.
APR: We know that charter schools are going to be a big push with this Session. It’s on the Governor’s mind and the Speaker’s and the President Pro Tem and a host of other folks. Of course it goes back to the old question: why don’t we have school choice in Alabama. Those who oppose school choice argue that the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged children will be left behind in the poor performing public schools and charter schools will make education worse for the poorest. Is there an answer to the critics?
BYRNE: It’s ridiculous. What happens with school choice, children who are presently locked away in schools that are not performing; those kids don’t have any chance right now. When you have school choice, you give them and their parents the opportunity to go find a better place for them to go to school and get a better education. We know charter schools work; they work in a lot of places around the country. If you want to see it, you really want to see it, go rent the movie “Waiting for Superman.” At the very end of that movie, it follows several families that are poor, I believe all are minorities, and are desperately trying to get their children into charter schools in various places around the country. The very end the camera shows those families when they find out whether they did or didn’t make it in the lottery to get the child to get into a charter school. You see the joy on the faces of the families who won the lottery and got their children into charter schools, and then you see the almost disconsolate view of the ones that don’t get in. It just rips your heart out, because they know those charter schools are the only hope for their child to get a quality education. Far from hurting poor children, charter schools and school choice help them. And that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to give the children that don’t have opportunity that so many have in Alabama.
In part two we talk about digital learning and Byrne’s vision for education in Alabama.