By Rep. Craig Ford
When my kids were growing up, I don’t know who was more excited on Christmas morning: the kids opening their presents or me and Gwen watching them!
Ever since God gave us the original and best Christmas gift, our lord and savior Jesus Christ, giving gifts has been a part of celebrating Christmas. But as I thought about what I wanted most this Christmas, it wasn’t anything material or even something for myself.
What I want most for Christmas is to finally see every child in Alabama be given a chance at the quality education they deserve. And believe it or not, that is a gift that we could actually make happen.
Despite all the divisiveness in politics, most voters and elected officials actually agree on the problems and even agree on many of the solutions. For example, we all agree that more resources need to be given to the state’s outstanding pre-K program, as well as reading, computer and technology programs.
And people on both sides of the aisle also agree that we need to invest more in teaching and classroom resources.
Last week, the news broke that Alabama’s cuts to K-12 education are among the slowest in the nation to catch back up to the pre-recession levels of 2008 (specifically, we are the third worst in the country, with only Arizona and Florida lagging behind us).
Most of the cuts to education have come from the classroom. There are nearly 5,500 fewer employees in our public schools today than there were in 2008. And of those, 3,000 of them are teachers – that’s a 6 percent drop!
Fewer teachers means larger class sizes, and that means less one-on-one time between students and their teachers. Larger class sizes also make it harder for teachers to control the classroom, making discipline problems (which then become distractions for the other students) more common and more difficult for teachers to prevent.
The lack of funding has also impacted our ability to provide educational programs for students who are less interested in college and more interested in getting a professional certificate or Associate’s Degree – and this has especially impacted our economy.
There is a serious gap of skilled workers in this state. Some of those skilled jobs are computer based, and I’m glad to see Gov. Ivey address those needs in her education plan. But there is also a need for men and women with certifications in the various trades, and those jobs can pay very well.
I would like to see every public school system have pre-apprenticeship programs, or at least some sort of introductory classes, into trades like brick masonry, building construction technology, carpentry, welding, electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing, among others.
While it is important for us to always be improving our college prep classes and looking for options (such as a lottery) that can help fund scholarships to two-year and four-year colleges and universities, we also have to remember that 75 percent of people in Alabama do not have a college degree, and 50 percent never attended college at all.
Any educational goals we set have to keep that reality in mind and make sure that every child who graduates from an Alabama public school is ready for the next step, whether that step is a college degree or a professional certification.
What we don’t need to do is take more money out of the already underfunded school system and use it to pay for charter schools and scholarships to private schools. We have seen in other states that charter schools have typically performed no better than traditional public schools, and they have been hotbeds for fraud, waste, abuse and corruption.
Likewise, the Alabama Accountability Act, which was sold to the public as a way to help “kids trapped in failing schools because of their zip code,” in reality has mostly gone to kids who were not in failing schools, and many who were already attending private schools (And nearly 40% of the private schools receiving scholarship students are not even accredited!).
But even if the Accountability Act worked exactly as it was originally meant to, and every kid who received one of these scholarships ended up getting a better education, it would still only be helping some of the kids who need help. The majority would still be left in the failing schools.
Though there are disagreements about charter schools and the Accountability Act, there is still plenty that everyone agrees on. If we work together on those things, then we can make my Christmas wish come true.
Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.