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Opinion | Montgomery’s struggles will be Alabama’s future if public education funding isn’t addressed

Josh Moon

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The report cards for Alabama’s public schools dropped this week, and once again, we’re all failing.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Alabama’s public schools are doing a fine job educating the overwhelming majority of students who enter their doors each day. There are fantastic teachers in those schools, great administrators and some of the finest academic programs in the country.

But a state school system should be judged first and foremost on how well it educates its most needy students, in its most poverty-stricken areas. And in that regard, Alabama is failing mightily.

Mainly because the system we have in place is flawed.

Intentionally flawed.

According to numbers from former Montgomery County school board member and education reporter Larry Lee, in 2017, as part of the Alabama “accountability” act, the state identified 75 schools (6 percent) that were failing based on various criteria dreamed up by the geniuses in the Alabama Legislature.

In those 75 schools, Lee said, there were more than 42,000 students. Over 90 percent of those students are black. Nearly 70 percent of those students received a free or reduced lunch, meaning their parents are some of the poorest people in America.

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Most of those students reside in economically depressed areas. Many lack access to reliable broadband internet access at their homes. Many of those students don’t know where their next meals will come from.

The schools most of them attend are some of the poorest in the country, lacking in basic resources and technology.

In short, each year, Alabama’s Department of Education identifies the most needy students in the state.

And it then does absolutely nothing to help them.

Actually, let me take that back.

Alabama then goes about hurting those students even more.

Because instead of doing the obvious — and dumping money and resources into those “failing” schools — the state instead removes money.

It incentivizes student transfers for the wealthier students by providing tax breaks to any students wishing to transfer to a non-failing school or a private school. Those tax breaks are often more than the per-pupil allotment the public school received for that same student.

There is no transportation money provided. And schools are not required to accept students who wish to transfer from the “failing” school.

Which leaves the poorest, neediest students — often the special needs students — stuck in the “failing” school, while their classmates with resources head elsewhere.

Which leaves some 40,000 of the poorest, neediest kids stuck in a perpetual cycle of hopelessness.

Their only chance out of extreme poverty and crime-riddled lives is a decent education. And the state of Alabama has implemented a system that ensures they’ll never receive one.

If you’re wondering how this will end, let me help: The entire state will be Montgomery.

For decades now, Montgomery has operated one of the most segregated school systems in the state. And it has pretended that everything was fine, as it marginalized its black and poor residents into traditional public schools and shuffled its affluent white students off to private schools and a magnet system that was five times more likely to accept a white student than a black student with the same test scores.

Montgomery’s leaders have tried it all — up to and including simply changing kids’ grades to make things look better — to keep from properly funding their schools and addressing the growing issues that always, always, always come from high-poverty school districts, whether they be predominantly black or white.

And now, they’re in a full-blown crisis.

Because the schools have been filled with poor students and an extremely high number of special needs students, and their test scores and attendance numbers (a completely bogus measure of achievement included only to ensure high-poverty schools score lowest) are pitiful.

As the schools failed the students, the students became criminals, turning to the only skills they were learning that might put food in their stomachs.

It is so bad that businesses won’t locate to the state capital. Military officers won’t move their families to Montgomery. Businesses and young people are fleeing the city in droves.

And deservedly so. Montgomery’s leadership long ago knew there were problems in their schools, but instead of addressing them they chose deception and sugarcoating. Instead of helping the students who needed it the most, they chose to focus on creating more pathways for privileged students to leave them behind. And the cost of those sins is crippling the entire city.

Pay attention, Alabama. This is your future.

 

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