They stand as silent sentinels of a time gone by. Watch towers on the past. “They” are sturdy concrete silos, rising 40-50 feet above Perry County’s black prairie land. Head south out of Marion on Highway 5 and you’ll spy one every few miles. Each a reminder a dairy was once there and those silos were filled with corn silage to keep milk cows well-fed.
They remind us of the struggles this black belt county has faced for generations. Struggles that continue today.
No one understands this any more than John Heard, longtime county school superintendent. State data shows that public school enrollment has dropped from 1,938 to 1,256 in the last decade. There are only two schools in the system today. Things are no better at Marion Academy, a private school, that has fewer than 100 students in pre-12 through 12th grade.
And if one number can illustrate the plight of this school system it is 137. That is where the system ranks in terms of local revenue per pupil. Which means out of 137 systems in the state, it is dead last. By comparison, its neighbor to the west, Marengo County, gets $1,300 more per student from local sources than Perry does.
Marion is the county seat. In antebellum days it was a jewel in Alabama’s crown, probably best known for its commitment to higher education. Judson College was founded in 1838 and is still there. What is now Samford University in Birmingham began there. Marion Military Institute’s parade grounds still welcome visitors on the south side of town. Alabama State University in Montgomery has its roots in Marion.
All things considered, Perry County would appear to be the last place to open a charter school. But in our quest to sprinkle charter schools at random around the state, that is the plan. It makes no sense. But then, in todays world of Alabama public education, logic is too often thrown to the wind.
If a charter school opens in Perry County, it will drive a stake in what’s left of the public school system because it will siphon precious dollars away. Since charters are public schools supported by public dollars, every student attending one of the county’s two remaining schools (one which is rated a B by the state and the other rated C) means the county system will lose all Federal and state funding for that student. Presently, this is about $8,500 per pupil.
How we got to this point is a curious tale and testimony to the consequences of what we are supposed to believe are good intentions.
New Schools for Alabama is a brand new non-profit based in Birmingham. Its mission is to bring charter schools to the state. This year’s education budget gave them $400,000 for operating expenses. (Yep, we are taking money from public schools to fund a group who, if successful, will take more money from public schools. Another example of the logic practiced by the supermajority leadership of the state legislature.)
New Schools was recently awarded a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who has never seen a charter school she didn’t like. Plans are that New Schools will award three $1.5 million grants annually to give charters a jump start. They have also set up a fellowship program in which they fund someone to spend time at a charter school in another state so they can come back to Alabama and get a charter up and running.
This is where Perry County comes in. New Schools recently announced that one of their first fellowships is going to Darren Ramalho to start Breakthrough Charter School in Perry County.
And here is where the irony gets even more ironic.
Ramalho is a graduate of UCLA and came to Perry County in 2014 as a Teach For America teacher. TFA descended on Alabama in 2011. Like many others, they came to “save the Black Belt.” Perry County has used TFA from the outset and while most other west Alabama school systems quit TFA years ago, Perry County has continued to do so. Which means they have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this program which puts temporary teachers in local schools.
In other words, someone from California who has been supported by John Heard and the Perry County system for several years now has intentions to bring harm to them. As you can imagine, Heard is upset. And rightly so. In this corner of the world, actions such as this are sometimes referred to as “biting the hand that feeds you.”
Perry County is struggling–and has been for generations. They definitely do not need an effort that will only intensify their struggles.
But putting a charter school there will do just that.