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Opinion | Educational outcomes – not politics – should be our top priority

We strongly encourage the governor to reconsider her position and reinstate Dr. Barbara Cooper.

Gov. Kay Ivey and Dr. Barbara Cooper
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Teachers have shaped the lives of generations of Alabama students. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to support them with the training, guidance, and resources needed to help the next generation reach its greatest potential.

Governor Ivey’s decision to force Dr. Barbara Cooper out as Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE) flies in the face of all our progress in preparing our young people for the future. Unfortunately, at a time when Alabama should be celebrated for developing one of the nation’s premier early childhood education systems, this move does exactly the opposite. Instead of building on that progress – much of which can be credited to Dr. Cooper’s leadership – this kind of political posturing tears it down. And sadly, Alabama children, students, and families will pay the price.

Let’s get real: the resource book that the Governor and her press team are branding as “woke” simply offers educators guidance – not a curriculum – for connecting with and understanding students. The National Association for the Education of Young Children Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book, 4th Edition is a resource developed by a national accrediting board to provide teachers with educator-informed and research-based strategies. It was not distributed to parents or students nor does it mandate teaching standards. Rather it simply encourages teachers to understand the bias that may impact students’ lives and their learning experiences. In trying to use it to push Dr. Cooper out (and Alabama into culture-war politics), Ivey is missing the mark and the bigger picture.

Any teacher can tell you that interpersonal connection and mutual understanding are the foundation for success in the classroom and that relationship-building is especially important in early childhood. The most successful teachers are empathetic, self-aware, and understanding of the need to bridge cultural differences in connecting with students. While the Governor’s office has attempted to misinterpret and misrepresent the book’s guidance to generate click-bait and cable news debates, the truth is it advises teachers to be supportive and inclusive of all students. 

The fact is Dr. Cooper remains one of Alabama’s most qualified and trusted education leaders. She brings a wealth of experience and an extensive knowledge base. In addition to directing our nationally recognized First Class Pre-K program, which by the Governor’s own admission “is the best in the country,” Dr. Cooper has dedicated her life and career to education. She’s served in various roles from a classroom teacher to a school principal to Deputy State Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of the Alabama State Department of Education. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with the breadth and depth of experience that she brings to Alabama’s early childhood education community.

Thanks to Dr. Cooper’s work and that of the team at the ADECE, children who attend our First-Class Pre-K are now more likely to be kindergarten-ready and proficient in reading and math than ever before. Furthermore, Dr. Cooper was so well-respected that she was tapped to co-chair the Computer Science Advisory Council where she proved to be instrumental in making recommendations for expanding Computer Science from PreK through Grade 12. As a result, Alabama is now one of just a handful of states that have achieved the full range of requirements to broaden computer science statewide, making Alabama students as competitive in America’s economy as students from any state.

Does this sound like someone who is putting an agenda before fundamentals? We don’t think so. Should we be sacrificing Dr. Cooper’s work to score political points? Definitely not. 

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Dr. Barbara Cooper is precisely the type of talented, committed, and visionary leader we need in early childhood education. The fact that the administration is attempting to use her as a political scapegoat is sad and disappointing – it’s a black eye for education in Alabama. It also speaks to a general lack of experience among those advising the current administration. The fact that the very person who helped lead our early childhood education program to national acclaim – a professional with an impeccable career in her field – is attacked over a text that is widely used in other states, makes no sense whatsoever. And to attempt to smear Dr. Cooper’s reputation, while officials in underperforming roles are routinely praised upon their exits, is not only unfair, it’s wrong. Frankly, this move raises real questions about who is pushing these decisions and why?

We strongly encourage the Governor to reconsider her position and reinstate Dr. Barbara Cooper as Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. Alabama has nothing to gain by forcing her out or attempting to disparage her reputation.  We owe it to our kids to invest in them; not make them political pawns. We owe it to Dr. Cooper to acknowledge her professional success; not try to manufacture a controversy that could impact her career.

If we all agree that the education of our children and young people is a top priority, we need to move Alabama forward, not backward. And if we are going to succeed in that mission, the Governor needs to take a hard look at who is advising her and where she is steering our state. Effective education leaders like Dr. Cooper deserve to be empowered, not ousted. Accepted teacher training resources should be widely available, not banned. And teachers should always look for ways to connect, educate, and inspire all students. 

That’s not controversial. It’s as fundamental as it gets.

State Rep. Anthony Daniels is the minority leader of the Alabama House of Representatives.

Bobby Singleton is the minority leader of the Alabama Senate.

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