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Alabama Judge Slated To Hear Reform Remedy

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MONTGOMERY, ALA.--The meeting here of a state education-reform task force was running past a scheduled lunch break when Ginny Bugg inadvertently dropped a "bomb.''

Ms. Bugg, who was representing Neal Travis, the president of South Central Bell and a member of the task force, spoke up to say that business leaders had told Mr. Travis they wanted the reform plan being worked on to do away with tenure for new principals.

Business leaders "cannot support higher taxes if this is not a part of the package'' of costly school reforms, said Ms. Bugg, South Central Bell's educational-relations manager.

Blood pressures around the table began to rise at what was perceived as an ultimatum.

The remark was "a slap in the face for anyone considering administration in the schools,'' said Nancy Worley, the lone teacher on the panel.

"I don't like to be hit in the head with a bomb,'' added Sen. Michael A. Figures, worrying aloud that such a bluntly controversial remark could torpedo the reform process.

Later in the afternoon, the chairman of the task force read a statement from Mr. Travis that apologized for the "misimpression ... that business support for schools and school reform hinged on any single issue like principal tenure.''

Although Mr. Travis's statement, and a promise to revisit the issue at a later meeting, seemed to smooth the ruffled feathers that day, the episode illustrated how easily rattled are the coalitions among reformers, educators, legislators, and business leaders that are crucial as Alabama tackles the gargantuan effort of reinventing and properly funding its chronically neglected schools.

At the end of this week, the lawyers for both sides of the equity-funding lawsuit that sparked the current reform effort are slated to present their legal remedy to the problem to a state judge.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese ruled in April that Alabama's school system is unconstitutional because it fails both to provide children with equal educational opportunities statewide and to offer an education that adequately supplies the skills students need. (See Education Week, April 14, 1993.)

A Daunting Task

The task force, appointed by Gov. James E. Folsom Jr., is also expected to complete this week a more detailed document that will put flesh on the "bare bones'' of the legal remedy, according to its chairman, Charlie D. Waldrep.

After that, a new gubernatorial panel, the Alabama Commission on School Performance and Accountability, will take over from the task force and establish learner goals and settle on the standards and assessments that will be used.

The task of fixing the system is a daunting one given the state's history, said Wayne Flynt, a professor of history at Auburn University.

Obstacles to education reform in the state, he explained, include a cultural disdain for the "life of the mind''; a lack of ownership in the public schools felt by whites who send their children to private school; and efforts by farm and timber interests to keep property taxes the lowest in the nation.

Mr. Flynt, the court-appointed facilitator for the litigants' group, also noted that the reform plan may call on legislators to levy perhaps the state's largest tax increase ever as the 1994 elections approach.

The cost of the reforms--which include accountability, restructuring secondary education, improving teacher salaries, staff development, and health and social services--could run over $500 million in the first year of implementation alone. In addition, a $350 million statewide bond issue may be proposed to upgrade buildings and school buses.

To complicate matters further, the concept of outcomes-based education--central to this reform movement--has drawn vehement criticism here, as elsewhere, from parent groups and religious conservatives.

An example of that potentially significant opposition was voiced by T.J. Lee, the president of the Christian Coalition of Morgan County, who said there is a "socialistic'' agenda behind outcomes-based education that would increase the power of government over that of the individual.

Reformers have responded by holding meetings with ministers and setting up a toll-free number for questions about the plan.

'Pulling Out the Status Quo'

The stakes in the new reform effort are high, since improving the existing education system is widely viewed as being crucial to the economic future of Alabama.

The current condition of the schools is so bad, Mr. Flynt said, that it would be "insane'' for a high-tech business needing skilled labor to locate in the state.

"I certainly wouldn't want to minimize the Herculean task before the state, nor the cataclysmic consequences of not doing anything,'' he said.

"It's going to be a tough job,'' Mr. Waldrep acknowledged. "But it's going to be made easier by the fact there is a court order.''

If the legislature approves a reform package in a special session expected in November, voters could consider any new taxes as early as next June.

Mr. Waldrep likened the process of fundamentally changing Alabama education to the old story about a sculptor asked how he crafts a statue of a horse.

"You start with a block of granite and chip away everything that doesn't look like a horse,'' the artist explains.

Similarly, what reformed education "doesn't look like is what we had,'' Mr. Waldrep continued. "You start by pulling out the status quo.''

Focus on Outcomes

Outcomes-based education is at the heart of that change, he said. Under the new system, Alabama educators will no longer be concerned with true-false or multiple-choice tests or years spent in school.

"What we want to know is what the student is thinking'' and whether students can show the teacher what they know, Mr. Waldrep said.

Ten years from now, he predicted, Alabama schools will have site-based management, principals serving without the security of tenure, and teachers who are computer literate and can access information from keyboards right at their desks.

Schools will also routinely use distance-learning provided by fiber optics and students will have more time for instruction, either through an extended school day or time on weekends or during the summer.

Raising property taxes alone probably cannot fund such big changes, Mr. Waldrep said, so he envisions all business, sales, and income taxes coming under scrutiny.

Cutting Art for Safe Buses

The great distance between today's reality and Mr. Waldrep's vision is typified by the situation in Dallas County, a rural community of 48,000 located about an hour's drive west of Montgomery.

The 5,000-student school system was one of the original group of more than two dozen low-wealth districts that sued the state over inequitable funding conditions.

Most residents are poor and black, and the economic base--and with it the capacity to raise much money for schools through property taxes--resides solely in the county seat of Selma, a separate school district.

Not only is the county poor, but property-tax levels do not approach those of other areas. Dallas County levies 11.5 mills per $100 of assessed value, while the state average is 54 mills.

The last time the district tried to raise taxes, about a decade ago, school officials failed even to get the necessary approval from the legislature to hold a voter referendum, said Superintendent Marvin K. Warren Jr.

As a result, Dallas County ranks 129th out of 129 districts in the amount of local revenue it contributes to per-pupil spending.

The system needs both more effort to raise local revenue and more state aid, Mr. Warren said.

"We just feel because a child has been born in Dallas County, he shouldn't be penalized,'' he said.

Money is so tight that Mr. Warren has had to sacrifice art and music classes and central air conditioning in order to maintain a safe school-bus fleet.

Science Sans Bunsen Burners

In spite of the efforts of teachers and administrators, some of whom pay for such things as library newspaper subscriptions themselves, it is evident to a visitor that the schools in Dallas County have suffered for the lack of funds.

At 850-student Southside High School, money is needed to redo aging restrooms, replace air conditioners, buy more computers, add a second foreign language, and give counselors more work space, said Principal Ollis Grayson Jr.

Faded volumes lined the school library's shelves. The single room, a former auditorium, lacks carrels for individual study. The one bright spot is a computer with a CD-ROM.

A short distance away at Tipton Elementary/Middle School, there was no playground equipment of any kind for the 350 students, almost all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Instead, the children play in uncut grass.

Equipment for a science lab for students in the middle grades consists of two sinks and two gas jets, which go unused since the school has no Bunsen burners, said Marcel Bane, a science and social-studies teacher.

Things that most schools take for granted, Mr. Bane said, are luxuries at Tipton.

There are no paper towels for the bathrooms, teachers are responsible for sweeping their own classrooms, and the school's films, most dating from the 1950's, break often in the projector, he said.

Teachers are limited to 500 photocopies a month, enabling middle school teachers to give only four pre-printed homework assignments a month to each of their 125 students.

Whipping Up Support

In addition to the efforts of the litigants and the Governor's task force to write reform plans, a grassroots organization called A-Plus has been working for more than two years to whip up popular support for change.

The group, which includes business leaders, is winding up its second series of town meetings around the state on a blueprint for reform designed by some of the people who have worked on the task-force plan.

A-Plus uses the meetings, which have drawn a total of 12,000 people, to inform and involve the public and to incorporate suggestions for the blueprint, now in its second draft.

Last month in Alexander City, about 55 miles northeast of Montgomery, such a meeting drew a crowd of about 850 people to Benjamin Russell High School.

The school bears the name of the founder of Russell Corporation, an athletic-uniform and leisure-wear manufacturer that dominates this town of almost 15,000.

Attendees were met by A-Plus organizers, who passed out folders brimming with pamphlets and worksheets and arranged registration for small discussion groups that followed the auditorium presentation.

Nixing Some Reforms

John Adams, the president and chief executive officer of Russell Corporation, impressed on listeners the economic importance of improving Alabama's schools.

"The absence of a qualified work force,'' he added, "guarantees business and industry have to look elsewhere for their investments.''

In the small-group discussions that followed in classrooms around the school, facilitators trained by A-Plus earlier that afternoon kept participants moving briskly through a series of feedback exercises.

In one room, Jan Conerly, a college English instructor, raced against the 9 P.M. dismissal time to lead the 13 participants--virtually all local teachers--through the tasks.

The participants quickly read through the two-page summary of the A-Plus blueprint and offered their comments.

As a group, the teachers voted that they liked eight of the 14 principles, including the beliefs that all students can learn at much higher levels and that parents, principals, and teachers should get a major role in decisionmaking.

They did not approve, however, of the ideas that every student can be taught successfully, that a school system should be measured by how well its students perform, or that elementary schools should provide some health and social services.

"There are some students who just don't want to learn,'' one teacher said.

Saying that they spent too much time in staff development already, the teachers nixed the principle that would have called for more.

Despite the negative remarks, the high turnout at the community meetings and the mostly positive feedback left Cathy W. Gassenheimer, the managing director of A-Plus, optimistic about effecting change.

"We really see a growing groundswell of support for reform,'' she said. "It's going to be those people all across Alabama ... [who will] make education reform the number-one issue in the state.''

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