When voters defeat a proposed state amendment, it is often thought that the matter is put to rest. That is often the case, but when Alabama’s voters went to the polls in March and shot down a proposal to replace the elected state board of education in favor of one appointed by the governor, they only answered the question of the board’s composition.
They did not answer the deeper problem of the board’s accomplishment.
Whatever the makeup of the board, the problem of the state’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in education persists, and that’s the real problem that demands the state’s attention. Fortunately, some concrete proposals have recently come to light.
As part of a legislature-approved expenditure in 2019, the state department of education underwent a lengthy evaluation process by the Boston-based Public Consulting Group. The report was done with an eye towards improving the mission and function of the board of education. Without saying as much, the report reinforces the noted problems with the board, much of which inspired the call for an appointed board, but the report is also an opportunity for the elected board to correct much of its own shortcomings. The report was presented to the board a couple of weeks ago, with more detail provided in the report’s executive summary. (The full report can be found here.)
The report makes many suggestions, but it hones in on five specific goals.
The first is the most pertinent: the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) must take ownership of education reform and accomplishment in the state. That seems obvious enough, but reality is that the ALSDE has spent years operating in something of a caretaker role while the overall achievement of the state has remained in a steady state of decline. Indeed, this is largely why some advocated for a complete overhaul of the board’s structure; because elected politicians won their spot on the board through political maneuvering and have done nothing to move the needle of achievement in the state.
It’s true that most of the education reform in Alabama has originated in the Legislature in recent years. That’s not an optimal situation; it would be better if those reforms were enacted either by appointed officials who don’t directly face the voters, but at least the school board faces reelection on the basis of its achievements on education alone, as opposed to legislators whose record is on multiple issues which may only be tangentially related.
Yet the legislature has been proactive precisely because the board has done next to nothing in terms of real reform to education in Alabama. Given the sorry state of affairs, that is inexcusable.
There are countless education reformers around the country of all ideological persuasions – left, right, and center – doing interesting and innovative work, and much of it in dialogue with one another. It takes minimal effort to become acquainted with those ideas, but thus far, the state board has proven itself to be uninterested.
That must change.
The report’s executive summary details other items. The ALSDE must “develop and implement a strategy to action plan,” as the current arrangement leaves it constantly reactive, instead of taking a proactive approach to improving and then sustaining high levels of achievement in the state. The summary goes on to state that the ALSDE must set clear priorities in terms of both academic standards and student data and information. As a former educator, this is vital.
State standards must be clear, and while they should constantly be in review, they should be largely left alone long enough to be implemented and performed for a reasonable period of time.
The summary presents two additional items.
The ALSDE must begin to hold local districts accountable for their performance. Everyone recognizes that there are multiple externalities that can affect a district’s performance, but those factors cannot prevent the state from asking the central question: “Is this district doing its job?” Until that question can be confronted clearly and directly by all involved, Alabama is destined to stay where it is.
The ALSDE must make thorough use of data and be willing to confront all local districts with it.
The summary closes by noting that the internal structure of the ALSDE itself must be overhauled, with a deep investment on staff training. Reading between the lines, it seems that this very important department of state government is beset by many of the problems that hamper bureaucracies large and small. One interesting idea is the proposal to create regional ALSDE offices that can work in closer collaboration with local districts. This could be a very helpful step that gives the state greater knowledge of the specific strengths and weaknesses of individual districts.
Voters made their choice on Super Tuesday.
The state board of education will remain an elected body for the foreseeable future, but the professional analysis makes plain the need for a systematic overhaul.
It is critical that the board take these recommendations to heart and begin the process of implementation. That process should not stop with them; voters should spend time with this report with an eye towards the next election cycle.
The report is not just a blueprint for how the board should correct itself. It is a blueprint for voters to hold accountable a cast of politicians who have for too long provided little more than hospice care to a department of education that has failed at its most basic task.
Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.