1999: Bailey Thomson, Mobile (Ala.) Register
5/25/1999
ASNE Staff
Award for Editorial Writing
Tuesday, May 25, 1999
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing


Bailey Thomson

Articles

The two Alabamas
October 11, 1998

Hogs at the door
October 12, 1998

Suffer the little ones
October 13, 1998

The dunking booth
October 14, 1998

By the numbers
October 15, 1998

A shameful legacy
October 16, 1998

Our new century
October 17, 1998

Article list

The two Alabamas

October 11, 1998

ALONG U.S. 11 in Tuscaloosa County, which parallels Interstate 59, you pass the back door of Alabama’s new Mercedes-Benz plant. Rising Oz-like in the distance, its white buildings shimmer through the native pines, suggesting the wizardry and wealth of Alabama’s high-tech dreams.

Go east for another mile or so, and you’ll see what appears to be a down-a-the-heels trailer park. Families sometimes stop there to inquire about renting. What they find, however, is Vance Elementary School. You can’t see the original building from the road because 17 portable classrooms surround it.

Crowding at the school may grow worse. A Los Angeles company plans to develop a real mobile home park nearby that will attract 550 households. The prospect frightens local people — and for good reason. The county has no zoning laws to manage such growth. It can’t even levy sufficient taxes and fees to pay for schools, roads and other services that newcomers will need. Still, Principal David Thompson says Vance Elementary will find a way to teach these new kids, even if he has to put them in closets.

Naturally, people who promote Alabama’s image would rather have visitors approach Mercedes’ front door. Five years ago, the state committed more than $250 million to attract the plant, which caused the company’s losing suitors to complain that incentives had gotten out of hand. But since then, Mercedes has exceeded even its own expectations. The plant employs 1,600 people, and recently it underwent a $40 million expansion. Another 1,300 people work in satellite factories that supply the assembly line.

Alabamians can be proud because Mercedes reflects a shining moment when leadership propelled our state to the front of the class. Alabama outbid its rivals, and the gamble is paying off. Equally important, Mercedes has brought something we Alabamians rarely demand of our institutions: excellence.

This success, however, has a short reach. Just outside of the plant’s fence, in the community around Vance Elementary, many people can’t qualify for those high-paying jobs. They lack skills that the German automaker requires. Instead, they drive trucks, clerk in stores, mine coal or find other work they can do.

Along U.S. 11, within a few square miles of Mercedes’ gleaming edifice, is a microcosm of Alabama. In one direction, you see the reward for decisive action and vision, as Alabama workers produce some of the world’s finest vehicles. In the other direction, you encounter people struggling to get by, with little hope for good jobs. You see a school suffering from neglect and crowding, and a local government unable to manage costly sprawl.

What you see is a story of two Alabamas — one pegged to a promising future, the other trapped in the weary past.
 
Our predicament

On the eve of this century’s final gubernatorial election, Alabamians deserve the full story of the state’s condition. We may prefer to think of Alabama as purring ahead like one of those Mercedes marvels our workers build. But too much of our state sputters along like an old pickup truck, held together with baling wire.

The gubernatorial candidates illustrate our predicament:

Fob James, the Republican incumbent, has no plan for Alabama. Worse, he doesn’t see the need for one. He prefers to deal in symbols rather than solutions. He wraps himself in the Ten Commandments, vowing to protect them. But when he was asked by a reporter to summarize those biblical rules, he couldn’t do it.

Mr. James brags about the frugality of his administration. Yet during his term, Alabama has borrowed nearly $1 billion, sloshing more red ink onto the account books than during any recent four-year period.

When a study showed that Alabama had the nation’s lowest — and probably most regressive — taxes, our governor whooped with satisfaction. But is it a bargain to tax giant timber companies only about $1 an acre, while saddling working people with sales taxes of 8 percent or 9 percent, even on their groceries?

Meanwhile, thousands of children start school hopelessly behind because Alabama under Mr. James squanders some of the best learning years by refusing to help more poor families secure good child care. Many more children leave school poorly prepared because Alabama has not embraced serious education reform. Such failures, when compounded over decades, help explain why our state’s prisons bulge at 169 percent of capacity.

So much for the Republican hope. What about the Democratic nominee?

True, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman occasionally talks and acts as if he might become Alabama’s first New South leader. He is even willing to copy other successful governors. Unfortunately, he has picked a questionable idea as his centerpiece.

Mr. Siegelman’s pitch is to impose a voluntary tax on our most vulnerable citizens through a state lottery, which would pay for college scholarships. Polls tell him that most Alabamians think a lottery is a good idea, although Baptists, among other religious groups, condemn the practice — at least publicly.

Where was Mr. Siegelman, however, during the last four years, when as the powerful president of the state Senate he could have spoken forcefully about Alabama’s condition? Why was he not more vociferous in advocating fairer taxes, dramatic school reform and sound growth management?

The answer, of course, is that Mr. Siegelman wasn’t about to sacrifice any of his political capital by acting like a statesman. He exemplifies the politician who works hard to win an office but then can’t think of much useful to do with it.

Ideas beckon

Good ideas are out there. Our politicians just aren’t willing yet to seize them, either because they live in the past, as does Mr. James, or they fear the consequences of sounding too bold and visionary, as may be the case with Mr. Siegelman.

These good ideas beckon at a time when the South is "all shook up," according to a new report by a think tank in North Carolina. No longer the nation’s problem child, the region is an emerging powerhouse, where one out of three Americans now lives. Immigration from places like Latin America and Asia is changing the face of the South, while expanding industries are closing the wage gap with the rest of the nation.

At the geographic center of this vibrant region lies Alabama, which for a long time has claimed to be the "Heart of Dixie." But our state provides no successful model for this emerging New South. Indeed, this generation of Alabamians has failed even to elect a governor worthy of regional respect.

Rather than the "Heart of Dixie," Alabama represents Dixie’s broken heart. Instead of pride and satisfaction, our state flag evokes an overwhelming sadness and regret that we Alabamians have not been the wise stewards of our inheritance. Certainly, we have failed to invest sufficiently in our greatest resource — our people.

Over the next several days, you will read in this space about some of our neighbors’ good ideas. This perspective arises from weeks of travel in those states and close observation of their progress. Dozens of interviews and stacks of documents support the conclusion that Alabama has fallen dangerously behind in its thinking, leadership and results.

If our politicians fear to address matters that are critical to our future, then citizens must force the debate themselves. Later in this series, we will look at how Alabama can rejuvenate its civic culture so that democratic deliberation can replace the selfish rule of special interests and the empty posturing of demagogues.

For now, however, our state remains caught between competing versions of itself, a condition so evident along that stretch of U.S. 11 in Tuscaloosa County. Just beyond the trees glimmers the new Alabama that we would like to show the world. It represents our best thinking, our boldest leadership. But around us lies the other Alabama — the one with crumbling schools, unskilled workers, weak local governments and hurting children. It is that Alabama that haunts this election.

We have coaxed our old pickup about as far as it can take us. Bring on the ideas.


Article list

Hogs at the door

October 12, 1998

RAY AND Barbara Stevens had only $76 when they married, but they vowed to own a farm one day. They worked, saved and eventually bought and cleared 250 acres in St. Clair County, where they raise cattle and operate a wrecker service at Ashville. They built a brick home and added a swimming pool.

Then in 1991, the Stevenses’ dream collapsed. A neighbor moved about 5,000 hogs next to their property. The family has lived with a nauseating odor ever since. "We can’t even raise our windows," says Ray Stevens. "We can’t hang clothes on the line." When their granddaughter, who is now 13, visits, she often won’t go out and swim because of the stinky air.

St. Clair has four such hog farms now, and dozens more may be on the way as big corporations transform pig parlors into pork factories. Thousands of animals packed tightly together produce the equivalent of a small city’s waste. But the stuff doesn’t go into a sewage system. It flows into open pits, which belch odoriferous clouds that may drift for miles. Even worse, these waste pits can break under a heavy rain, fouling streams and lakes with pollution.

Such disasters have inspired tougher laws elsewhere. So now more corporate operators are moving quietly into Alabama. Our state doesn’t control animal waste unless farms channel it into public waters. Regulators won’t restrict a corporate farm just because neighbors such as the Stevenses don’t like it.

In St. Clair and other targeted counties, people beg for help. Can’t local officials stop this threat? That’s why people elected them, isn’t it — to protect the health and property of decent, hard- working folks?

Yes, but here’s the catch: Alabama’s state constitution denies counties the right to govern and tax themselves. Instead of "home rule," Alabamians have despotism from Montgomery, which forces local leaders to ask the Legislature for authority to do virtually anything. That’s why 40 percent of legislative business concerns local matters.

As a result, counties can’t control nuisances, even when they may threaten citizens’ health. Only three counties have even limited zoning power to guide development in rural areas, where about half of Alabama’s growth is occurring. There’s little to stop a hog farm, a junkyard, a racetrack or some other objectionable business from elbowing into a residential area.

But the absurdity doesn’t stop with land use. Consider these typical cases:

• Residents in Mobile County’s Twin Lakes subdivision watch their yards turn into ponds during heavy rains as runoff from nearby parking lots and other development floods in. But the county can’t require adequate drainage for new businesses and homes.

• Tuscaloosa County now has its deeds in a computer data base. Title companies, lawyers and others are willing to pay for online access to that information. The revenue could help pay the courthouse bills. But the county clerk can’t sell that access because the Legislature hasn’t authorized the service.

• About 3,000 people are moving to Blount County every year. Development is gobbling up farmland, swamping schools with new students and packing roads with traffic. It’s only fair that this growth pay for the services it requires. But Alabama doesn’t give county officials the tools they need to raise adequate revenue.

Why does Alabama hamstring its counties when neighboring states consider government closest to the people to be the most effective? One reason is that special interests such as the Alabama Farmers Federation — Alfa for short — lobby hard with generous campaign contributions to keep home rule out of the state’s constitution. These special interests resist reasonable rules for land use so they can do as they please — right down to building a hog farm across the road from a home.

These same interests and their legislative toadies make sure local governments can’t impose fair taxation. Result? Owners of agricultural and timberland pay the nation’s lowest property tax rates.

Alabama is asking for more messy problems unless citizens demand the right to home rule.

South Carolina’s answer

Just such an uprising happened in South Carolina in the early 1970s, when local people changed their state constitution to allow self-government. Before that reform happened, South Carolina’s local laws were even more backward, if that’s possible, than those of Alabama. In a typical case, the local legislative delegation supervised its county’s affairs. These legislators even wrote the local budgets and approved them in the state Capitol.

But in 1973, reformers managed to put the issue of home rule to a vote of the people. This event occurred after a commission worked to overhaul the state’s constitution, which was as antiquated as Alabama’s present document. Overwhelmingly, citizens said they wanted stronger local government; thus, a more democratic era began.

New voting laws made this transition to home rule even more necessary. Legislative districts began to cross county lines to ensure fair representation. That districting change meant a legislator might not know enough or care enough about a county’s affairs to make wise decisions. All the more reason, then, to give local people the right to govern themselves.

Home rule restricts legislators to passing laws that affect the entire state. They can no longer single out a community or county for special action.

Naturally, South Carolina’s legislators resisted giving up their local power, and they still find ways to meddle, especially on taxes. But because reformers persisted, county and municipal governments now can manage their communities’ growth and provide services their people need.

Indeed, home rule came just in time. South Carolina is the country’s 10th-fastest-growing state. As in Alabama, most of the growth occurs in urban counties, such as Spartanburg along Interstate 85. There, a traveler passing the giant BMW plant and other industries can feel the economic pulse throbbing.

This rapid growth has created big problems. For example, Spartanburg saw junkyards sprout in outlying neighborhoods, threatening property values and peace of mind. But unlike their Alabama counterparts, Spartanburg’s leaders could take action. They passed an ordinance to control these nuisances. They had home rule backing them up.

Missing leadership

But where is the leadership that would champion home rule in Alabama, giving urban counties the authority to manage their growth and address difficult problems? The leadership must begin with a governor and legislators who are willing to risk their political futures by doing what’s right for local government, even if that means incurring the wrath of special interests. Alabama’s citizens deserve to govern themselves locally just as people elsewhere enjoy that right.

In 1901, the state’s constitutional convention was debating whether to hand legislators control over local government. Big landowners and their industrial allies wanted to concentrate power in Montgomery and restrict democracy. John A. Rogers, a delegate from Sumter County, rose to challenge these "Big Mules."

"I would like to know if there are men sitting here in this convention who think that their people have exhausted their senses in sending them here," he said. "Why is it that these people can select such fine representatives to the Legislature and yet it is feared that they won’t be able to select satisfactory County Boards ... ?"

The question rings true nearly a century later as we struggle to correct the error of that convention. Yet the recent example of South Carolina raises hope. If that state’s citizens can overcome the lords of privilege and march forward under home rule, then so can Alabama’s.

As Ray and Barbara Stevens might warn you from behind their shut windows, our collective failure to act invites the hogs to frolic.


Article list

Suffer the little ones

October 13, 1998

TWO GOVERNORS — old South and new.

In Alabama, Gov. Fob James squirmed, dodged and lied to avoid higher tobacco taxes. Result? Lightly taxed companies aren’t accountable for the horrific cost their tobacco inflicts on Alabama citizens.

But Florida, under Gov. Lawton Chiles, has forced Big Tobacco to pay restitution. What’s more, Florida is investing that money in the next generation, rescuing children not only from smoking but also from poor health, abuse and neglect. The payoff will be healthy, productive workers who’ll keep Florida competitive for good jobs.

A similar vision drives a coalition for children in Alabama, whose members include judges, district attorneys, legislators, civic leaders and other concerned people. They want to spend $85 million a year on a group of programs known as Children First. Alabama would secure the money by either assessing or taxing tobacco companies. In turn, this investment would generate another $45 million in federal matching dollars.

Last spring, the coalition sensed victory, but Big Tobacco’s hired guns ambushed supporters in the House Rules Committee. The lobbyists’ maneuver delayed action long enough for their flunkies to strip away the tobacco tax. The Legislature went on to approve the programs, but it provided no immediate money to pay for them.

Gov. James was in the thick of the dirty work. "He’s run the dagger in our back every chance he’s gotten," lamented a veteran of this fight. The governor’s disgraceful behavior occurred after he had promised Attorney General Bill Pryor and others that he would support the tobacco tax for Children First.

Mr. Pryor and a bipartisan coalition managed to salvage a promise from the Legislature that the children’s programs would receive the first $85 million a year from Alabama’s share of any national settlement with tobacco companies. The settlement is no certainty, of course. Big Tobacco recently foiled Congress’ attempt to levy more taxes.

Meanwhile, Gov. James was soon talking about diverting any potential settlement share to pay for college scholarships. This treachery came from a man who had the gall to declare 1997 as the "Year of the Child."

With a national tobacco settlement still uncertain, voters can consider what Gov. James’ perfidy so far has denied Alabama’s children, a fourth of whom live in poverty:

• More than 100,000 children won’t get health insurance, because their families can’t pay for it without state help.

• Thousands of children will languish on long waiting lists for subsidized child care.

• Growing numbers of juveniles in trouble won’t receive adequate treatment and supervision.

The consequences of such inaction will cost many times more than what Children First proposes to spend on prevention. For example, advocates for these programs argue that every dollar spent immunizing children against diseases such as measles saves more than $10 in treatment costs later.

With the failure to pay for Children First, Alabama perpetuated its worst old ways. Big interests, such as tobacco companies, prevail in Montgomery, while the poor and the weak suffer. No wonder that a national comparison ranks Alabama at the bottom in efforts to help children from poor families.

The Florida contrast

Now, let’s consider what’s happening elsewhere — and what visionary leadership can do for a state.

Gov. Chiles is Florida’s best granddaddy.

After retiring from the U.S. Senate, he ran for governor in 1990, vowing to help Florida’s mothers and children. He refused to take the special interests’ money, limiting campaign contributions to just $100. That independence showed in 1997, when he wrested from the tobacco companies an $11.3 billion settlement for Florida — money the Legislature is now investing in kids.

At the end of his second term, Gov. Chiles looks upon a remarkably better state for its youngest citizens. Much of the improvement owes to his tenacity as their greatest champion. Contrast some of Florida’s legislative action in 1998 with Alabama’s shameful surrender to Big Tobacco:

• By combining federal and state dollars, Florida will provide health insurance to an additional 254,000 children.

• The state will hire about 200 new investigators to fight child abuse.

• Another 23,900 kids will get quality child care — a lifesaver for working parents who can’t afford to pay the full cost.

Such victories crown this governor’s leadership with a lasting legacy, as healthy and educated kids grow up to be successful parents themselves. Indeed, more of them are alive today because Gov. Chiles fought to reduce infant deaths.

Under a program Gov. Chiles sponsored called Healthy Start, women receive nursing care for themselves and their infants, breast-feeding instruction, parenting classes and other help through a network of community agencies. More than a million mothers and infants have received help, and Florida’s mortality rate has dropped 16 percent since 1992 to beat the national average.

Like Gov. James in Alabama, Gov. Chiles used his 1997 legislative address to extol children — but the Florida leader’s words meant something. He educated his listeners about how the first three years of life can set a child’s future, good or bad. This time is critical, he said, because new research shows how fast a newborn’s brain develops.

At birth, the brain has about 100 billion neurons. By age 1, that figure explodes to 1,000 trillion. Talking to children, showing them games, even playing classical music to them during these first years can make a difference of 20 IQ points — an astounding implication for the state as it struggles to provide good child care for mothers who are leaving welfare for work.

Home-grown insight

How ironic that much of the research Gov. Chiles cited was conducted at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, under the guidance of child-development experts Craig and Sharon Ramey. Their acclaimed work over the past 30 years demonstrates how high-quality health care and child care pay extraordinary dividends in stimulating toddlers’ brain development. With sufficient intervention, even children who have a high risk of failure can enter school and keep up with their more fortunate peers.

Without extra help, Craig Ramey warns, such children often never catch up, and schools tag them as slow learners. "We can’t expect special ed to reverse a lifetime of inadequate experiences. It can’t make up for what the children have missed," he says.

Gov. Chiles grasped this great insight from scientific research and saw the potential to break the cycle of poverty and neglect that has bedeviled our region. "Education must start at gestation," he told Florida’s legislators.

If only Alabama had such leadership and common sense in its governor’s chair. Or if only there were more legislators willing to pull the voting lever for what’s right, rather than jerk at the ends of the lobbyists’ strings.


Article list

The dunking booth

October 14, 1998

Fourth-graders at Lingerfeldt Elementary had an incentive last spring to pass North Carolina’s writing test: They could dunk their principal, Charmaine Crisp.

A photographer from the local Gastonia paper captured the principal at the mercy of her successful students as they hurled balls at the dunking booth. Each time Ms. Crisp emerged from the tank, wet hair clinging to her face, the kids cheered. They had earned the privilege.

A year earlier, the newspapers told a different story: Lingerfeldt ranked among North Carolina’s 15 worst schools. Its students, most of whom came from poor families, were low achievers. In response, the state sent a five-member team of educators to take over the school if necessary and evaluate the teachers.

Soon afterward, 10 people on the school’s staff left. "Some needed to go," says team leader Ken Mazzaferro, a 32-year veteran. Luckily for Ms. Crisp, she had been principal for only a year. Otherwise, she might have lost her job under the state’s tough reforms.

With the team’s guidance, teachers improved and involved more parents in their children’s education. In just one year, Lingerfeldt went from being one of the lowest scorers on the state’s accountability tests to posting a good grade. The school, whose student body is evenly divided between whites and blacks, also found something new: self-confidence.

Lingerfeldt’s turnaround reflects a new spirit that tolerates no excuses for weak teaching. Under what’s called the ABCs plan, North Carolina’s standards are rising for educator and student alike. This reform commands bipartisan support in the Legislature, largely because of Gov. Jim Hunt’s leadership.

Indeed, he chaired the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, which concluded in 1996 that teachers’ expertise is the most important factor behind student achievement. Schools will improve only when states invest more money in the recruitment, training and retention of competent teachers.

With that premise in mind, North Carolina has made better teaching its No. 1 priority, and it expects every school to set goals for improvement. Poor performance can bring severe consequences. At the same time, North Carolina rewards classroom success: Teachers may earn up to $1,500 more per year when their schools meet or exceed their performance goals. They also enjoy freedom to make decisions, as North Carolina slashes bureaucracies and pushes control down to the school level.

The state’s reforms have gone beyond testing students:

• North Carolina now tests all prospective teachers, first on their knowledge of content and then on their ability to teach. Once hired, a teacher undergoes a four-year probation.

• The process for dismissing teachers has been streamlined from months to just 47 days. Meanwhile, principals no longer enjoy the safety net of tenure. They must perform adequately or lose their jobs.

• The University of North Carolina system has committed itself to improving teaching in grades K-12. Teachers and principals receive training through their school systems, and soon they can enhance their skills and knowledge at a new, $14 million center at Chapel Hill.

North Carolina’s experience excites reformers in Alabama, who want to improve teaching here. They urge legislators to invest more in teacher education and classroom training, which research shows pays a bigger dividend than reducing class sizes or even raising teachers’ pay.

Hubbert’s resistance

Unfortunately, someone else commands the Legislature’s ear: Paul Hubbert, leader of the 77,000-member Alabama Education Association. In the late 1960s, he and his lieutenant, Joe Reed, fused white and black teacher factions into a political colossus. The two men have wielded power more ruthlessly than did the industrialists and agricultural barons of an earlier era.

In 1994, Mr. Hubbert and AEA killed Gov. Jim Folsom’s ambitious school-reform package, which would have hiked educators’ pay and fixed ramshackle schools. AEA listed 11 reasons for its opposition. But a better explanation is that Mr. Hubbert saw Gov. Folsom as a political rival. Also, the union didn’t like the Folsom plan’s insistence on raising standards for teachers.

Reformers this year called for national background checks on new teachers and staff to stop criminals such as pedophiles and rapists from being hired. While publicly backing the idea, Mr. Hubbert maneuvered in the Legislature to ensure the reform’s defeat. He had help from Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, who as Senate president never gave the reform enough support to ensure its becoming law.

Mr. Hubbert also says he favors testing new teachers. But Alabama never gets around to adopting that reform, either. Forty-three states test teacher candidates for basic skills, and 32 test for subject proficiency. So why does Alabama hesitate? Mainly because Mr. Hubbert’s AEA has bankrolled legal fights to prevent such testing, thereby inflicting droves of incompetents upon schools. Many of these new hires earn lifetime job protection through tenure.

Mr. Hubbert ran twice for governor himself. The last time, in 1994, he tapped AEA’s political chest for $1 million, but he couldn’t beat Gov. Folsom in the Democratic primary. Ever the wily politician, Mr. Hubbert later formed an alliance with the eventual winner of that election, Republican Fob James. The two of them have foisted upon Alabama some wrongheaded policies.

For example, teachers won a new pay scale that rewards longevity with automatic raises. Classroom performance doesn’t matter.

Taxpayers might wonder whether they are getting their money’s worth. In 1996, only 12 percent of a representative group of eighth-graders performed at their grade level in math, compared with 24 percent nationally. And last week, the Alabama Department of Education revealed that just 10 percent of geometry students taking an end-of-course test knew how to solve basic problems.

As a sop to accountability, Gov. James persuaded the Legislature to impose a single benchmark — the Stanford Achievement Test. Reformers were aghast. The test isn’t designed for such high-stakes measurement. The results have been predictable: Schools now teach to the demands of the multiple-choice exam, while devaluing skills such as composition and critical thinking. Teachers have little incentive to go beyond handouts and workbooks, as they strive to help students make good guesses on the test.

This simplistic approach seems dandy with Mr. Hubbert. Last spring, the AEA leader wrote his members, urging them to support Gov. James in the Republican primary. Mr. Hubbert listed as reasons the 12.5 percent increase in salaries that teachers have received under Gov. James, as well as their automatic pay scale. It’s clear that politics and self- interest drive this alliance, rather than a commitment to better teaching.

So where does reform begin?

First, Alabama must educate its teachers better. Only 63 percent of Alabama’s high-school teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach. In some areas, such as the physical sciences, as many as two-thirds lack even a minor. The respected publication Education Week gave Alabama a "C" when it looked at whether the state’s educators had the knowledge and skills to teach to higher standards.

Second, the state has to boost teachers’ skills. Alabama spends only $60 per teacher annually improving subject and teaching knowledge — less than $4 per student. By contrast, North Carolina spends $11 per student to help teachers. Worse, much of the training in Alabama amounts to cut-and-paste instruction, rather than a meaty emphasis on up-to-date methods and key subjects such as math and science.

Third, the state’s education department has to intervene at failing schools and fix them. After this year’s test results, the department identified 33 schools in deep trouble. But that action remains bluster unless the state has a credible plan to take them over. No wonder state Superintendent Ed Richardson suggests letting students at failing schools simply go elsewhere.

Finally, Alabama has to attract more talented people to teaching. North Carolina recruits 400 top college students to teaching every year with $5,000 scholarships. Alabama could borrow this idea, as it seeks to pump more quality into teacher education. While we’re at it, let’s shut down teacher colleges whose graduates can’t meet rigorous standards.

Real reform

These reforms go to the heart of Alabama’s school crisis, and there’s no time to fiddle with selfish politics. Alabama students already face higher graduation requirements by the year 2000. Superintendent Richardson predicts massive failures in at least a third of the school systems. "If we don’t make substantial progress in the next two years, we are headed for a train wreck," he warns.

That progress depends upon whether Alabama will insist upon higher standards from teachers in return for greater rewards, as opposed to phony reform. Like North Carolina, Alabama can make good teaching the centerpiece. It can nurture and reward successful professionals, while holding those who fail accountable. If a poor little school in North Carolina can discover the greatness within itself and turn its students into winners, then why can’t hundreds of schools in Alabama do likewise?

The dunking booths are waiting.


Article list

By the numbers

October 15, 1998

INMATES IN Alabama’s crowded prisons read, on average, at a level below the sixth grade. Most lack even basic job skills and work habits, which may explain, though not excuse, why they sell drugs, break in houses and stick up convenience stores.

So it’s a good thing to offer them education in hopes they’ll learn to make an honest living. No fancy academic courses, mind you, but just basic instruction so inmates can earn the equivalent of a high school diploma or pick up rudimentary skills. Any good high school vocational or GED program could fit the bill nicely for a modest cost per inmate.

Only, Alabama doesn’t do education so rationally — at least not when its voracious community colleges smell some action. They’ve grabbed the prison market for themselves — all $14 million worth. Moreover, the colleges are maneuvering to take over the state’s entire adult education program, which is set to receive a big infusion of federal dollars.

Regarding the prisons, taxpayers might ask a simple question: What’s the sense in having the community colleges, whose faculty earn the South’s highest salaries for vocational teaching, instruct inmates who can barely read and write? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to hire high school teachers to help prisoners earn their GEDs or learn basic job skills?

Good common sense, unfortunately, is scarce in Alabama. Its overbuilt two- year system is devoted more to achieving the ambitions of its college presidents and maintaining its well-padded payrolls than delivering the most efficient service to Alabama’s citizens.

Indeed, all that stands in the way of even more grandiose expansion is the crippled Alabama Commission on Higher Education, which former Gov. Albert Brewer established in 1969 to be a kind of policeman for higher ed. But ACHE recently saw angry legislators cut its budget $300,000 after the agency pointed out where Alabama could save and re-invest $100 million in college spending. Among the potential targets was prison education.

Even now, the colleges are fighting ACHE’s legitimate authority to approve new programs and campuses. For example, Bevill State got a $500,000 appropriation to take over the former Walker College campus in Jasper, although ACHE has yet to pass judgment on the deal. Such arrogance on the colleges’ part helps explain why Alabama has 182 college teaching sites, many of them unable to attract enough students to justify their existence.

The Legislature is reluctant to rein in this wasteful expansion because the colleges pack such political clout. Consider, for example, that the next speaker of the House will probably be Rep. Seth Hammett, president of Lurleen B. Wallace State Junior College in Andalusia. Another president, Yvonne Kennedy of Mobile’s Bishop State, will probably chair a powerful committee. Meanwhile, 10 other legislators who work for the community colleges joined these two in the last Legislature.

The state Board of Education has nominal authority over the two-year system. The board also oversees the state’s public elementary and high schools. In plain truth, it’s too big a job for an elected body — especially when these mostly amateur politicians go up against the heavy pros among the college presidents. It’s hardly a secret that about a half dozen of the presidents, led by the wily former legislator Roy Johnson at Southern Union, run the show.

In fact, Alabamians might be surprised to know that their elected watchdog board lacks authority to initiate policy. That role belongs to the two-year college system’s chancellor, Fred Gainous.

What’s so heartbreaking about Alabama’s predicament is that community colleges belong in the forefront of delivering efficient training to citizens. If managed properly, they can be a cost-saving way to meet future demands for higher education, while serving equally well as one-stop job centers for industries eager to hire skilled workers.

Alabama can find a model for reforming its two-year system by looking just over the state line into Mississippi. Our neighbor has developed a more rational way to govern its community colleges, while assigning them an even bigger role for the future.

Mississippi’s answer

Mississippi has the nation’s oldest system of community colleges, which grew out of agricultural high schools in the 1920s. That long experience has taught people to cherish these institutions, but also to keep them current and responsive to new needs.

In 1986, the Legislature created a separate governing agency for the colleges, removing their jurisdiction from the state education board. The reform freed the school board to concentrate on improving elementary and secondary education, while it focused attention on the special role of the two-year colleges in the state’s development.

Meanwhile, the colleges kept their individual boards of trustees, which continue to oversee their day-to-day affairs and even hire their presidents. This local control combines with another admirable feature of Mississippi’s system: local tax support. Each college serves a district that, in turn, levies a special property tax to help pay the costs. At present, Mississippi’s colleges draw about 11 percent of their money from these local taxpayers.

The effect is to curb the kind of expensive adventurism that has led Alabama’s system to expand into virtually every crossroads and branchhead in the state. Unlike Mississippi’s model, the local beneficiaries typically don’t put up any dollars themselves to support these expansive sites, which fall like manna from a generous Legislature. Thus, the game in Montgomery becomes one of bringing home the pork — and often putting the local legislator on the college payroll.

Mississippi has another great feature: a strong conflict-of-interest law. It would be unthinkable, even illegal, for one of its college presidents to serve in the Legislature. The same goes for its professors.

It’s not that the administrators and teachers lack a voice. To the contrary, the colleges are a powerful and united force in Mississippi politics. The difference from Alabama’s system, however, is that the educators deliberate as a group and decide among themselves what should be the system’s priorities. Then they take that program to the Legislature as a group, avoiding any free-lance lobbying by individual schools.

What a difference from Alabama’s dog-eat-dog methods, in which the politically strong presidents lobby legislators directly. This survival of the fittest approach has created what amounts to a two-tiered system — one in which the politically strong prosper at the expense of the weak.

Mississippi also has used its 15 community colleges to create one-stop career centers, which train employees in partnership with local industries. The results have impressed outsiders as well, who see these centers as an ideal way to connect job-seekers to training and employers.

It’s not that Alabama does a bad job of training people. In fact, many in Mississippi admire the versatility of Alabama’s industrial job-training program, which operates as a separate wing under the chancellor’s office. But Alabama’s two-year system remains more concerned about pumping up enrollments and keeping jobs secure for tenured teachers than in emphasizing measurable performance. Thus, the heavy emphasis on courses such as cosmetology, which boost student counts but do little to make Alabama’s economy more competitive.

 Lessons for reform

Alabama’s two-year colleges sprouted almost overnight, in contrast to the Mississippi system’s evolutionary growth. The schools became prime pork for the late Gov. George Wallace’s populist politics. Just look at the names of the 30-odd colleges. Four of them have Wallace attached to them. Across this vast system, one can see the names of other politicians plastered on buildings as silent tributes to their favors.

But just as the Wallace era now stands out forlornly for the many lost opportunities to move Alabama forward with its neighboring states, so does the existing two-year system remind us of our political failure to harness the colleges to a rational development plan. Too often, they remain the petty dukedoms of their powerful presidents, rather than a united force for progress. And at their worst, the colleges confuse their mission with an insatiable lust for warm bodies — even those wearing prison white.

It’s a legacy of power, greed and growth for its own sake that Alabama can afford no more. Thank God for Mississippi — for showing us a better way


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A shameful legacy

October 16, 1998

Unless whites vote on June 2, blacks will control the state ... 
Vote right — vote Wallace. 
 - Advertisement, 1970 

 

OUR YOUNGEST voters don’t remember the racial hysteria behind George Wallace’s comeback victory over Gov. Albert Brewer 28 years ago. They might laugh at how the Wallace camp’s crude doctoring of photographs depicted Brewer arm-in-arm with Black Muslims Mohammed Ali and Elijah Muhammed.

After all, that stuff’s just history, right?

If only it were behind us, and we could rejoice that white Alabamians no longer succumbed to the kind of demagoguery that cost them the only New South governor our state can claim.

But these young people — along with the rest of us — saw last June that the racial sin of the fathers remains upon the land. Supporters of Gov. Fob James, desperate to defeat Winton Blount in the Republican primary, pulled a George Wallace.

Just before the vote, 300,000 fliers blanketed mailboxes, in response to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington’s endorsement of Blount. The flier showed Blount between the black faces of Mr. Arrington and attorney Donald Watkins. Just so you wouldn’t miss the message, the Watkins photo was an old one from when he sported a fluffy Afro. The message? Mr. Blount would sell out the state for black votes.

The headline that announced Mr. James’ subsequent victory might have read, "Race Trumps Reason." As the governor’s former adviser, Tom Perdue of Georgia, lamented afterward, "I didn’t know how deep racial animosity ran in Alabama. I also didn’t realize the depths Fob James would sink to keep his job."

Race-baiting persists in Alabama because our leaders have not cultivated an ethical politics. Too often, they pursue power for its own sake, rousing prejudices and fears to win, but weakening democracy in the process.

Fault also rests with the voters. They have failed to create a civic culture that values honest discourse and rewards politicians who do the right thing. Within this ethical and civic vacuum, special interests will rush to spend upward of $70 million this year in hopes of influencing the elections. Often, it’s impossible to track this money to the source and hold contributors accountable. Alabama’s weak campaign laws allow influence peddlers to hide contributions by swapping money back and forth among myriad political action committees, many of them run by hired-gun lobbyists.

Lt. Don Siegelman, who is Mr. James’ Democratic opponent in the November governor’s race, is no babe, either, when it comes to exploiting weak campaign laws. The latest report shows his campaign account bulging with more than $3 million, much of it donated by trial lawyers, unions and other friendly interests. No wonder Mr. Siegelman has not distinguished himself as a champion of campaign reform. He’s part of the problem.

Must the selfish always rule while the virtuous perish? Or can we infuse our democracy with the energy of an involved electorate?

For inspiration, we need look no farther than Louisiana.

Louisiana’s victory

In 1995, the Bayou State’s voters demanded — and won — higher ethical standards from their politicians, reversing a dark period of corruption and sleaze. They also elected an activist governor, Mike Foster, who has championed reforms such as better schools. Organizers behind this movement vow there is no returning to the state’s bad old days.

Louisiana’s problems sound familiar. For example:

• Special interests owned the Legislature, throttling reforms such as local-option voting on gambling. At one point, the Senate president handed out checks on the floor from a powerful lobbyist.

• Politicians openly accepted public contracts and engaged in other conflicts of interest. Legislators refused to toughen ethics laws, even as the public grew disgusted with the spreading corruption.

• Voters lacked confidence that politicians could deliver better schools or reduce crime. Moreover, citizens linked a weak economy to unethical politics. At one point, four in 10 respondents said they would leave the state if they could.

A group called the Council for a Better Louisiana became a catalyst for expressing this discontent. Long active in reform efforts, the council borrowed a strategy that had promoted grass-roots democracy in Charlotte, N.C. The Louisiana innovation was to apply this participatory model to the entire state, with the glorious goal of transforming the political culture.

First, the council conducted long interviews with about 1,600 citizens to determine what they wanted and expected from their state government. Then it used this knowledge to create the "People’s Agenda" for the 1995 elections.

Many of the citizens’ priorities addressed the malaise that had festered under the weak leadership of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. For example, citizens demanded the right to vote on term limits for office-holders. They wanted to stop part-time politicians from awarding themselves retirement pensions and other benefits. They called for a ban on political contributions from gambling interests.

Before the Council for a Better Louisiana stepped forward, voters had been unable to shape such concerns into a coherent program. Politics had degenerated into impersonal media campaigning, often with nasty results, as politicians bloodied one another with short television commercials after polling for hot-button issues. Missing was deliberation that could focus campaigns on significant problems.

The council provided voters with an alternative that put them in charge. Its volunteers asked candidates to address the People’s Agenda, beginning with concerns about corruption. Soon, many of the politicians were campaigning for the agenda’s reforms.

Next, volunteers took the agenda’s issues directly to the people by distributing more than 100,000 voter guides. With this information in hand, voters could quiz candidates directly or call telephone hot lines to determine where politicians stood. Speakers spread the agenda’s gospel down to the smallest hamlets, proclaiming that the state’s electorate was in the mood for major changes.

Newspaper editorials trumpeted the cleansing effect of this grass-roots movement. The Times in Shreveport, for example, declared, "Louisiana could enter the 21st century with new politics predicated on public service rather than personality, power, greed and — inevitably — corruption."

Most remarkable is how so many of the politicians, once elected, worked to complete the People’s Agenda. The new Legislature, in contrast to its predecessor, passed a tough ethics law, along with term limits. It also gave citizens a bigger say on gambling. And the reforms continue. This fall, for example, voters will decide whether to put community colleges under a new governing board.

Nowhere is the contrast between old and new more vivid than in the governor’s office, where Mike Foster has delivered handsomely on his promise to improve education. Under the often-absent Mr. Edwards, Louisiana had drifted into despair and cynicism. Mr. Foster, with the help of new legislative leaders, has reversed that course and become one of the South’s most popular governors.

Alabama’s shame

Louisiana’s civic movement promotes the politics of hope. It seeks to create a new civic culture — one in which citizens can change their system and participate fully in building their communities. By contrast, our politics in Alabama asks little of citizens and expects them to remain passive in face of intolerable practices. Where is the outrage, for example, when:

• Gov. James refuses to sign a promise that he will campaign ethically, although many other candidates have embraced the pledge?

• Public employees who serve in the Legislature vote for their own pay raises and even for their institutions’ budgets (a blatant conflict of interest)?

• Legislators award themselves up to $60,000 each to pass out as grants in their districts just before election time, using tax money to woo voters?

Such outrage, if channeled into citizen power, could purge Alabama of such shameful practices. It could even inspire the drafting of a modern state constitution, which could address critical issues that Alabama’s politicians prefer to ignore — matters such as fair taxation and efficient government.

Indeed, a convention would allow our generation to atone for the racist sins perpetrated by the state’s present constitution, which in 1901 stripped black citizens of their right to vote. Although Congress and the federal courts have since corrected that injustice, racism still stalks our politics, distracting us from our citizenship.

Let us lay down that burden — and be a free people at last.


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Our new century

October 17, 1998

ON THE eve of the 20th century, 100 years ago, Alabamians looked confidently upon a dawning New South.

A vanquished people no more, they had trod the road to reunion. Their young men even fought alongside sons of Yankees to free Cubans from Spanish tyranny, while their statesmen in Congress, such as Sen. John Morgan, helped shape what would become the American Century.

Although many Alabamians were poor, they lived in a rich state. To the north, the Tennessee River watered fertile valleys. To the south, a splendid port welcomed commerce. A belt of black soil girded the state’s middle, while a mountain range from the east deposited coal, iron ore and limestone — the raw materials for Vulcan’s forge.

No matter how tumultuous its past, Alabama seemed poised to fulfill the prophecies of boosters such as Atlanta editor Henry Grady, who saw a New South rising from the Civil War’s ashes. And as the South rose, Alabamians expected their state to soar also into this new era of prosperity and enlightenment.

At least that was the dream — a century ago.

In our time, we behold as did our ancestors a rich and promising land, but one that has changed almost beyond recognition. Modern cities have developed, along with universities and industries, so that Alabama’s urban places now resemble those of its former conqueror. In the countryside, the farmer is mostly gone, replaced by the long-distance commuter, traveling highways that bind our civilization.

In the haste to exploit this bountiful land, however, we have often left it scarred and cut over. We have been careless with pollution, unwilling to address its damage out of fear that cleaner air and water might cost jobs. More recently, we have failed to manage runaway growth, which sprawls into rural areas with costly abandon.

Likewise, we have not cultivated a responsive democracy. Too often, the majority has forsaken political wisdom for the demagogue’s rant. Without vision, our state perishes under the rule of special interests, who buy influence with political contributions.

Citizen power

But the democratic spirit has a remarkable resilience. It draws its strength not from rank or privilege but from the noble calling of citizenship. Once aroused and properly armed with powerful ideas, citizens form the greatest army the world has seen.

This week, we examined in this space five good ideas from our neighboring states. We sought to learn how these states have improved their civic life. None of them has met with unqualified success, and sometimes reforms require a generation to show results. But in important and inspiring ways, these neighbors have laid a foundation for the next century.

Let us briefly review some of their accomplishments:

• South Carolina has pushed democracy down to the grassroots by allowing counties to govern themselves under home rule. Local government now has tools to manage sprawling, costly growth and to protect residents from threats such as corporate hog farms and junkyards.

• North Carolina has made good teaching central to reforming its schools. The state encourages and rewards achievement, while intervening to counter failure. The state seeks not only to improve its teachers but also to encourage bright and dedicated people to enter the profession.

• Florida has put children at the top of its agenda, investing heavily in pre-school programs that encourage later success. As Gov. Lawton Chiles proclaims, education begins at gestation, and his leadership has taught Floridians the common sense of building healthy young bodies and inspiring inquisitive minds.

• Mississippi has created a rational and economical system of community colleges, each working in tandem with the others to provide academic and vocational preparation. Through special tax districts, citizens help support their local campuses, contributing to their success rather than merely benefiting from their presence.

• Louisiana has undergone a virtual civic renewal, reversing its plunge into corruption and despair. A citizens’ organization inspired voters to create a new public agenda — one that would show the way out of the political wilderness.

These achievements show how motivated citizens can move mountains. When will we in Alabama do the same?

Alabamians often bemoan the fact that our state, virtually alone within the region, has never elected a New South governor. Since North Carolina’s Terry Sanford provided the model of such enlightened and pragmatic leadership in the early 1960s, state after state has found governors in the same mold. By contrast, Alabama has mostly elected men who lifted their fingers to test the wind rather than thrusting out their chins to lead.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that many public schools teeter on failure. Children of working families lack decent health care. Colleges resist rational governance. Ugly sprawl devours our countryside. The shameful list goes on. And still we do not learn. Too often, our political choices remain a lesser of two evils, rather than competing visions of greatness. Such is the dilemma with our gubernatorial election next month:

Don Siegelman, the Democrat, presents himself as a moderate alternative. Yet he is strictly an old-school politician who cozies up to special interests that have stuffed his campaign account.

As lieutenant governor, Mr. Siegelman presided over the Alabama Senate for four years. During that time, he blocked or failed to support good ideas that would have moved Alabama forward. The Legislature did not reform the public schools. It did not fix the unfair tax system. It did not close loopholes in campaign finances. It did not wring a settlement or higher taxes from big tobacco companies. It did not rein in runaway civil-justice awards. The list goes on.

Yet Fob James, the Republican, is no answer, either. If anything, he might act even zanier once he is re-elected and cannot succeed himself.

Already, Mr. James has attempted to liberate Alabama from compliance with the Bill of Rights, while resurrecting chain gangs, Confederate flags and threats of resistance to federal authority. Is this the direction we want to go — backward? Mr. James would take us there if given an opportunity. These reasons explain why this newspaper chooses not to endorse in the gubernatorial election. Neither Mr. Siegelman nor Mr. James has shown himself to be worthy of high office, although thoughtful voters must choose between them.

At the crossroads

We have stumbled to the crossroads of century’s end, with too little to show for such a long journey. It is not enough, however, to bemoan lost opportunities. We must raise expectations for public life and hold politicians to a high civic standard. Only then can Alabama’s democracy aspire to a politics of hope and accomplishment.

In Alabama, we can lag behind our neighbors, or we can stride forward with good ideas of our own. It is a decision we dare not delay, for things are moving too swiftly in the world for hesitation.

Indeed, bold action in one instance brought our state its finest recent accomplishment: a Mercedes assembly plant of global distinction. Yet we have not shown a similar willingness to raise the rest of Alabama to that level of excellence.

You can see the results along U.S. 11 in Tuscaloosa County, where the gleaming Mercedes plant meets crumbling Vance Elementary School. One image evokes a magic future, and the other a flawed past.

Perhaps some time in the next century, with the help of good ideas and strong leadership, these images will blend into a new Alabama — one worthy of being the Heart of Dixie. But we have miles to go before that happens.

Miles to go, and a broken heart to mend.

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