|Reformist Tide Rises for Alabama Schools|
By Quin Hillyer
Wednesday, April 10 2013
Alabama this year has been the locus of two major battles over education policy, both with national implications. These fights merit close attention.
First, in what even strong supporters of school choice (myself included) acknowledged was a sneak attack on February 28, the state legislature’s Republican leadership suddenly substituted in conference committee a massive school choice bill in place of a far narrower bill promising a well-circumscribed degree of local school “flexibility.” Within hours, the new bill had been pushed through conference committees and both legislative chambers – and Governor Robert Bentley has now signed it into law. In a state that previously offered almost no form of school choice (other than a few “magnet” schools), and which for decades had been dominated by the powerful and radically anti-choice Alabama Education Association (school employee union), the new law already has spawned lawsuits and conniption fits from the (former) political establishment.
Second, in an ongoing battle, a coalition of Tea Party groups and local Republican clubs continues the fight for Alabama officially to disengage from the Common Core national educational standards. With one anti-Core bill stalled in committee, Republican state Representative Jim Barton this week introduced a simpler bill directly repealing the state school board’s 2010 vote adopting the standards. In response to their steady barrage of phone calls to legislators somewhat stunned by the intensity of grassroots feeling, the anti-Core legions have been subjected to vociferous counter-attacks from the usually moderate Mobile Press-Register. (The P-R, to its credit, quickly published a letter rebutting its attacks.)
Together, these two controversies show that the biggest fault line with regard to educational policy lies between the centralizers and the localizers. Free marketeers ought to strongly prefer the latter.
Let’s start with the school-choice law called the Alabama Accountability Act. It sets up a system of state income tax credits for parents of children in “failing” schools (according to various indices), to be used at any other public or private school that will take them. It also provides tax credits for any donations to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships to students trying to escape failing schools. And, as per the original bill, it provides various measures of flexibility to local school boards to let schools escape regulatory straitjackets.
While a few small glitches might need to be corrected in subsequent legislation, the Act promises Alabama a bold realignment of power, responsibility and, most importantly, results. Newly empowered parents, students freed from the shackles of unsafe or ineffective schools, and poor communities revitalized by constructive educational competition should all benefit enormously from this devolution of control back to families and reformers.
By contrast with near-universal conservative applause for the Alabama Accountability Act, the battle over Common Core has split several right-leaning constituencies and split the Republican delegations in the legislature. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, after all, was one of the driving forces behind the Common Core initiative, and other business-oriented conservatives joined him.
But this is a battle where right-leaning money is on the wrong side of right-leaning thought. As I explained at CFIF 14 months ago, Common Core stands as an unwitting invitation for the federal government to dictate local curricular choices, with potentially objectionable results. Not only have two top lawyers from the G.W. Bush Education Department written a much-acclaimed study of the threat of federal intrusion, but George Will and the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke have strongly warned against Common Core for just that reason.
And conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has produced a superb series of columns against the standards.
To be clear: Conservatives ought to embrace the idea of strong, high standards for educational attainment. But while many of the individual standards of Common Core, and most of the intentions behind it, are laudable, there are indeed specific weaknesses within the Core (including an abandonment of cursive writing) – and, more broadly, a problem with “homogenization” and “regurgitation” of educational practices.
There’s nothing wrong with states borrowing broadly from the Core’s recommendations. But to adopt them in toto is a capitulation to the centralizers, the stultifiers – and, in the long run, probably to the leftist proselytizers who would use them to inculcate students with anti-American tommyrot.
In Alabama, the fate of Common Core remains very much in the balance. But at least the fates of thousands of children may be far brighter because the Alabama Accountability Act will allow them to escape schools stuck in morasses of weak discipline, bad teaching or social problems all too common across the American educational landscape.
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