Archived Story

Choice to fund education will impact state economy

Published 5:59am Saturday, January 28, 2012

There is no great secret to improving education in Alabama. We have an impressive track record of raising student achievement by developing our own programs and efforts. Alabama is a national leader in curriculum and instruction innovation.

The question is whether we are going to continue with our efforts and maintain progress.

It comes down to funding. We will spend 20 percent less this year than we did in 2008. Over the past four years, plagued by proration and cuts caused by the economic downturn, we have lost hundreds of millions of education dollars. In turn, we lost thousands of teachers, we haven’t bought textbooks in years, and we slashed everything else to the bone.

This situation has put more than a decade of progress in Alabama schools at risk, and hurt an entire generation of students. In fact, we are all at risk if we fail to educate the next generation of workers.

In the next 10 years a substantial portion of the state workforce will be ready to retire. If they are unable to gain a trade, work in the modern technology-driven workplace or be the entrepreneurs that create a new generation of Alabama small businesses, our state economy will stagnate.

The economic numbers are clear when we fail to educate our children.

In the 1960s, the average high school dropout would earn approximately 50 cents for every dollar of income earned by the average college graduate. With low skill manufacturing and agricultural jobs available, dropouts could get decent jobs as long as they could show up at the textile mill or cotton gin. Those days are gone.

Now workers who failed to graduate from high school earn less than 28 cents for every dollar that the average college educated worker makes.

Dropouts have a negative impact on the state economy beyond low income. Investment does not readily flow to areas of deep poverty — an outcome of poor education attainment — and industry won’t come to a place where workers are unprepared. Dropouts have been called Alabama’s “number one economic problem.”

The good news is that we have been making progress in keeping kids in school, bringing the graduation rate up from 55 percent in 2001 to just under 70 percent in 2011. This improvement comes in large part from making education gains in the early grades. When a child succeeds early, it predicts future success later.

Along with the hard work of our teachers, the Alabama Reading Initiative transformed the state into a national leader in early reading gains. ARI was started in 1999 and was finally put in every school by the end of 2006.

Now we are taking that example of curriculum and instruction innovation to develop the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). It too has shown remarkable results in promoting gains in student achievement.

However, because of funding constraints, AMSTI exists in only 40 percent of schools. What’s worse, AMSTI has lost funding over the past three years. Each year AMSTI is not in a school we are depriving students of a real and important learning opportunity, and in turn putting their future at risk.

In this next legislative session, we have a choice. Either we can rise to our responsibilities and fund education, or we can let our schools wither and risk the future of thousands of our children.

That choice will impact the state economy for years to come.

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