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Education is key for Alabama’s economic future

Published 12:05am Saturday, September 22, 2012

It seems Alabama is always at the mercy of economic forces beyond its borders.

The decisions that led to the decline of mainstay Alabama industries such as textiles, paper and steel were made elsewhere, but the fallout was felt in communities across our state.

We’ve seen it over and over again — when a plant closes there is often little local capacity to replace the jobs that were lost.

Even in the brightest spots of our state economy, such as the rise of auto manufacturing, decisions are made in another country.

The foreign investment is welcome and important, but it still is another example of us looking outside for economic salvation.

Alabama can and must do a better job of taking control of its own economic destiny.

That means building a workforce with diverse skills, an environment where small to medium size businesses can get started and have the customer base to grow, and where the earning power of families is increased.

This can only be achieved by improving education.

We don’t have to look far to see how improving education impacts economic vitality.

Georgia and Tennessee have invested more in education over the years and have seen greater economic growth as a result.

It only makes sense. Lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates translate into low–skill or no-skill jobs, and the days of abundant low-skill jobs are gone.

The days families could thrive on the wages of low-skill jobs are also gone.

The good news is that Alabama schools have made steady improvement and are poised to take great leaps in student achievement — if we simply have the will to make the proper investments.

Alabama Democrats have a common sense plan to improve education investment.

First is to get more resources into the classroom.

When the downturn hit in 2008, it devastated school funding.

Alabama has bought few textbooks since and provided little or no money for supplies.

We have the opportunity to change that.

Democrats sponsored bills requiring schools to provide textbooks that are no more than five years old, and to provide $1,000 in classroom supplies.

Republicans killed these bills last session, but Democrats will continue the fight for these resources.

Another critical investment is to get the Alabama Math and Science Initiative into every school.

This program is rated as one of the best in the nation, but it is in less than half of Alabama’s schools due to the current leadership’s refusal to adequately fund the program.

The program is modeled on the highly successful Alabama Reading Initiative that pushed Alabama from last to first in early reading gains.

The math and science program has been shown to add more than a month’s worth of learning in a school year.

Another important investment is to reduce class size.

Lowering the student-to-teacher ratio allows more one-on-one time with students, especially those that struggle.

Over the past several years Alabama has lost thousands of teachers in layoffs and subsequently seen class sizes rise to nearly unmanageable levels.

These are common sense investments with real dividends in student achievement, and we can make them without raising taxes.

Right now, the Alabama graduation rate is the highest it has ever been, with more students enrolling in college or postsecondary vocational programs.

These young people will get — or create — better jobs that will then lead to stronger local economies and a more vibrant state.

Education is the key to Alabama taking control of its economic future.

But we have to invest in ourselves to make it a reality.

 

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears on the FCT Opinion Page.

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