By Larry Lee
Just a month ago the Alabama political landscape was turned upside down and you suddenly found yourself moving from the State House to the Governor’s office in the Capitol. Like thousands across the state, I have been sending up prayers that you meet each new day with clarity of purpose and resolve to make the lives of your fellow citizens better.
You are carefully weighing decisions and appointments made by Governor Bentley and putting your own team in place.
Let me suggest that you make our state department of education one of your top priorities.
Governor, there is no other way to say it – we are in a mess. A situation created in large measure by Governor Bentley. While, like all politicians, he loved to talk about his support for public education, his actions betrayed his words. You don’t sign bills into law creating a needless A-F school grading system, huge tax breaks for business under the guise of helping failing schools and charter school legislation and then boast about supporting the 730,000 students in public schools.
You don’t appoint someone to the state school board like Matt Brown whose only claim to fame was working to stop his community schools from having adequate funding. Neither do you vote to hire a state superintendent who lacks the credentials to be a teacher, principal or local superintendent in Alabama. And you certainly don’t turn a blind eye to a selection process that was so tainted it led to legal action.
So last November when Governor Bentley showed his true colors by declaring that Alabama “education sucks,” why was anyone surprised? Just as they should not have been surprised that Bentley’s new state superintendent, Mike Sentance, did not utter a sound in defense of the school system he was then running?
Governor, more than 50 years ago we were both two college kids from rural Alabama at Auburn University. And I have to believe we were both there because of our backgrounds and that we knew we would be among many kindred spirits. People from Leroy (Billy Powell); Beatrice (Phil Hardie); Grand Bay (Woodie Ramsey); Sand Mountain (Bill Alverson); Opp (Bobby Wiggins) and Florala (Jim Yeaman).
In a nutshell, we have “skin in the game.” Places like Pine Hill, Sunny South and Pineapple are not names on a map. They are places we’ve been. When they hurt, we hurt.
Mike Sentance cannot relate. Which is why he did not defend our educators when Robert Bentley attacked them. Which is why he has been quick to denigrate our teachers and our universities and tell us repeatedly how great things are in his home state of Massachusetts.
His eight-month tenure at the state department has been one blunder after another. He talked about an investigation the feds were doing about Alabama grad rates – but had nothing specific to report. He released a grad rate report to the world that was full of errors and did not show local systems the courtesy of advance warning. He intervened in the Montgomery school system – but has yet to clearly explain what his plans are or who is footing the bill. He decided the principals of Montgomery’s 27 weakest schools would get a 10 percent raise, while ignoring the principals of top-performing schools.
He spent more than $500,000 to hire consultants from Massachusetts from a company he once was involved with. He spent $750,000 on a no-bid contract to hire a CFO for Montgomery when retired and tried and true CFOs were available for a fraction of the cost.
It is hardly surprising that educators at all levels in Alabama have little to no confidence in his leadership. After all, they all have more formal training in education than he does.
Governor, long ago some inner voice directed you to work with young people. Auburn trained you to be a teacher and you became one early in your career. Your involvement with Girls State for many years is testimony to this early calling.
Ninety percent of all the school kids in Alabama attend public schools. They need you.
They need a clear VOICE to speak out for them. They need someone who understands the challenges they face and will lift them up, not tear them down. They want someone who, while acknowledging reality, will still call forth their best effort. Our teachers need someone who has walked in their shoes and appreciates their efforts, rather than painting an unrealistic picture and proposing false expectations.
You are now chair of the state school board. The first ever teacher to occupy this position.
You impressed the education community when you spoke at the first board meeting after you took office. For the first time in forever, they saw a ray of hope.
And for the sake of those youngsters who stand beside a country road at 6:30 on a November morning waiting for the school bus to take them to a school that may be their only hope for a better tomorrow, we beg you for help.
All of Alabama suffered because of Robert Bentley’s foolishness. It’s now time to lift this burden from the backs of our 730,000 students.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. email@example.com. Read his blog: larryeducation.com