By Mary Scott Hunter, Member of the Alabama State Board of Education
The Alabama State Board of Education and State Department of Education exist to serve local school systems and the students and teachers in those systems. I believe we have lost focus, and we must get it back.
Unfortunately, I hear from local teachers, principals, and superintendents that the Department often doesn’t help them. Locals do not get their questions answered, and when they interact with the Department, mishandling, bungling, and conflicting information is all too common. Others avoid the Department altogether because they have totally lost trust and confidence citing meaningless committees, long compliance reports, and the like.
The job of local school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers is to take care of their kids. When they must spend time pacifying State Department of Education bureaucrats, tension erupts.
And the bureaucratic mindset is evident at the Department. Internal and external communications are often poor. Hiring, management, and business operations are questionable. The budget evidently has been balanced for some years by drawing from reserves, reserves that are now depleted. High performers at the Department always seem weary and overwhelmed carrying the entire weight of the organization. Department morale is generally low.
Local school systems, especially the ones with a strong mission mindset, tend to have higher morale despite finite resources. All of them, even the ones that are comparatively wealthy, work hard to find the time and money to do what they should for students. In our poorer systems, the struggle is often as epic as it is heroic to bring a student across the finish line on graduation day.
The State Board and Department have some important milestones ahead. We need to submit our strategic plan to or receive an extension from the US Department of Education by September 18. Standardized testing needs serious attention now that we’ve moved away from ACT Aspire without a clear path forward. The Department budget and staffing must be managed and brought in line. Next year, the normal cycle of review of our Math Standards is scheduled to begin, presenting an opportunity for reconciliation around the issue of standards.
None of these monumental tasks and changes are going to be easy. With leadership changes likely soon, the State Board and Department should take this opportunity to regain focus on the mission.
I’ve recently rolled off a two-year tenure as the K-12 liaison Trustee for the Alabama Community College System created in 2014 by the Legislature. During my time, the Trustees made tough, purposeful decisions including consolidations and various other cost and service conscious decisions.
Today the ACCS “Central Office” in Montgomery and extended network of community colleges they serve are stronger than ever. The dramatic improvements are remarkable and noteworthy especially in such a short amount of time.
By contrast, the State Board in their governance role over K-12 rarely makes the news with positive stories. This should be different.
In 2013 the Alabama Legislature began requiring that all local boards of education adopt a Code of Conduct and undergo annual training. This move has improved the functioning and credibility of local Boards. Unfortunately, the legislation exempted the State Board.
Over the years, my requests to my State Board colleagues and to the state superintendents to voluntarily adopt an State Board Code of Conduct and training requirements have mostly been met with silence.
So my first call for reform is this: the State Board must ask of themselves at least the very accountability measures required of local boards.
I am also in favor of term limiting board members. The powers of incumbency are strong, and they fundamentally favor status quo. With respect to our public education system, that’s simply not acceptable.
As for the State Department of Education, an approach we should seriously consider is to “reconstitute” it. Kentucky did this in the early 90s by reducing their department size and scope dramatically and then building it back up slowly and carefully. Here in Alabama, giving local school leadership more autonomy over instruction while the Department is being reconstituted would be a relief for local systems and educators.
Whatever reforms are chosen, I’d expect the Governor, the standing President of the State Board and a voting member, would get to to be very hands on.
No more nibbling around the edges with bills, policies, and practices that address symptoms but not root causes. This is a clear call for education reform, starting at the top.