Note: This the second in a series of posts looking at how the candidates compare on issues.
Education has been a polarizing issue in Alabama for years. Let’s consider the positions of Alabama gubernatorial candidates Ron Sparks and Robert Bentley.
Ron Sparks has been adamant about the need for an education lottery to fund Alabama schools. On his website, he touts the potential for $418 million dollars of projected annual revenue to the state by instituting a lottery. Last year, Sparks told OurPrattville.com, “Less than 7% of our children get pre-K, we’re only graduating 60% of our children, and those who do graduate only 16% are going on to get a college education.” Sparks calls his initiative the LifeStart Education Lottery.
At a debate in Arab, Bentley made controversial remarks about opportunities for children to get a college degree. Sparks responded in a TV ad saying, “Not every child will get a college degree, but every child rich or poor deserves a chance to go to College.”
At the same Arab debate, Bentley said he is personally against the lottery and reminded attendees, “We have a governor sentenced to jail as a result of things he did connected to that lottery.”
For those of you that haven’t yet decided how you feel on the lottery, Walt pointed out a great series by Left In Alabama on the issue that plays it straight throughout. Give it a read if you’ve got some time.
Just Monday, Ron Sparks had an op-ed piece in the Montgomery Advertiser outlining initiatives, including his position on charter schools. In it he states the following:
I am the only candidate for governor with the courage to stand up and protect our public school system from being raided by those seeking charter schools. Any movement in support of charter schools supports a movement to set up dual public schools at the expense of an already underfunded public school system.
Charter schools have failed to be both innovative and visionary and have not produced results that justify such risk.
Studies show that 85 percent of charter schools perform at the same level or below the level of our public schools. Charter schools are at best a mediocre experimental program.
Charter schools are not the answer for public education in Alabama. We must focus our time and energy on developing new revenue sources and building a world-class education system for all children in Alabama.
Robert Bentley has not been as straightforward as Sparks against charter schools, but has shown us that he is skeptical that they are the end-all-be-all answer to fixing the Alabama education system (from his website):
On February 10, 2010 I voted to indefinitely postpone considering charter school legislation because it was inadequate for Alabama and needed improvement. While I prepared two amendments to improve the bill so I could vote in favor of it, the committee did not consider either one. My first amendment limited the initial number of initial charter schools to ten, five for technical schools and five for local community schools. This initial limit would allow the state to test and evaluate the effectiveness of charter schools before implementing it statewide. My second amendment gave local school boards sole authority on whether to establish charter schools in their communities, instead of the State Board of Education. I support maximizing local authority and providing increased flexibility to local school boards, and believe local communities can better assess their own needs than the State Board of Education.
Bentley also expresses his lack of desire to fund charter schools simply to achieve Race to the Top funding. Both Robert Bentley and Ron Sparks opposed Bob Riley’s spring bill to legalize charter schools as a part of the effort to score better in the second round of Race to the Top. According to the AP, Alabama is one of 11 states without charter schools, and if the legislature had passed Riley’s bill, Alabama would have gone from last to next to last in the quest for Race to the Top funding.
In an April interview with the University of South Alabama newspaper, The Vanguard, Sparks said in regard to Alabama’s Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Program, “If you bought it you ought to get it. I’m not as concerned about the PACT as I am about the lottery. I would like to refund the PACT, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Robert Bentley sponsored HB 775 to amend Alabama’s constitution to guarantee existing PACT contracts are funded. Bentley says that Alabama “has a moral and legal obligation to honor 100% of these contracts.” While the bill passed the house unanimously on April 13, 2010, it will not make it to the ballot on November 2nd.
Following the money
When you talk about education in the state of Alabama, it’s nearly impossible not to center the conversation around the 100,000+ member strong Alabama Education Association (AEA). Paul Hubbert has been the AEA’s Executive Secretary since 1969, and was also the Vice Chairman of the state Democratic party until July 15th of this year (He resigned two days after the Republican runoff between Robert Bentley and Bradly Byrne). While AEA maintains good relationships with some Republican elected officials (and Republican teachers), it’s fair to say that the organization is an archenemy for many in Republican Party leadership.
AEA was very involved in the primary season. Ron Sparks has over $210,000 in AEA donations on record from his primary run against Congressman Artur Davis. Robert Bentley denied receiving any direct support from the AEA in his runoff bid against Bradley Byrne, which has turned into quite the ongoing debacle that Hillary and Danny have detailed. No matter who was aware, or unaware, of the anti-Bradley Byrne runoff ads, Hubbert has admitted AEA’s involvement in the runoff and Byrne has speculated that more than $500,000 dollars was spent against him.
However, Hubbert has said the AEA is not getting involved in this general election, as the AEA considers both Robert Bentley and Ron Sparks, “decent supporters of education.” Despite that September 12th statement, the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) 45 day report shows that A VOTE PAC (which is controlled by the AEA) gave Ron Sparks $106,334.15 between August 27th and September 10th. No A VOTE contributions were shown in Bentley’s 45 day report.
Not enough spent vs. not spent well enough
Are we spending enough money on education? Are we just not spending what we have well enough? Or both?
We know that Alabama is 34th in the nation in dollars per pupil in elementary – secondary schools ($9,103 2007-2008), spending a little more than $1,000 less than the average state. Notable states around Alabama that spend less are Florida ($9,035), Kentucky ($8,686), Arkansas ($8,541), Texas ($8,320), North Carolina ($7,996), Mississippi ($7,901), and Tennessee ($7,739). Three of these states received grants from Race to the Top: Florida ($700 million, round 2), North Carolina ($400 million, round 2), and Tennessee ($500 Million, round 1). Criteria for funding for Race to the Top can be found here.
According to teacherportal.com, Alabama ranks 43rd in average teacher salary ($40,347), 25th in starting salary ($31,368), 27th in a 10 year salary increase rating (28.9%), and 13th in Salary Comfort Index (salary vs. cost of living). Alabama’s students per teacher ratio is better than average (14.9) and 33% of the education budget is spent on teacher expenditures (compare to 39% in TN and 37% in GA).