EXTRA: What’s Wrong With Alabama?
But we’re one of the worst states for education and poverty.
It’s not unusual to hear people talking bad about Alabama. But it’s not just people on the street. Some very prominent business people are asking the same questions as well.
Jim Rogers is a Demopolis native, who has grown into one of the top financial minds in the world.
He’s currently based out of Singapore.
Rogers comes back to Alabama from time to time, and sees a lot of problems with the state.
“Whatever our policies have been we have not been terribly successful for whatever reason. Even Georgia which is right next door has been more successful than Alabama and that always grieves me because I’m an Alabamian,” said Rogers.
And he’s not alone in worrying about the state. I went out to find every day people who share some of his concerns.
Charles Bates sees the same trouble year after year in the state house.
Lawmakers struggle to pass a general fund budget, slashing and cutting agencies across the state.
“People are about the money, mostly the money. A lot of people don’t want to share the money, everyone’s trying to hold on. Don’t nobody want to give up and do what’s really the right thing to do,” said Bates.
So how did Alabama dig itself into such a big hole?
State Senator Cam Ward says it boils down to the way we budget.
“The problem is you have two budgets and one is a non growth budget. There’s no growth taxes that go into the general fund. Even tobacco tax which funds the general fund is a declining source of revenue. So as that budget remains stagnant, the high growth taxes like sales and income have grown as the economy has grown with the education budget,” said Sen. Ward.
The budget will be a hot topic again this year, and Sen. Ward says he doesn’t expect that to ever change.
“No I really don’t. The general fund, as long as I’ve been here, continues to limp along and it will continue to limp along until we decide how are we going to better deal with the general fund,” said Ward.
Alabama consistently ranks as one of the worst state’s for education.
Different studies from sources like Education Week, WalletHub and The National Assessment of Educational Progress put the state somewhere around 47th in the nation.
Ronald Wilkes says he’s seen firsthand what that means for his kids as he’s moved between Florida and Alabama.
“My kids love it because it’s a lot less homework, a lot less required in education. Moving back to Florida we set them back having been here for a year in the Alabama education system,” said Wilkes.
Sen. Dick Brewbaker has been heavily involved in the state’s education budget since he was elected.
He says while public schools may look bad, it kind of depends on where you are in the state.
“The main reason is that we are a low funding state per student. But when you say Alabama is ranked last that’s as a state. If you look at all our 130-odd school systems, a third of those stack up favorably with public schools anywhere in the country. The problem is our bottom third is so bad, that’s what drags the state score down,” said Sen. Brewbaker.
But when I asked if the solution can be found here at the state house, he said, “No no no no, look. the solution is with those local boards. Everything we’ve passed in the legislature over the last 5 years, the idea is to take power away from Montgomery and empower local boards. Now some boards that are passive, satisfied with the status quo won’t do anything with it. But the ones that want to improve, the ones that want to do better will be able to. With the state out of their way and empower them to do what they think is best for their students.”
Some people in the state are worried that problems in our education system are some of the biggest reasons we’re seeing such a problem with our prison overcrowding.
Just last year lawmakers came up with a strategy that avoided a federal takeover.
Barbara Lee says better schools are the proactive solution.
“It makes all the difference in the world. If you’re greedy for knowledge you don’t have time for the negative side of society. It’s a problem. I think education is the key to a lot of our problems,” said Lee.
But Sen. Ward says there’s a different reason for the prisons at almost 200 percent capacity.
“No, I think at the end of the day the reason we have an overcrowded prison system is quite honestly we did a good job and I think our prosecutors and law enforcement did a good job prosecuting criminals. But we as a state just didn’t invest in building a system that could handle all the inmates that we’re putting in,” said Ward.
At the end of the day, that’s what democratic representative John Knight believes is the root of the state’s problems.
“A lack of courage on behalf of the alabama legislature and those of us that are elected to face up and own up to the problem, to exert leadership in this state and do the right thing,” said Rep. Knight.
“Really love Alabama, like I say it’s got a lot to offer as far as its beauty. If it could just come up with the times on education and income it would really be helpful,” said Wilkes.
“The facts are, we have not been as successful as some other states that are less well endowed. I can only attribute that to our politicians,” said Rogers.
Like they all said, everyone still has a big heart for this state. They just want to see us rise to our full potential.