Matthew Stokes: Population and Education

Matthew Stokes: Population and Education

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Watching Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semi-final matchup between Oklahoma University and the University of Alabama was excruciating.  By the time the clock hit zero at the end of the fourth quarter, I was happy with the outcome but just glad the whole thing was over. That has been true of a lot in politics lately, as well.  As I nervously scanned Twitter during third quarter commercials, I caught a glimpse of real excitement among a field of pessimistic Alabama fans. Trisha Powell Crain, the terrific education reporter for al.com, was retweeting news from across the state as school boards touted their improved grades for the last year.  My colleague and editor Todd Stacy had a great collection of stories on this in this past weekend’s Alabama Daily News, and Trisha Powell Crain had the definitive take at al.com.

Simply put, this is all good news.  We all know the routine with Alabama public schools.  The best ones are small, wealthy municipal districts with the rest on a pendulum that swings from solid and unspectacular to downright disastrous.  I noticed that years ago, when as an undergraduate, I saw that the University of Alabama grew its enrollment with out of state students, in large measure because Alabamians couldn’t cut the mustard.  I realize there are financial issues at work there as well, but it was clear over a decade ago that the best colleges and universities in our state were maxing out on the best and brightest, and if they were to grow, that growth would have to come from beyond our borders.  The latest news from our state’s schools is a massive step in the right direction.

We should all hope this pace continues.  Improvement in education is not simply an abstract concept designed to make us all feel warm and gushy.  The state of education – public, private, and at home – has real consequences. There is nothing wrong with Bama, Auburn, and Samford filling their dorms with students from Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida (well…) because some number of those students will hang around after graduation, and it is always good to get an influx of new blood.  It is more important, though, that the best colleges and universities in our state are able to consistently draw large numbers of students from within our own borders. It is also important that we produce students of such caliber that they are able to find a place in strong schools out of state, and then bring those experiences – and perhaps a spouse and family – back with the, which helps create a more vibrant, dynamic state.  Most of us love a certain way of life in Alabama but for that way of life to survive, it has to maintain a certain vibrancy that can only come about through the addition of new citizens from other places.

That all leads to a recent piece in the Montgomery Advertiser by Brian Lyman on the possibility that Alabama might lose a Congressional seat.  Of course this would be the result of a stagnant population. Most of our neighboring states look to stay the same, with increases in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.  We all know the problem here; the loss of a seat in the House of Representatives means one less voice in defense of our state and its citizens. That would not make us irrelevant, but it would certainly mitigate the state’s influence in the House.  Regardless of your partisan affiliation or ideological commitments, no one should want this for our state. Alabama may not grow to the size of Georgia or North Carolina, but we should not stagnate or decline.

This is where educational improvements come into play.  A robust, quality public school system will do far more to attract economic, and therefore population, growth in the next few decades.  Individual families may be able to navigate circumstances by finding quality private schools or opting to home school, but families and, more importantly, companies will be swayed by knowing that the school districts and feeder patterns in any given area are producing quality students across the board.  Companies will know that the state is producing quality workers, and families can take comfort knowing their children and their children’s friends will be educated in systems that take great pride in quality outcomes for their students.

There is still room for improvement.  I was thrilled to see the plans for new charter schools in Montgomery that was announced earlier this month, and I hope the legislature continues to make room for charters as opportunities to present themselves.  We should support public-private partnerships that work alongside public schools, and I hope that legislators will continue to refine policies that create school choice and make our public systems more accountable to the parents and students they serve.  

I have said before that the government cannot do everything, and of course any good system has good parents, families, and neighbors working in support at home and in the community.  Still, we have agreed that public education is one thing our state government should do, and when it does it well, we should pause in gratitude and applaud. Today we have cause to raise a glass not only to the new year but to the current and future success of our state.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.