Matthew Stokes: Gratitude and School Choice

Matthew Stokes: Gratitude and School Choice

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Our digital age has added another rite of passage for students returning to school every fall. Parents and grandparents post countless photos of their children on social media as they prepare to hop on the bus or walk into a shiny school building. The comments are always sweet, sentimental, and filled with gratitude. Any public display of gratitude is a welcome one, especially when it concerns education. Given the overall state of education in Alabama, if you’re fortunate enough to send your children to a high quality school, a little gratitude is surely in order.

The annual lists of the best high schools in Alabama cover a lot of geographic territory, but they usually have one thing in common. The best public high schools in Alabama are typically found in small municipalities, the product of small municipal school districts. The success of these schools is often dismissed as being the product of a well-to-do area with a robust tax base. While that’s true, it misses the full picture of a school’s success. When a district is small and located within the vicinity of all the people it serves, it can be nimble and savvy in hardening the things that work and retooling the things that don’t. Large districts that cover a wide geographic area and serve tens of thousands of students can rarely be as flexible.

Residents in such districts have much for which to be grateful. I know I do; my family resides in this sort of district and our schools partner with parents in a way that is not possible in larger districts.

While it’s heartening to see the gratitude of these parents on display for all of social media to see, it is disheartening to know that too many citizens, bureaucrats, and politicians are still committed to a policies that would deny the same quality of education to many of Alabama’s poorest and neediest students. Plenty of people will champion their own municipal district in front of the entire world, while pursuing policies that keep the majority of our students in cumbersome districts operating under a model better suited to educating students in a previous generation. We should not be so fearful. There is hardly any serious policy afoot to leave our smaller districts at a disadvantage, while there are hundreds of thousands of students stuck in larger districts that are reduced to juggling multiple and varied priorities across a wide geographic map. As Alabama continues to debate the path to progress, creating more opportunities and additional choice for parents and their students has to be a top priority.

Two recent stories provide some hope for expanded educational opportunity in Alabama. Leaders of i3 Academy broke ground on a new charter school in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood on August 20. The school is set to be the largest charter in the state when it opens in 2020. More interesting is the fact that i3’s board is headed by former state school superintendent Tommy Bice. In a comprehensive story on al.com, both Bice and board member Shun Boler were clear about the need to create a school that could be responsive to the needs of students and their parents.Their comments suggest that bureaucracy makes it very difficult for a large district to be responsive to the needs of those the institution is intended to serve. I might suggest that over time, large districts become institutionally incapable of the change necessary to fulfill their mission. Bice and his colleagues understand as much, and charters like i3 Academy are positioned to succeed where other schools have failed.

In addition to the arrival of i3 Academy, the United States Department of Education handed down a massive $25 million grant to New Schools for Alabama, a non-profit organization committed to the development of charter schools in Alabama. The organization is committed to expanding the number of charter schools in the state. Charters often face the accusation that they drain money existing public schools. That’s not true in any case, but support like this gives potential charters a firm foundation before appealing either to the state of Alabama’s Department of Education or to private philanthropy.

In both cases, these charters are actively seeking to serve the needs of students otherwise destined to spend thirteen years from kindergarten to twelfth grade stuck in schools that have long since gone off the rails. These schools pose no threat to Alabama’s best schools, and I’ll say again that there is a lot to learn from the success of small municipal districts. Charter schools are only a threat to those schools that are failing at their mission. Our best districts often produce a lot of human capital that goes on to positions of influence, from Fairhope to Guntersville. It would be a shame if those who have been given tremendous opportunity for themselves, their children, and their communities would deny a similar opportunity to those in dire need. 

Occasionally there are rumblings about ending small municipal districts and collapsing them into a larger unified district in order to achieve a certain level of educational parity. This is a terrible idea, not only because it would trample on the hard work of smaller municipalities, but because smaller districts serve as a model for how the rest of our education system can look to improve.  

As our children return to school this fall, we should be grateful to see our schools with fresh eyes. We should be proud of what our communities create, and we should make every effort to allow those less fortunate than us the same opportunity to create schools that give their children the opportunities they deserve.

Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News.  He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal