Education Reform in the Deep South, part one

I think that it’s fair to say that most people in the Deep South want good schools for our kids. Certainly, there are apathetic people down here who couldn’t care less, but I work from the assumption that they are greatly outnumbered. Even though lower national education rankings among Deep Southern states would incline outsiders to believe that we don’t care, we do want our children to have the best start in life, and that includes safe schools that are adequately resourced and led, and staffed with good teachers and other caring professionals. It’s only common sense to say that even supposed opponents of public education, aren’t actually against good public education— they’re just against paying for it.

I just finished reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, while I have also been reading James C. Cobb’s The Selling of the South. The content of both books inclined me to look up a few facts and write a few words, because I want to see how how the ideas in them jive with the current realities.

The first questions is: in comparison to other states, how do the schools in the Deep South really do?

Working first off of US News & World Report‘s rankings of high schools for 2013, we find Georgia leading the region at 20th place nationally, South Carolina next at 29th, Alabama in 42nd place, Louisiana at 46th, and Mississippi at 48th; so the results are all over the place. Only one Deep Southern state cracked the top 20 – just barely – and three of the five states are in the bottom 20%.

Another way to look at it is through Education Week‘s State Report Cards for 2013, and here’s how the Deep Southern states measured up. The national average grade was a 76.9 C. Georgia did very well with an above-average 81 B, coming in 7th from the top. Louisiana was in 15th place (also above the national average) with a 79.0, and South Carolina’s grade sits right at the national average. Alabama was just a few notches below with a 76.0, and Mississippi was near the bottom again, fourth to the last, with a 71.0. Again, the Deep Southern states are scattered throughout the list, from near the top to near the bottom.

A National Education Association report from 2012 (with “estimates” for 2013) gives a more complex look at the money we put into our schools. In 2010-2011, no Deep Southern states paid teachers above the national average salary, and only Georgia was close. The national average salary was wedged between 16th and 17th on the rankings; Georgia was ranked 22nd, Louisiana 28th, Alabama 31st, South Carolina 38th, and Mississippi 50th (from chart C-9 on page 18). The area of school expenditures doesn’t look so good either: in 2010-2011 (from chart H-9 on page 54) the national average sat between 20th and 21st, and Deep Southern states are all below that mark. Louisiana is the regional highest at 22nd, then it plummets . . . Georgia 37th, Alabama 41st, South Carolina 43rd, Mississippi 44th. Honestly, I almost hate to use these numbers from 2010-2011, because that school year was  at the heart of the recession-era funding troubles; the bottom had fallen out in early 2009, and the two subsequent schools years were when schools got hit the hardest.

Finally, according to the Federal Education Budget Project of the New America Foundation, which also used data that is a few years old, the whole South, as a region, has the lowest per-pupil expenditures. Looking closer, a graph on that web page shows the information by state using 2010 data, out of 52 states and territories, Mississippi is 48th, Alabama is 43rd, Georgia is 39th, South Carolina is 28th, and Louisiana is as high as it gets for the region at 22nd. Again, that’s 2010 data from the peak of the funding crises.

I could list sets of rankings ad nauseum, but what those four major sets of data say to me is: we aren’t, as many people claim, “always dead last.” (Mississippi does come pretty close.) However, our issues are more complex than failing schools, ineffective content standards or bad teachers, the areas where critics want to “reform.” We have some systemic issues to solve down here, and – as Diane Ravitch writes in Reign of Error – much of it is tied directly to issues of poverty, which include the lack of neonatal care that can result in development-related learning disabilities in their children. (That fact could be remedied by Medicaid reform better than by school reform.) Sadly, so much poverty in the Deep South is also linked to racial segregation, which Ravitch also writes about.

Conservative pundits and politicians remind us constantly that spending money we don’t have is a bad idea. Plain and simple: in the Deep South, we poorer than other parts of the US, with per capita incomes that are 80%-90% of national averages, which at least partially explains why our teacher salaries are lower. We also have remarkably low tax rates. Cobb’s The Selling of the South explains in vivid detail how, since the mid-1930s, Southern leaders have recruited businesses to locate down here with a mixture of low taxes and non-union workers who will accept low wages. These policies have certainly created jobs and alleviated the kinds of dire poverty we see in Walker Evans’ Depression-era photographs or that we read about in Erskine Caldwell’s novels, but this method has also left us with a cyclical class of working poor that can be hidden by seemingly strong job creation numbers. That’s a problem affecting schools that has to be “reformed” in chambers of commerce and governors’ offices.

To put the tax rates in perspective, a study by the Tax Foundation shows the Deep Southern propensity for keeping its rates low. Using 2009 data, Louisiana showed the lowest rates, with Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina nearby. Only Georgia escaped a dubious lowest-10 distinction, but its rates were still in the lower half nationally. I’ve also seen reports showing Alabama as having the lowest property tax rates in the nation. It all depends on which factors and rates the studies use to calculate their results, just like the education rankings above.

The lower corporate tax rates and “incentives” given to outside industrialists naturally reduce government funding, and lower income tax rates on low-wage paychecks also mean smaller collections. Consequently, this economic growth strategy may create jobs and reduce joblessness, but it also negatively affects the state government’s ability to draw revenue to fund programs like schools. Like the conservatives say, you can’t spend money you don’t have.

Down here, we’re arguing over the effects of Common Core standards, teachers unions, “accountability” measures and testing procedures . . . but what we also need to be arguing about within the school reform discussusion are: economic development strategies, tax rates, and Medicaid expansion, because they are all affecting schools, teachers and students. Throwing money blindly at problems is never wise, but money is one of our main problems in the Deep South. Which begs the following questions: Why are we spending millions of dollars on testing when schools don’t have basic resources? How can you teach children to use technology if the schools don’t have it and the parents can’t afford it? How can children with learning disabilities get the help they need without the individual attention of trained professionals?  These issues can all be addressed, wisely, with money. And to use the lingo one famous reformer, addressing those issues puts “students first.” We’re never going to have the money to fix schools until we stop giving tax breaks to business to come down here and pay people low wages in the ways that Cobb describes.

The Deep South operates in a paradox of the conservative desire for low taxes coupled with a need to fund improvements. We want the government to stay out of our lives, but we can’t afford to have it that way. Well, the money has got to come from somewhere . . . Think what you want about President Obama’s Race to the Top program, two systems from the Deep South were named in December 2013 among the five winners, one from South Carolina and one from Mississippi. (All five winners were from the larger South.) Politics aside, that money is going to go to helping kids.

From what I understand about education and Southern culture: since the 1983 report A Nation At Risk declared that America’s schools are failing, calls for reform have been raised by a wide variety of groups. Those calls got louder with No Child Left Behind, because radical changes had to be made to meet NCLB’s widely unreasonable expectations, namely that 100% proficiency should be attainable. The poorer states in the Deep South had to try to meet NCLB’s mandates because we desperately needed the federal dollars. Now, here we are in 2014, post-NCLB, only partially recovered from a devastating recession, clinging to NCLB-style education ideas and early 20th-century economic ideas— all completely outdated. Our leaders are still employing an economic development strategy that was created in 1936, some of our tax structures were created well before that, and the requirements of NCLB have been waived . . .

The idea of reforming schools is all well and good, but we need to reform the actual problems facing the Deep South, instead of insisting that eliminating tenure, increasing testing or altering the course standards alone will resolve the deficiencies.

[Now, you ought to read “Part two.” ]

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