What Alabama Teaches Us about the Complexity of State Control of Education

A colleague recently remarked to me that federally funded education reform had created a “pressure cooker” environment for teachers and schools. (Agreed.)  He added that if we want to see real reform, we have to give teachers and school leaders room, funding, and support to innovate. (Agreed.)  And, he added, despite all the unknowns with the forthcoming presidential administration, if control is handed back to states that would necessarily be a good thing.  (Oh, so close.)

I understand why some feel the federal government’s wave of policies over the last two presidencies has not radically improved education as promised.  There are many facets to that, which I won’t discuss here.  What I do want to underscore two things:

  1. Education is NOT in our federal Constitution.  Since it is not prohibited either, it is a state issue.
  2. States do not have great track records of providing equitable and quality education in public schools.

It’s the second point there that merits a deep pause.  Consider Alabama.  Here’s how the State of Alabama–right now–articulates education in its constitution (Article XIV, Section 256):

Duty of legislature to establish and maintain public school system; apportionment of public school fund; separate schools for white and colored children.

The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof between the ages of seven and twenty-one years. The public school fund shall be apportioned to the several counties in proportion to the number of school children of school age therein, and shall be so apportioned to the schools in the districts or townships in the counties as to provide, as nearly as practicable, school terms of equal duration in such school districts or townships. Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.

Reread that last sentence.  That is what is on the books today.  Surprisingly, in 2012 the Alabama Education Association (AEA) rejected an amendment that would have removed the offending sentence.  They argued that while they want the language removed, the proposed amendment would remove it but not replace it with anything else, thereby putting public education itself in jeopardy in the state.

Alabama might not be the jurisprudential norm but it is a very real case in point, a cautionary example of why empowering states to oversee education is not as simply good as it seems.

[Image from NYPL Digital Commons]