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It's Deja Vu, All Over Again

by Holden McAllister
July 1, 2003

It sure would be useful if we could somehow test Governor Riley's tax and accountability plan before we mark our ballot in September. A problem area in the state could implement the new program and the results would lead us to the appropriate vote. Unfortunately, such a test would take several years to provide any valuable information, since a year or two simply wouldn't give his plan enough time to work. Luckily for voters, though, a plan exactly like Riley's has already been tested for more than twenty years right here is West Alabama.

Greene County is a beautiful area with some of the warmest and friendliest people you'll ever meet. It's also a very poor county laced with small towns, forest, and rural farmland. Tax revenues there are low compared to the rest of Alabama. However, things were not always that way. In the 1970s and 1980s, Greenetrack was at its peak, and dog racing pumped millions of dollars into a struggling school system. Greene County quickly became the second-highest funded system in the state, trailing only the richest district in Birmingham. Officials and politicians there, then in control of more money than they ever dreamed, quickly did what all government schools do when given new revenue. They built new schools and bought new books. They installed brand new programs and brand-new teachers. They dramatically reduced class size and used expensive new modern techniques to teach math and reading. Greene County did exactly what Bob Riley wants to do. This continued not just for a year or two, but for almost two decades.

Fast forward twenty years and we have a Republican governor who wants to install this same strategy statewide on the backs of homeowners and renters. To make an informed decision, it seems logical to review what happened during those cash-rich years in Greene County. If such a plan worked then, it should work now. Likewise, if the approach didn't work after twenty years of trying, it will probably fail again.

By any evaluation or test, results from those years in Greene County showed virtually no increase in the abilities of students. Children there were still learning at shockingly unacceptable levels. Despite being the second-highest funded system in the state for more than a decade, Greene county students still ranked very low compared to the entire state. This was completely unexpected and equally baffling to all but the keenest observers. To the astonishment of school officials, teachers unions, and newspaper editors alike, these huge inflows of cash had not remotely solved their problems.

Countless examples just like Greene County show that more money is almost never a solution. One of the worst government school systems in the country, Washington D.C., is also the most expensive. In Alabama, too, a careful examination shows that education levels zigzag all over the chart relative to dollars spent per pupil. This alone is good reason to reject this tax plan. More money almost never produces the results it's supposed to, but only expands the number of state employees that must be financed.

There's another important reason to vote against this plan. Aspiring to be like other states is no lofty goal at all, and it's offensive that our governor is seeking such mediocrity. Government education is hemorrhaging all across these United States, not just in Alabama. The nation as a whole has gone from the top of the world in education to somewhere in the middle teens among developed nations. In just two generations we have gone from teaching Greek, Latin, and calculus to barely teaching kids to read and write. Quietly and methodically, public school administrators are introducing patriotic correctness to their longtime friend, political correctness, forming a particularly dangerous combination that makes even Orwell's 1984 seem benevolent. Textbooks, particularly history books, are being sanitized, free of anything controversial or potentially offensive, and often free of truth. Some words are simply disappearing, while others are morphing into more tolerable versions. Is this is Bob Riley's version of world class?

The reason many of our schools are constantly letting us down, and the reason they're always demanding more money, is really quite obvious. It's because politicians and education bureaucrats run them, and not teachers, parents, and business people. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help your school." Does that sound reassuring?

Anyone who has studied government knows four things for certain: First, we almost never get what we are promised, and it always costs more than we were told. Second, "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys" (P.J. O'Rourke). Third, even with a staff of largely dedicated and talented people, or a school full of quality teachers, career politicians and lifetime bureaucrats will bungle the whole process and sap all motivation and confidence out of their employees. Fourth, the average teacher, prison guard, or highway employee usually knows more about what they're doing than the boss at the top of the food chain. These things are fundamental to the system, and almost everybody knows it. Ask them yourself. Expecting this sort of structure to produce the best product available is a time-tested recipe for disaster. When that product is the education of children, it's time to shop elsewhere.

One part of Riley's rhetoric is absolutely on point. We are indeed at a crossroads. Riley's road goes the way of ever increasing taxation and regulation, schools that constantly underachieve and always demand more money, and politicians that want to manage your life and your children from cradle to grave. This is the road we have been on for a long, long time. And it doesn't work! Can anyone remember a tax or program that was so effective that it no longer became necessary? The other road takes a completely different direction, reducing income taxes for everyone and eliminating all property taxes. It's the road that gets as many kids as possible out of government schools completely, introducing them to innovative, free-market schools that challenge and prepare students of every level. Be it a private school, religious school, neighborhood school, home school, technical school, or schools stressing art or science, or schools that are completely unimaginable today, it would be your choice what kind of education you wanted for your children. Bob Riley, Ed Richardson, and Paul Hubbert would have no input. No longer would mandates come from Washington and Montgomery, but they'd come from teachers, parents and neighborhoods. No longer would you have to go to the school board to beg them to do something, or not do something. When Alabama takes this road instead, we will produce some of the best schools in the world, and it will cost about a third of what it does now. Not until then, and only then, will we have the kind of education we so richly deserve.

Holden McAllister Holden McAllister writes from Tuscaloosa.
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