Alabama schools are far from having a good reputation. While the South has been stereotyped as uneducated for generations, the teachers and students of Alabama in particular have been permanent fixtures in the narrative of Bible belt poverty. A recent study by WalletHub piles more evidence against Alabama, ranking the state’s school system as third worst in the country.
WalletHub is a leading personal finance network that aims to provide up-to-date information to consumers and small businesses.
The study, conducted by Richie Bernardo, aims to measure a student’s chance at academic success in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, using metrics like test scores, dropout rates and library access as well as indicators like bullying rates and financial literacy. Only Mississippi and D.C. schools ranked lower than Alabama overall.
“Quality isn’t just determined by test scores,” Bernardo said. “We have to consider safety of the students. Are they learning in a stable environment?”
Test scores were the weakest area: Alabama ranked 49th in math scores and 40th in reading.
Alabama also ranked 34th in teacher-to-pupil ratio, showing large class sizes that put each student at a disadvantage. State House Representative Marcel Black, the ranking minority member on the education policy committee, noted this imbalance as one of the most important points to address.
“It’s a difficult task to be on your toes in a room full of 30 kids,” Black said. “Any time I’ve been in a classroom I’ve noticed that. I don’t think anyone could refute that we need more teachers.”
Alabama Department of Education’s Director of Communications, Michael Sibley, said Alabama schools certainly have a long way to go to be up to par, but these scores don’t reflect the improvements that are already gaining momentum.
“The graduation rate in Alabama is the highest it’s been in history,” Sibley said. “We’ve seen a great increase in just the past few years. There’s a great upward trajectory to the students we’re keeping in school.”
Last year’s rate was 5 points lower at 75 percent, and the year before that it was 72 percent. While Alabama ranks 37th among all states, the graduation rate is climbing faster than any other state’s.
Few metrics showed Alabama ahead of the curve, but the state has fewer incidents of bullying with an overall rank of 12 and a rank of 7 for cyberbullying.

Learning on a Budget
While there are many factors that determine a school’s success, a lack of funding in rich and poor areas alike is the most prominent issue to be tackled in the Alabama legislature.
Black pointed to the Alabama Accountability Act as the kind of legislation that does more harm than good. The 2013 law gave tax credits to families with students in failing schools to attend a private school or a public school with better performance.
“That legislation drained a lot from the education trust fund,” Black said. “We have made some steps backward in trying to improve our schools.”
The Alabama House Republicans website addresses this popular criticism:
“Taxpayers deserve to spend their tax dollars in a place that best serves their student. If that student isn’t being well-served in the school they are zoned for, parents deserve to send their child to a school that addresses their child’s educational needs as they see fit.”
Black also condemned the Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act, known as the Rolling Reserve Act, which bases the education budget on past revenue trends. The bill was passed in 2011 with objections from Democrats, only for the spending cap to be exceeded in the budget passed in February of this year.
“You can’t adopt a rolling reserve when you’re at the bottom or the top [of the economy],” Black said. “You have to set these rules when the economy is stable. When the economy is bad, schools are hit.”
Black explained that while Alabama property taxes are relatively stable, sales and income taxes generate less revenue in a bad economy, and schools receive less funding.
While Bernardo agreed that school resources are important, he said the WalletHub study showed no correlation between spending per pupil and overall ranking.
“It’s smart spending that counts,” Bernardo said. “Each state needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”
D.C. schools, for example, receive a relatively huge amount of funding, yet experience extremely high rates of violent crime. Students in Texas receive even less funding than their Alabama peers, yet Texas is ranked 12th by Bernardo’s findings, higher than Connecticut and Maryland.
Sibley said schools are barely able to operate on the funding they currently have.
“What teachers are asking for isn’t the extra stuff,” Sibley said. “Not the fluff and fat, but the bare essentials. And we’re still seeing significant cuts.”
Although resources are low, six Alabama schools were named Torchbearer schools in 2014 for displaying high-performance education to a high-poverty student body. These schools, four in Mobile County and one each in Monroe and Talladega Counties, have at least an 80 percent poverty rate and came out among the top 20 percent in statewide tests. 20 schools made the list in the previous school year.
“These schools are made by people who work tirelessly with some exceptional students,” Sibley said. “We know it’s doable. There’s a staggering number of kids who start out doomed to fail. We see them as inherently inferior … as if their circumstances are any indication of potential.”

Math Problems
The most severe figure for Alabama in the WalletHub study is the state’s math scores: Alabama ranks 49th, only surpassing Mississippi and the District of Columbia. After years of underperforming on the National Assessment for Education Progress, or NAEP, Alabama did away with the statewide test that had been proved inadequate.
“One of the things we have realized was that our assessments were not on par with the rest of the country,” Sibley said. “What we considered proficient—the exact same level was below basic for national standards. It was below, below basic.”
Alabama students are often met with rude awakenings in college math courses, Sibley said. Being taught less advanced math through their whole lives left them falling behind students from around the country.
“You could graduate high school, step outside state lines and take remedial classes your first year of college,” Sibley said. “They were doing everything we asked them to do, and it wasn’t enough.”
Sibley explained that if he asks his daughter to wash the dishes, he will find the dishes clean—but the laundry will still be dirty and the floor still won’t be mopped.
“I didn’t ask her to do that.” “We have to ask for more if we want them to achieve more. We were holding our students back by expecting them to do poorly.”
The previous motto of the Alabama State Board of Education was “Every Child a Graduate” but with the new Plan 2020, led by state superintendent Tommy Bice, it reads “Every Child a Graduate— Every Graduate Prepared.”
“We know college is not for everyone,” Sibley said. “We want them to have a choice.”

Getting Ahead of the Curve
For an issue as complex as education, the answers won’t be found in the back of the book. Sibley noted ambition, creativity and communication as key factors for immediate results and long-term solutions.
“Why do we have graduation once a year?” Sibley said. “We have schools who have three ceremonies a year, each as big as the last. Why are classes only available at the same times for everyone? There’s no law or code that says school is in session Monday through Friday, 7 to 3:30.”
On the Future of Public Education tour, superintendent Bice showed a crowd a picture of 10 or 11 students at their high school graduation, all of whom had come to him a few years prior and said “I want to drop out.”
Sibley said communicating with a student one-on-one is the best way to keep them on track to graduate.
“The assumption is that if a student wants to drop out, they must not academically cut the mustard,” Sibley said. “That’s not always the case. A lot of problems are fixable.”
Sibley described schools that open storefronts to offer night classes, usually geared at students who have to work or take care of a child during the day, and drop-in academies for students close to earning their diploma.
“We also want every student entering 9th grade with a four-year plan,” Sibley said. “If they identify their skills and their passion, they’re less likely to drop out and they’re more likely to take classes that prepare them for the next step.”
On another stop of the education tour, Bice recommended giving students the end-of-the-year test during the first week of school. Finding out what the class can already do and finding the students who are already ahead of the curve can save valuable time and energy.
“The most underserved group may be gifted students, who might already be proficient in a subject.” Sibley said. “Let them grow.”
Sibley said success comes down to the freedom to customize a school system to the students it serves.
“Of course lack of funding puts everyone in a box,” Sibley said. “In resources, we’re limited. In creativity, we’re not.”
Representative Black said more power needs to be put in the hands of teachers, who know how run a classroom better than anyone else.
“They’re overburdened by tests,” Black said. “They need some freedom to teach the subject. You need some guidelines, sure, and some oversight, but the goal is for the students to grasp what they’re learning. I would like to see us getting more input from teachers at the ground-level.”
When a system is in bad shape, we need a little extra faith that the teachers know what they’re doing to put it on the right track, Sibley said.
“Education reform is like turning a cruise liner, not a speed boat,” Sibley said. “We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do for these students.”
The full WalletHub report and results are available on

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