2/28/01

Roy Summerford

OPINION: EDUCATION NEEDS SOLOMON'S WISDOM, NOT HIS METHODS

By RICHARD C. KUNKEL and PAMELA BOYD

It has been said, amid the current education funding crisis in Alabama, that these are times which demand the wisdom of Solomon. Unfortunately, some of our state's political, judicial and education leaders appear to be following the biblical king's example in regard to Alabama's young people without exhibiting a trace of his wisdom. Too many people seem willing, almost eager, to cut the state's education system in two, even if it means the death of both parts.

Education in Alabama is in its darkest period in memory for most of us who have committed our lives and careers to this field. Most teachers enter the profession not in pursuit of wealth but out of the profound belief that teaching is one of the most noble professions an individual can pursue. Those of us who are involved with the teaching of teachers have a deep attachment to the children of our state and to the dedicated teachers in the classrooms across Alabama. For this reason, it pains us to see the current shortsighted efforts of some in Montgomery to pit Alabama's educators in K-12 against those in higher education.

Proration, which is at the center of the current crisis, is too sanitary a term for a process that guts our schools and colleges. The future of our state's young people is endangered by cuts that could devastate every part of education they touch. As we write this, the Alabama Legislature is trying to find a way out of a funding dilemma in education that was caused by neither teachers nor college faculty nor our students at any level. By the time you read this, the Legislature, the governor or the courts may have found a solution to the immediate crisis, but we suspect that the problem will be with our state for quite some time The young people whose futures are at stake are the innocent victims of a funding system over which they have no control. The same can be said for our college students preparing to become teachers.

Most troubling about the current debate is the attempt to pit one part of education against another in order to gain short-term benefit for one sector over the other. However, one sector cannot succeed without the other. As dean and a faculty member in Alabama's largest and most comprehensive college of education, we urge our colleagues in K-12 and higher education to stand up for, not against, one another. And, we urge the people of Alabama to join the teachers and faculty in taking a stand for education.

Those of us in colleges of education take these matters personally because we live in both worlds. Schools and colleges of education work in partnership with elementary and secondary schools across Alabama to enhance the quality of instruction students receive in those schools and the quality of teachers our universities are graduating. Faculty from Auburn, especially, are deeply involved with schools as a partner in development of teachers and their students. At any given time during the school year, we have faculty out in the schools, working with teachers and administrators to improve the quality of education available to the children at those schools. In addition to looking to us for new teachers, the schools depend on us for new knowledge, research-based instruction and continuing staff development. We, in turn, gain from the active participation of elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators in our teacher training efforts, both on-campus and on-site in the schools. This close-knit partnership is endangered as never before by the current attempts to pit one sector of education against another.

Students also play an important role in these partnerships. College students gain real- world experience in the schools as interns working with some of the most skilled teachers in those schools. Participating schools, for their part, cut the teacher-pupil ratio in half for classrooms through use of student interns, and the real winners are the pupils in those classrooms.

Faculty in our college took a leadership role in 1994 across Alabama in 23 town meetings sponsored by A+ to support Judge Reese's ruling for more equitable funding for the poorest Alabama schools. We feel betrayed to have those findings used by another judge seven years later as an excuse to axe funds for higher education. We are thankful that the Alabama Supreme Court is taking another look at the current ruling, and we hope that it will view matters from a broader perspective than that used by the circuit court.

Programs such as the Alabama Reading Initiative could not survive without the full partnership of K-12 schools and colleges of education. Faculty from Auburn's College of Education spend hundreds of hours a year in public schools working with the faculty of those schools in raising the reading level of their students. Through other programs, such as the West Alabama Learning Coalition, faculty and students from Auburn are heavily involved with their colleagues at K-12 schools in the state's most economically depressed region. We see the benefits of these partnerships on a regular basis as students who might have been high school dropouts without these partnerships finish school and become productive citizens. The involvement of college faculty and students in these schools is also inspiring more young people to continue their education and return to help others. By working together, faculty from K-12 and colleges of education are touching the lives of many people who are struggling to overcome adverse conditions.

Alabama is fortunate to have such dedicated college faculty and such equally dedicated K-12 teachers and administrators working together to help children in these schools overcome the burdens imposed by woefully inadequate resources. Even schools and their students in areas that have better economic prospects gain from the unity of K-12 and higher education. The last thing this state needs to do is drive these two sets of dedicated educators apart. Before we employ the methods of Solomon, let's first employ some of his wisdom.

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(Richard C. Kunkel is Wayne T. Smith Distinguished Professor and Dean, and Pamela Boyd is an Associate Professor, Curriculum and Teaching, in the College of Education at Auburn University.)

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