Ken Hare In Depth: Alabama's legislators among better educated

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The members of Alabama's Legislature tend to be more educated than their counterparts in other states, and a comparatively high percentage of them graduated from a public university within their home state.

I'll leave it up to Alabama residents to decide if that higher education makes their legislators  better-than-average lawmakers. But it almost certainly helps to create a more sympathetic audience in the Legislature for public higher education interests.

"There is no doubt that you have some benefit to the fact you have legislators who have a loyalty to public universities," said Gordon Stone, executive director of the Alabama Higher Education Partnership, an advocacy group for the state's public four-year universities.

A report by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that about 35 percent of Alabama's legislators have a bachelor's degree, and 47 percent have a college education beyond a bachelor's degree.

While the Chronicle report did not break out how many lawmakers had two-year college degrees, it did indicate that 9 percent of Alabama legislators report that they had "some college."  That leaves just 3 percent who report "no college."

That compares to an average in all states of 34 percent of legislators with a bachelor's degree and 41 percent with beyond a bachelor's. The percentage of Alabama legislators with a college education also far surpasses the average of all Alabamians, which is 14 percent with a bachelor's degree and 8 percent beyond a bachelor's degree, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle report shows that 65 percent of Alabama legislators who attended college attended one within their home state, compared to an average of 55 percent nationally. In addition, of those legislators who attended college, 24 percent in Alabama attended a home-state college as well as one out of state, compared to an average of 20 percent in all states.

Of Alabama's 140 legislators, 130 attended a public college, according to the report. Again, that is a higher percentage than in the average of all state legislatures.

According to the report, 32 legislators attended the University of Alabama, 24 attended Auburn University, 11 attended Alabama State University, 10 attended the University of Alabama Birmingham, and eight attended Troy University. Seven legislators attended South Alabama and seven attended Jacksonville State, according to the Chronicle.

Nationally, 17.2 percent of state legislators hold a law degree. In Alabama, 19.4 percent do so.

So which state has the best educated Legislature? It depends on how you define best educated. California has 90 percent of lawmakers with at least a bachelor's degree — the highest percentage in the nation.  But Virginia has the highest percentage with both bachelor's and advanced degrees (58 percent).

All those statistics brings up an issue almost as old as the U.S. democratic experiment: Is it better for a legislative body to mirror the makeup of the electorate it represents, or is it better for it to be better educated than that electorate?

In an article accompanying its survey, the Chronicle pointed out that founding father James Madison argued that governmental decisions are best mediated by a body of citizens "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country."  But in 1776, founder  John Adams wrote that the representative assembly "should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them."

But in the real world, does having a large number of graduates in the Legislature from public colleges and universities help them to lobby for funding?

Stone said that in Alabama, a much bigger factor compared to other states is that "our revenue streams have been so constrained."

"Even though our legislators have an appreciation and have an awareness of what we do,  they are placed in some extremely difficult dilemmas in trying to determine where to prioritize the dollars," Stone said. "We do find, however, that there is a willingness to listen, there is an open door for our positions to be heard from the majority of the members of the Alabama Legislature, and we appreciate that."

As state revenues have faltered in recent years, the fact that a large number of  legislators are alumni of state public colleges certainly hasn't stopped the Alabama Legislature from cutting or reducing the rate of growth in higher education funding.

But historically, per capita state funding for higher education in Alabama usually ranks among the top third of states, while per capita funding for public schools is usually near the bottom among the states. So it could be argued that despite the funding woes of recent years, Alabama still funds its overall public higher education system better than many other public services.

So perhaps having all those graduates of Alabama public colleges in the Legislature is helping after all.

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