Ken Hare In Depth: Question fast improvements in graduation rates

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - By far the most fascinating story of recent weeks hasinvolved the ongoing attempt by the governor to get to the bottom ofallegations originally raised by the former president of Alabama StateUniversity, and the reaction of those ASU leaders placed under scrutiny bythose allegations and a follow-up forensic audit of the university.

But there have been other issues that deserve attentionsince this story broke, so I'd like to touch on some of those in a column thataddresses a little of this and that.


Before the subject got pushed aside by the release of thepreliminary forensic audit of ASU, I was working on a column about theappearance of former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia before a recent conferenceof the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Since leaving public office, Wise has championededucation improvements nationally, currently serving as executive director ofthe national Alliance for Excellent Education. He is a fan of many of theeducation reforms adopted in Alabama under former Gov. Bob Riley, especiallythe Alabama Reading Initiative. He still praises that initiative, althoughurging that the state expand it to all grades, and he praises the state'srecent adoption -- along with most other states --of tougher curriculumstandards.

But perhaps the most telling points made by Wise in hispresentation came when he pointed out the dramatic effects on the state'seconomy if Alabama could raise its graduation rate to 90 percent from thecurrent rate of about 75 percent.

According to Wise, the 13,000 additional graduates thatwould result from increasing the rate would:

-- Add $139 million in gross earnings to the state'seconomy.

-- Create 1,150 new jobs.

-- Boost home sales by $241 million and auto sales by $15million.

-- Generate $8.9 million in increased tax revenue.

I strongly believe that increasing the state's graduationrate could be the single most important education change that the state couldmake. But that belief comes with two important caveats.

The first is that any meaningful improvement in thestate's graduation rate must be built on a solid foundation of improvedacademic performance. And that must start in the early years of publiceducation -- at least somewhere in the first three years of school, and formany children, even in pre-kindergarten.

Sure, it's possible to rescue a few students late intheir academic careers -- in middle school and even a few in high school. Butthat's only for the handful of students who are already very close to meetingminimum academic standards and who can be helped across the line throughprograms such as the state's credit recovery process and through tutoring, etc.But most students who do not graduate are too far behind by the time they reachhigh school to catch up in a few weeks or even months.

Which brings me to the second caveat: The public shouldlook askance at any quick and dramatic improvement in graduation rates, eitherat a particular high school or at the local school system level.

The grade-changing scandal in Montgomery County involvedat least to some degree the state's credit recovery program, and a recentinvestigation into Selma City Schools raised similar questions.

Any quick and major turnaround in graduation rates thatcannot be traced to improved academic performance in earlier grades should bequestioned.


Now that President Obama's Affordable Care Act haswithstood a challenge from conservatives in Congress, it's time for the state'spolitical leaders to acknowledge the clear wisdom of taking advantage ofavailable federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to the families of theworking poor in Alabama.

Another recent study makes it clear that using federaldollars to expand Medicaid would be the single biggest boost that the statecould have to its economy.

The study by the University of Alabama's Center forBusiness and Economic Research said expanding the state's Medicaid programwould create 30,700 new jobs over the next six years.

That's enough newjobs to have the state bounce back completely from the economic downturn of thepast several years.

For the firstthree years, virtually all of that expansion would be covered by federaldollars. After that, 90 percent would be paid for by the federal government.

Of course, therealready were plenty of studies that show the economic benefits ofexpansion.  But philosophic and politicaldifferences with Obamacare have kept many politicians from endorsing it.

But Alabama notexpanding Medicaid won't stop Obamacare. And Alabamians will be seeing theirtaxes used  to expand Medicaid in otherstates even if Alabama doesn't expand. The only difference is that the otherstates will be seeing improvements in their economies and greater access tohealth care for their citizens while Alabama continues to stand still.


As I noted in anearlier column, former Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent BarbaraThompson did not create the problems that plague the county's public schools;most existed prior to her coming and they won't go away just because she's gone.

But thoseMontgomerians who remember the public acrimony and heated accusations thatsurrounded the firing of Carlinda Purcell as superintendent several years agocan appreciate that Thompson bowed out with class.

Sure, some ofThompson's supporters were emotional and heated following the decision to pushher out. But Thompson herself left with her dignity intact. And that's no smallaccomplishment.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorialwriter and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's website. Email him at

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