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School investment paying off

By Staff
Johnny Mack Morrow
Our public schools are an investment in the future. The more we can improve schools, the better investment we make in our children, and the better our state will be for years to come.
Over the past three years, we have been able to invest more money into schools. As the Alabama economy grew and unemployment across the state remained relatively low, revenue for education increased dramatically. All state income and sales taxes are earmarked for the Alabama Education Trust Fund; 100 percent of these taxes go to schools. When the economy does well, more money is available for schools.
As with any investment, it is good to take stock and see how we are doing. As it turns out, we are seeing some impressive returns.
This year Alabama was first in the nation for improvement in elementary reading scores. Our fourth graders made larger gains in their test scores for reading than any other state. While it is a tremendous accomplishment to see improvement in test scores from year to year, to have the largest gain in the nation is something we should rightfully be proud of.
The dedicated hard work of thousands of teachers and students is the reason for this achievement. Something else is working too–a home grown effort that helps teachers and schools focus on early literacy for all children: the Alabama Reading Initiative.
The Alabama Reading Initiative is not a program or a course, but a powerful teacher-training system. Entire schools, including every teacher and administrator, are trained in ways to teach reading so that all students can be successful, especially struggling readers that challenge teachers the most. The school focuses on reading like never before, and that team spirit really has an impact on getting all kids to read.
It may sound simple, because we know that reading is job-one for an elementary school teacher. But it is often anything but simple, especially when many children come to school lacking some of the important skills they need for reading, and the difficulty in catching kids up when they are behind.
The Reading Initiative renews a commitment from the entire school to focus on reading, and provides effective and proven methods to improve reading skills and keep kids excited about books. No small feat in this day and age.
The Reading Initiative took almost a decade to develop and fully implement statewide. Again, it was a home grown effort, with the State Department of Education finding the research on the best methods to teach reading, and developing a plan to train teachers so that they could transform their schools.
Every year with knowledge gained from experience, and incremental increases in funding, the program improved and expanded. A couple of years ago, we knew how good ARI was, but there simply was not enough money or personnel to bring it to all schools. Only last year were we able to fully fund the Reading Initiative and get it to every school.
Now we are expanding this same approach to math and science. The Alabama Math and Science Initiative is in the process of being implemented in schools across the state, serving math and science teachers in grades K-12. AMSTI is now at more than 300 schools, but there are hundreds more that want to participate. AMSTI funding has been increased, but it still will be a few more years until it is fully implemented.
Even in relatively flush times like the last couple of years, Alabama still is near the bottom on what we spend per child in our schools. There will never be enough funding to fill every need immediately.
All we can do is to try and make steady progress with what we have, conserve every dollar, make sure it is used effectively, and look for long term plans that move us in the right direction. Our reading scores show we made some good choices.
The economic forecasts for the upcoming year predict slower growth for next year, which means slower growth for the Education Trust Fund. If that is the case, it will make it a little more difficult to expand the Math and Science Initiative as fast as we would like, as well as other efforts that improve our schools and help our children.
However, when you find an investment that pays such great dividends, you find the money to put in it. Our children are certainly worth the investment.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County.