A Real Conversation About Education

Last week, I spent Thursday night at a Teacher Town Hall hosted by StudentsFirst and the Alabama Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Before the event began, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) was out in force protesting the event. I spoke to several of the protesters who said they opposed StudentsFirst's stance on charter schools. When I suggested that they come inside and be part of the conversation, they informed me that they knew "what they were going to say in there." AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry's remarks about Michelle Rhee, the Founder of StudentsFirst, gave the distinct impression that Rhee has the same effect on public education that Godzilla has on Japanese cities.

No sooner had members of the AEA gathered than a smattering of Tea Party activists also appeared to protest the event, presumably because of StudentsFirst's support of Common Core education standards.

What happened outside the town hall is what we have grown to expect in Alabama. Pick your team, pick your side, and fire away at the other. If the discussion about ideas is too complicated, simply go with character assassination accompanied by a side of fear.

Why bother discussing the merits of solutions that have clearly been identified with the "enemy?"

What happened inside the town hall was nothing short of impressive. The panel of Rhee, Dr. Steve Perry, founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, and George Parker, former Washington, D.C. Teachers Union president engaged in a constructive dialogue and fielded questions from the audience of around 150 attendees.

Even more notable were the few AEA and Tea Party members who chose to be in the same room asking tough questions, engaging the dialogue and maybe even hearing workable ideas for the first time. They clearly did not agree with the panelists on several items, but their disagreement was civil and beneficial to the conversation.

As I watched and listened, I noticed in particular how much all the teachers in the room truly cared about their students. It did not matter that they were out front wearing their AEA t-shirts proudly; they were willing to listen to ANY idea that might help their students succeed. In a room with a diverse audience, a common ground was clear: Education reforms in Alabama must focus on providing opportunities for children.

Civil conversations are no silver bullet for improving public education in Alabama, but learning to appreciate and consider different perspectives is a great place to start.

Cameron Smith is Policy Director and General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.