A call to reform
Time to retire that ol' rickety wagon and let students fly

By Don Siegleman
State of Alabama

   It is my pleasure to be here, but Governor Brewer, it's also my responsibility to be here. When I was elected governor, I promised that Alabama would become the Education State, and that is a promise I will keep.

   As a parent, I know what every Alabama parent knows: Our education system is being held back by a system of government that is just not up to the job. We must change the way we do business in Montgomery and reform the constitution that has held our schools back for more than 100 years.

   For more than 100 years we have tried to fix a wagon that wasn't sturdy enough to carry its load when it was first put together - a wagon which has hindered progress in education. We must change the way government works for the sake of our children's education. If not, then Alabama's wagon will continue to get stuck in the same old ruts. Our children's education is riding on that wagon. We can't let it get bogged down anymore.

   You and I know that in the last two years, we have changed education for the better, but we must do more. Let me give you just a few examples of the progress we've made. We've provided our children with new schools and new class rooms.

   We are raising teacher salaries to the national average.

   We are holding public schools, teachers and principals accountable for their successes and their failures. Alabama is now ranked in the top five states in the nation for academic standards and accountability.

   We provide the national benchmark for reading success as other states now copy the Alabama Reading Initiative.

   Dropout rates are at an all-time low, and test scores are at an all-time high.

   Alabama colleges and universities continue to shape the lives of countless leaders and heroes for our nation.

   Are we making progress in education? Yes, but from the recent economic downturn we see once again that when our wagon hits a bump, the wheels come off. For the 14th time since 1949, an economic downturn is forcing cuts in education - cuts that jeopardize all the progress that we have made. The last few months have made it clear that our constitution is preventing the kind of real change we need in education.

   Last year, I attended a meet ing of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. I challenged them to show me that there was a growing interest for constitutional reform and to demonstrate a strong grass-roots effort.

   Well, today, the message is loud and clear.

   Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to retire the wagon and put the mules out to pasture. It's time to bring Alabama's government and our public schools into the 21st century.

   Our objective is at the far end of the battlefield. The battle will not be easy, but it must be won for the sake of our children's education and the future of our state.

Not easy

   Keep in mind the words of Dwight Eisenhower, who said, "Politics, like war, is too important to be left to the professionals." Every citizen must be a soldier if we're going to win this fight.

   If it were easy, then Gov. Emmet O'Neal would've done it in 1915.

   If it were easy, then Gov. Kilby would've done it in 1923.

   If it were easy, then Gov. Miller would've done it in 1931.

   If it were easy, then Big Jim Folsom would've done it in 1947 or 1955.

   If it were easy, then Gov. Brewer, you would've done it in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

   If it were easy, then Alabama would've held a constitutional convention in 1977, when I first became involved in reform efforts.

   It's not easy to make your schools the best in the nation. But mark my words, Alabama is going to be the Education State. It's going to be the Education State because of people like you here today, people who are willing to spend their energy fixing this problem.

   Yes, there will be resistance, but Alabama's future must not be lost in a sea of divided interests. Progress means change, and if there is one thing that I've learned, the only thing that's certain is change. Whether change is for the better or worse is up to all of us. We must ensure that we change education for the better, and to get there, we must work together.

   In 1789, Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights."

   You have worked hard to inform the people of Alabama, and the people of Alabama have seen that it is wrong for education to be constrained by a constitutional straightjacket.

   Today, as we gather at this time and place, we know that we are headed in the right direction, thanks to individuals like you, Gov. Brewer, you, Jack Edwards, you, Bailey Thomson, the Chambers of Commerce and those of you here today. Working in the spirit of the late Ron Casey of The Birmingham News and Ted Bryant of the Birmingham Post-Herald, we are here today, to say, yes, we can do better if we will put our trust in the people of Alabama.

   Today, I say thank you to the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. And today, I pledge my time, my energy and my effort to help you achieve the reforms needed for education and economic prosperity in Alabama.

Must be inclusive

   I want to hear from the people of Alabama. They want better schools, and we have to work together to make sure we give them better schools. I want to hear what they would want in a new constitution, and what they don't want in a new constitution. What are their fears, but more importantly, what are their dreams?

   This process must be inclusive. Everyone's voice must be heard.

   To really change education, we must offer the people of Alabama promise that their voice will be heard above those who assembled 100 years ago and that education will no longer be held back. It is time.

   It is time to allow all voices to be heard. It is time to persuade those resistant that, yes, it can be done, that, yes, our schools will be better because we are not going to rest until it is done.

   It is time for Alabama to truly become the Education State.

   We must work together, giving careful consideration to everyone's viewpoint. For Alabama to move forward, we cannot afford to fail. We must do this and do it right. The future of education and the future of Alabama is riding on it.

   The momentum is in the wind, and it echoes today down Dexter Avenue that the opportunity is there for us to take. It is the opportunity to cut loose the constitutional straitjacket that has held education back for 100 years. It is the opportunity to ensure that we will never jeopardize our children's education again, and it is the opportunity to make Alabama a leader in the 21st century.

   Here in our state's capital - where history is alive with Alabama's rich historical past - let us start writing her next chapter, a chapter with the best schools in the nation and where progress can no longer be stalled by an archaic constitution.

   I call on every Alabama citizen to join this day at this time because it is time, time to make Alabama the Education State.

   And I believe with your help and God's continued blessings, we can make the great state of Alabama even better.

(Don Siegelman is governor of Alabama. This article is an excerpt from his speech April 4, 2001, at the constitution reform rally in Montgomery held by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. Write him at the State Capitol, 600 Dexter Ave., Room N-104, Montgomery, AL 36130.)

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