Decline in school enrollment in the Black Belt threatens economic stability, new report says

Decline in school enrollment in the Black Belt threatens economic stability, new report says
(Source: WIS)

Alabama’s Black Belt region saw a 13% decline in public school enrollment in the last 25 years as a result of people and businesses moving away from the region, threatening its sustainability, a new report says.

As more Alabamians move to suburbs or cities they take with them their tax dollars, severely hindering those Black Belt schools and their local economies.

“The businesses don’t want to come until the people are there, and the people don’t want to come until the jobs are there and that is a spiral in the Black Belt,” said State Superintendent Eric Mackey on Monday.

Based on research done by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, Alabama’s public school enrollment in the 24 counties that comprise the Black Belt fell from 139,739 to 106,801 from 1995 to the 2019-2020 school year. This amount of decline is roughly the size of the city of Selma, the report says.

The report is part of a series by the Education Policy Center titled “Black Belt 2020,” highlighting various problems in the region.

Over two months, eight reports are being released each week covering topics like defining what the Black Belt is, population trends, pre-K, the job market and broadband access.

Last week a report was released that showed an overall decline in population in the Black Belt from 1990-2018 and how Alabama could potentially lose a congressional seat because of it.

Authors of the report and various education leaders in the state spoke during a media briefing on this week about education and the decline of resources for Black Belt schools.

Jacqueline Brooks, Macon County’s superintendent, said multiple surveys her school system has conducted on why parents are leaving their schools show a lack of health care options, a lack of jobs and high utility rates were the main reasons. The school system was not one of the top concerns.

“The quality of life is more than just a school district, its city government, its grassroots efforts, it’s a recipe of many things that equal a type of lifestyle and quality of life that residents are looking for today,” Brooks said.

Brooks points to the fact that Macon County does not have a major hospital or a Walmart and instead people travel to the neighboring Montgomery or Lee counties for their healthcare or shopping needs.

When jobs leave, that means schools leave, which contributes to the loss of community identity in the small Black Belt towns, the report says.

Without people spending money in their local economy and contributing to that county’s sales tax revenue, local school funding falls.

Mackey said that the state’s rolling reserves for the Education Trust Fund have helped mitigate the economic pitfalls felt during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but for local revenue and school systems it has been a struggle.

Brooks said Macon County increased its sales tax by one cent in order to make up for its loss of revenue in the decline of enrollment and loss in earned teacher units. But even that solution can only do so much when people are buying less because of the pandemic.

“There is only a limited amount of sales that the sales tax is going to be collected on,” Mackey said.

‘Failing’ schools

The report also explained that out of the 74 schools listed as “failing” as part of the Alabama Accountability Act, 32, or 43%, are in the Black Belt.

The Alabama Accountability Act, passed in 2013, mandates schools in the lowest 6% of performance on standardized tests be listed as failing. The designation is more than just a label. Under the law, students in failing schools qualify for tax credit-funded scholarships to attend better performing private schools.

The label doesn’t necessarily mean those are bad schools though, Mackey said. The way the law is designed means there will always be schools labeled as failing, no matter how much progress they have made because even if they get better, so will the schools already labeled as not failing.

“We had a school that gained 20 points but they are still on the list (of failing schools),” Mackey said.

Brooks said when the list comes out every year, it can be damaging to the Black Belt schools and turn back all of the hard work they have been doing to promote their schools’ success stories.

“That list is a gold standard for many parents,” Brooks said. “…just like with any kind of care, you want to go where the gold label is,” Brooks said.

Gov. Kay Ivey and various education leaders have expressed interest in changing the “failing” label last year, but it would require legislative approval.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is the chair of the House Education Policy Committee and supports the idea of changing the “failing” label.

“(The failing list) is definitely worth schools looking at and being aware of, but it certainly doesn’t take into consideration those making great strides in improvement,” Collins told ADN.

The failing label also makes it harder to recruit more teachers to the Black Belt.

One way Mackey said he has found some success in retaining teachers in the region is by bringing people back into the rural communities they grew up in.

“It’s not that there are not good teachers in the Black Belt but they are constantly churning teachers because they can’t get them to stay for a long-term career unless they are from that community,” Mackey said.

The state has tried various legislative ways to get teachers into more underserved areas like the Alabama Math and Science Teacher Education Program, which provides up to $5,000 per year in student loan repayment for math and science teachers who locate in critical shortage areas.

Last year was the first year of seeing the full results of that program and Mackey said only two or three teachers located to the Black Belt area because of the AMSTEP program.

Brooks said Macon county has utilized the federal student loan program and has been successful in recruiting teachers for the first three to five years, but then loses them to school districts that can offer a higher salary and better retirement benefits.

Mackey said discussion over economic incentives in the Black Belt and how local communities collect online sales tax need to happen in order to address all of the problems associated with the drop in school enrollment.

“We’ve got to find a way to get everyone in the room talking about these issues together because educators can’t solve all these all on your own,” Mackey said.

Brooks said she thinks even deeper discussions need to happen about how school districts are drawn and looking at how exactly they are funded if the state ever wants to make a true change for the struggling Black Belt schools.

“If we truly want to in Alabama educate all children well and equitably, then we’re really going to need to have deep policy discussions and invariably make deep decisions that are non-partisan and truly in the interest of all children,” Brooks said.

The Education Policy Center’s next report on unemployment in the region will be released next week.

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