Monday, January 18, 2016

What you can do to keep Dr. King's legacy alive

This week, we took a day out of our schedules to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a tireless advocate for socioeconomic justice and equal rights at a time of tremendous upheaval in our nation's history. Dr. King shared his dream with America and empowered us to continue moving the bar forward, never accepting less than fair and equal representation for all people.

Yet in 2016, almost 50 years after Dr. King's death, we still face tremendous socioeconomic and political disparities in our state and in our nation.

We have a prison system that incarcerates Black men at a rate six times that which it incarcerates white men. We have an economic system that pays women 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same job, and that rate is even less for women of color. We have a system of public education that offers access and opportunity to children from wealthy families while leaving children from low-income families far behind their peers.

Dr. King warned us about all of this, and he told us that we have the responsibility to fix it. We're working hard in the Legislature, but we have to do more--and the best way we can do that is by empowering underrepresented groups to seek public office and speak for those who need a voice.

As Dr. King told us, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." There are good people across this state who have a passion for public service who feel disenfranchised from the political process.

How do we expect things to change when the Office of the President of the United States has historically been 98 percent white and 100 percent male? Our Supreme Court is 78 percent white and two-thirds male. In Congress? Only 19 percent are women, despite the fact that women make up roughly half the US population. For people of color, the statistics are worse: only 8 percent of members of Congress are African American and only 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino. The average age of Representatives in the House is 57, and in the Senate it's 62.

The numbers are shameful, and the American people need better representation in all levels of government, because the American people are not entirely comprised of 60-year-old white males. We all succeed when we bring a diversity of perspectives to the table: our cultural, racial, socio-economical and personal histories make us who we are--the American people.

So consider this me formally asking our women, young people, and people of color: Run for office.

Speak up for the people who need your voice, because the voices of those who wish to hold back progress ring louder in your silence. Speak up because you know that our children shouldn't be measured by where they come from, but where they want to go. Speak up because our wives deserve equal pay for equal work and our sons deserve a future outside of a prison fence.

The time is always right to do what is right, and it's time to speak up and keep moving towards Dr. King's dream.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Our teachers shouldn't be on the chopping block to fix the state's problems

We have a lot of issues on our plate for the upcoming legislative session, and we've talked a lot about many of the critical issues: our state's budget crisis, lack of Medicaid expansion, prison overcrowding, jobs, and so on.

As we're moving closer to the 2016 session, rumors are beginning to circulate about several legislators' plans to revisit teacher tenure and bring No Child Left Behind back to Alabama.

I won't pretend that Alabama's education system needs an overhaul. Our public schools work very well for a select few, but are terribly broken for most of our kids. There are a lot of ways we can fix this, from making sure our education budget is linked to secure and stable funding, creating technical training programs at our high schools, establishing statewide qualified pre-k programs, and so much more.

One way we absolutely cannot fix this is by attacking our teachers.

Aside from parents, teachers spend more time with our children than anyone else. Outside of family, teachers have the largest impact on teaching our children right from wrong, good from bad, motivating their dreams and assuaging their fears. I can think back over my life and point to several key teachers who made me the person I am today, and I'm sure everyone else can, too.

Yet too many in Montgomery see these people as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Rather than asking our teachers, those on the front-lines every day, how we can improve education, they're looking to reform tenure and tell our teachers how to teach--insisting they teach to the requirements of the test, rather than teach to the requirements of our children

Could you imagine your frustration if policymakers in Montgomery started passing legislation and regulations to tell you how to do the day-to-day aspects of your job? It would be overbearing, and perhaps that's why we're losing so many talented teachers to the private sector.

No two children in this state are exactly alike: no two children come from the same circumstances or learn in the same way or have the same hopes and dreams for their future. Asking our teachers to fit all of these children into a cookie-cutter standardized test in order to get paid is not just unfair, it's a disservice to our children. Teachers undergo years of schooling to learn how to teach to the student, to recognize problems as they arise, and to make sure all children are getting a quality education.

Nobody knows how to teach our children better than our educators, and I think it's time we let them do their jobs and pay them like the professionals they are. That absolutely doesn't mean undermining their strategies and undercutting their paychecks. Because our children deserve better, our teachers deserve better. Let's find solutions to the problems that face Alabama without throwing our teachers under the school bus.

Monday, January 4, 2016

We can do better than old solutions to old problems: Let's look at public transportation

The 2016 legislative session is right around the corner, and the Republican Supermajority is already divided on the best approach to the budget blunder: increasing taxes or cutting services.

Last session, many legislators considered an increase in the gasoline tax as a way to shore up the general fund, knowing the state's share of the gas tax goes exclusively to road and bridge maintenance.

While Alabama has a tremendous need for road and bridge improvements--nearly 25 percent of our current roads are considered to be in dangerous condition--and that gas tax revenue has been dropping in recent years due to more fuel-efficient vehicles, we must look at ways to solve these problems while also priming Alabama for a 21st century economy.

The truth is that a gas tax will hit low-income, rural families harder than those who live in metro areas. Selma residents routinely drive the 100-mile round-trip to Montgomery every day for work. An hour commute during the work-week isn't unheard of in many parts of our state.

So while we consider increasing the gas tax, we should consider finding a way to build Alabama for the future, rather than pulling more money out of people's pockets today to fund past projects that have fallen into disrepair. We'll never get ahead if we're constantly trying to play catch up, which is exactly what our budget blunder is all about.

Alabama is one of only a few states in the nation that offers no state support for public transportation, meaning there is no way to get from city to city, and that our municipalities are tasked with funding the metro transportation systems we do have in our larger cities.

If we were able to utilize some gas tax revenue to help develop a quality, statewide public transportation system, it would provide a low-cost method for people in rural areas to get to work, to the doctor, or to school in our bigger cities. It could connect areas like the Black Belt, which don't even have an interstate system passing through, and allow economic development into these areas for more job opportunities and economic expansion in the areas we need it most. Not to mention, the decrease in daily traffic on our roads will cut down on the need for future repairs, allowing us to use our road and bridge money for timely maintenance instead of always being one step behind.

Most importantly, developing a public transportation system would create hundreds--if not thousands--of jobs for those tasked with building the transportation system, providing the materials, and designing, engineering, and maintaining the program.

Our opportunities here in Alabama are endless, and I strongly believe we can do big, important things when we set our mind to building a stronger future for this state. Most importantly, we can't be afraid to be bold and break out of the way things have always been done to try new solutions to our ongoing problems.