Larry Lee, a native Alabamian who is devoted to public education, is an admirer of State Superintendent Tommy Bice. Here he explains why:

Education Matters

By Larry Lee

How many legislative hearings have I attended in my life? Too many is probably the correct answer. But I recently witnessed something in one that I’ve never seen before. A standing ovation.

It was a joint meeting of the Alabama Senate and House education ways & means committees. Dr. Tommy Bice, state superintendent of education was making his presentation.

He took the members of the legislature and the audience through a day in the life of the Alabama K-12 public school system. With a power point he put faces to numbers. For instance more than 50 percent of the state’s 740,000 students ride a bus to school. More than 7,500 buses cover nearly 500,000 miles a day with many routes beginning before daylight.

He explained that our schools provide more than 90 million lunches annually and that 64 percent of them are free.

At one point he was so emotionally involved in discussing one particular student that he had to stop and gather himself.

When he finished, the room rose to their feet in applause and Senator Trip Pittman, chair of the senate committee, told him it was the best presentation that committee had ever heard.

As I read about superintendents around the nation and share info with friends in other states, I’m often struck by the fact that there is an adversarial relationship between their chief education official and other education “players.” It appears that too many are chasing the latest rabbit sent their way by another Washington think tank or scrambling after the blessings of another giant foundation.

Each time this happens, I say thank God for Tommy Bice.

For any kid growing up in Alexander City, AL in the 1960s, like Bice, there was always the thought that their career might lead them to Russell Mills. After all, many considered that Alex City was Russell Mills and vice versa.

When Bice received a four-year scholarship to attend Auburn University and study textile engineering on his high school graduation night it looked as if his future was on that path. But throughout his freshman year and all the pre-engineering classes, something kept tugging at him.

That “something” was the connection he made with students as a volunteer in a special education class in high school. “For whatever the reason, I just related to them,” recalls Bice decades later. “And I still do to this day.”

By the end of his first year, Bice knew that his heart was not in textile engineering and he switched to the school of education. Little did he imagine that this change would one day lead to him being named Alabama State Superintendent of Education as of January 1, 2012.

One thing is certain, Bice paid his dues on the way to the top. He has held almost every position in the education field. From classroom teacher at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, to alternative school director, to high school principal, to superintendent of the Alexander City school system to Deputy State Superintendent.

“I loved the classroom,” says Bice, “but I realized I could have broader influence on more students if I became an administrator.” Dr. Jack Hawkins, longtime president at Troy University and then president at AIDB, encouraged Bice to go to graduate school.

Bice hit the ground running when he became state superintendent. And it has quickly become apparent that each of his stops along the education ladder left their mark and his decisions are guided by what is best for students, schools and teachers. At a time when well-funded foundations are buying a seat at the education reform table and a deft way of churning out “sound bites” is given more credibility than classroom and school administration experience; Bice trusts his own instincts and listens to those he knows share a common background.

For example, in 2009 the U.S. Department of Education dangled millions upon millions of dollars before states to get them to jump on the Race to the Top bandwagon. Like dozens of other states, Alabama went through the extensive application process. The application was denied and editorial writers and politicians seized the opportunity to decry the condition of our education system.

But like many things that sound too good to be true, for the most part so was RTTT as “winning” states have had to agree to implementing programs that experienced educators consider questionable at best.

“Not getting selected was a blessing,” says Bice. “Too many folks failed to remember that the one who pays the fiddler gets to call the tune.”

Instead, Bice and his staff have crafted a well-thought out, well-researched document called Plan 2020 that details the objectives and strategies for Alabama K-12 education into the foreseeable future. The four components of the plan lay out what is expected of students, support systems, teachers and administrators and school systems.

Bice has the whole-hearted support of the State Board of Education in this effort. In fact, one board member recently called the plan “brilliant.”

“We have to rethink how we’ve been doing some things,” says Bice. “We must redefine what a high school graduate should know, we must have collaboration among the end users of our product, whether it is businesses or universities.

“We’ve been preparing kids to take a test, instead of preparing them for real life,” he continues. “This has to stop.”

Tommy Bice still lives in Alexander City where Russell does not cast the shadow it did when he was growing up there. From 1930 to 1970, the Alex City population increased 173 percent. But since 1970, about the time Bice was discovering his connection to special children, growth slowed to less than one percent annually.

And fortunately for Alabama, Dr. Tommy Bice decided to be an educator, rather than an engineer.

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.