Business Community’s Top Priorities Spotlighted in Governor’s State of the State Address

The business community found much to like in Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2013 State of the State Address, which was delivered in the packed Old House Chamber of the Alabama Capitol Building on Tuesday night.

From funding for Pre-K programs to workforce development and offering local school systems more flexibility from state regulations, Gov. Bentley’s speech contained many proposals that the Business Council of Alabama has not only embraced but also included in our 2013 legislative agenda that was released several weeks ago.

Gov. Bentley called on the Legislature to reimburse the $437 million that was borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund to fill the budgetary gap in the General Fund budget. In August, the BCA Board of Directors adopted a resolution in support of the withdrawal of these funds provided they are repaid in full, and full repayment remains a priority today.

The governor also focused on several education proposals that are priorities of Alabama’s business community.  The largest consumer of the product created by Alabama’s school system is the business community, and it is imperative that graduates possess the skills and education that the 21st century workplace requires.

Gov. Bentley’s call to increase funding for Alabama’s voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program by $12.5 million has long been a BCA priority.  While our Pre-K program, known as “First Class,” has been ranked as the best in the nation, Alabama ranks in the bottom third in access.  As the governor rightly pointed out, only six percent of four-year-olds participate in a program that studies show could place them firmly on the path to success, rather than mediocrity or failure.

We must ask ourselves why any child – regardless of race, background or their family’s station in life – should be denied voluntary access to the early academic boost that our Pre-K program provides.

The BCA was similarly encouraged by the emphasis Gov. Bentley’s speech placed on the expansion of career tech education and workforce development.  We must accept the fact that not every child has the ability, the finances or the simple desire to pursue a four-year college degree.  In fact, Alabama’s high school dropout rate shows that just under a third of students will not complete their basic K-12 course of study.

But even without a degree or a high school diploma, proper career and workforce training can still help our children obtain good-paying, long-lasting jobs in any number of successful and growing industries.

With Alabama enjoying great success in recruiting aerospace, automotive and rocket manufacturing facilities, a host of second-tier suppliers and similar businesses, there is clearly a need for qualified welders, machinists, industrial repairmen and other tradesmen.  Offering skills training to those students who desire it will ensure Alabama maintains a qualified workforce, continues to lead our sister southeastern states in economic development, and offers our students better hopes for a bright future.

Expanded career tech training may even encourage students who consider dropping out to continue their education through to graduation.

School flexibility is yet another area in which the governor’s speech and BCA’s legislative agenda intersected.  For decades, too many of Alabama’s students and their parents have been failed by a public education system that utilizes a “cookie-cutter” approach to regulations and mandates rather than a more flexible system of governance that recognizes needs, methods and priorities in one district might not be the same as another.

A tedious, rubber-stamp monotony takes root in environments in which innovation is stifled and new ideas are discouraged. For this reason, the BCA is part of a broad coalition supporting school flexibility, yet another example of an expanded business/education alliance. The BCA has joined the Alabama Association of School Boards, Alabama Association of School Business Officials, Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, School Superintendents of Alabama and A+ Education Partnership, along with State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, in supporting a policy environment that recognizes and rewards innovation and creativity to meet the diverse needs of Alabama’s public school students.

The Local Control School Flexibility Act being proposed in the Legislature allows Alabama’s 134 public school systems the opportunity to solve their own problems and implement new, more efficient ways of achieving their goals free from the handcuffs of state government mandates.

When Gov. Bentley completed his speech Tuesday night and the applause filled the chamber, many of the claps belonged to those of us in the business community who were happy to see several of our initiatives spotlighted by the governor on Alabama’s biggest stage.

-Carl T. Jamison

Carl T. Jamison, shareholder of JamisonMoneyFarmer PC in Tuscaloosa, is the chairman of the Business Council of Alabama.

This article was published in Mobile’s Press-Register on Saturday, February 9, 2013.