Larry Lee, AU grad, strong advocate for state’s teachers, public schools

March 9, 2016

Larry LeeLarry Lee is a 1966 graduate of Auburn University, where he received a “hybrid” degree in Agriculture and Journalism. Lee is best known around the state for his passionate advocacy for Alabama’s public schools, their teachers, and administrators. Although he has never held any official position within the hierarchy of the state’s educational system, his website has attracted well over 150,000 views and commands a devoted following among the state’s education community. His regular blog posts – typically highlighting the good work being done in our schools, or problems posed by certain state and federal legislation — are must-reads for legions of loyal followers. He has even attracted the admiration of Diane Ravitch, renowned educational historian and Assistant Secretary of Education to President George H.W. Bush.

So how did this self-described “country boy from Mobile County” end up with such wide-ranging influence? It all goes back to the year 2008 when he ran the Center for Rural Alabama at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries.

“I grew up on a farm in Irvington and graduated from Theodore High School,” Lee said. “My daddy wanted me to be an engineer but after a year at Auburn I told him that would only happen if he bought a railroad. So I was able to follow my natural inclinations to study agriculture and journalism, and worked 20 hours a week in the Extension Service information office.”

In March of 1966, Lee became an editor at Progressive Farmer Magazine, and continued to work at various agricultural publications until he got into economic development in rural south Alabama. This led him into close contact with many people around the state. In 2007 he was hired by Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks to run the Center for Rural Alabama at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. It was here that Lee set out on a project that would change his life.

Lessons Learned from Rural Schools

“With a couple of excellent colleagues, I led a project to study 10 high-poverty, high-performing rural schools,” he said. “We spent months trying to figure out why they did so well in the face of so many challenges.  We drove thousands of miles and interviewed hundreds of people in communities from one end of the state to the other.  What I saw – hard-working teachers and principals who cared deeply about their schools and their students – contradicted everything I was constantly hearing about how poor our schools are, how lazy and unmotivated our teachers are, and how our educational system was in total collapse.”

The number one factor that Lee noted in these schools was having a strong principal.

“Not all of these things are quantifiable,” he said. “”The principal must have a gift. These principals were ‘people persons’ who emphasized teamwork. We also noted that each of these schools had what I call a culture of expectation, where students were expected to do well in spite of the built-in challenges. Remember that all of these were poverty schools, which reflect the majority of schools in our state, and some of these students had tough home lives. But in spite of this, the teachers said to the students, ‘I am sorry about your situation at home but we are going to fill your brain with knowledge.’ And they did.”

The study was published as Lessons Learned from Rural Schools. Lee retired soon after the project ended and decided to continue telling that story in whatever way he could. To this day he drives thousands of miles a year, visiting schools and educators across the state, and speaking about these experiences wherever he is welcome. And he does it on his own, without financial backing from any group, organization, or individual.

I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of these anti-school, anti-teacher policies coming from the political class are driven by a desire to get a piece of that money.

“The education industry is driven by money,” Lee said. “That means $700 billion a year in our country. Look at the economic impact that has, all those teacher and support staff salaries, buses and buildings, it all adds up. And I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of these anti-school, anti-teacher policies coming from the political class are driven by a desire to get a piece of that money.”

Lee’s greatest concern is that education is being run by professional politicians instead of professional educators. He feels strongly that no good can come from this.

“I am astounded that these politicians have the nerve to dictate education policy,” he said. “It’s like they think that since they went to school they should run the schools. If they go see a doctor, does that mean they should run the hospitals? It’s the same thing!”

Although similar policy movements are happening across the country, Lee’s focus is on Alabama.

Disdain for the Alabama Accountability Act

“Let’s start with the Alabama Accountability Act,” he said. “That was passed with no input whatsoever from the education community. It was originally supposed to help kids stuck in failing schools. But what did it really do? It diverted $66 million from the Education Trust Fund to pay tuition for more than 1,000 students who were already attending private schools! I call it the Private School Relief Act. But only certain schools will take these kids, and these do not include the more elite schools. Montgomery Academy won’t take these students. Briarwood Christian won’t take them. Neither will St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile. Many of the better-off public school districts won’t accept these kids, either. Of course, most of the students in these failing schools don’t have the money or transportation resources to travel to a better school district even if they were allowed to attend. The Alabama Accountability Act is nothing more than a loss leader for charter schools.”

Lee explains his belief by using a military metaphor. Before the infantry comes in, planes fly over and bomb the enemy. He says the Accountability Act is a carpet bombing maneuver that’s clearing the way for charter schools. He has similar feelings about the RAISE-PREP Act, which calls for evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores and unfunded mandates to fulfill its pay-raise promises.

“Why does a California organization called StudentsFirst have eight registered lobbyists in Alabama?” Lee asked. “Why did StudentsFirst spend $200,000 on legislative races in Alabama? StudentsFirst is an organization that supports school choice, which is another name for charter schools. It is backed by big players in the business community. For their plan to work they must convince the people that public schools are failing, that our teachers are lazy, and our principals incompetent.”

Many question why such powerful forces would be aligned behind what Lee believes is a nefarious agenda aimed at punishing “the least of these.”

“Why are they doing all of this? To get a piece of that $700 billion that we spend on education,” he said. “Their charter schools will be for-profit schools, run by those businesses who are paying off our politicians. It’s as simple as that. It’s all about money. Here in our state this agenda is being pushed by the Business Council of Alabama. They are the big backers of Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, who wrote both the Alabama Accountability Act and the RAISE/PREP Act.”

Of the schools on the original list of so-called failing schools, 91 percent were high-poverty schools, and 87 percent of them were all black or majority black.

“The Alabama Accountability Act was passed by 51 white Republicans in the House, and 22 white Republicans in the Senate,” Lee pointed out. “”How many of these failing schools did they represent? The answer is not one. We have identified the failing schools, but are doing nothing to help them.”

Against all odds, Lee continues his visits to schools across the state. His website and blog posts continue to report on remarkable achievements being made in these schools. He rattles off success stories from places as remote as Fruithurst and Winterboro, Tallapoosa County and Baldwin County. He cites stories of pride and inspiration from principals and superintendents and teachers all across the Heart of Dixie, including many of those in high-poverty areas like those in his 2009 report, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools.

I think it is telling that in all of my many visits to high-poverty schools, I have never run across one of the politicians who would have us believe they have all the answers.

“One thing I have noticed,” Lee concluded. “I think it is telling that in all of my many visits to high-poverty schools, I have never run across one of the politicians who would have us believe they have all the answers.”