Gov. Kay Ivey told the 2020 annual meeting of PARCA that Alabama can address the challenges it faces today.
“I’m confident through our collaboration we will find solutions to tackle our difficult problems,” said Ivey, the keynote speaker at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s Albert P. Brewer Legacy Lunch at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham.
The governor was the final speaker to address attendees who went to Friday’s meeting to hear about Alabama’s Third Century. The state celebrated its bicentennial in 2019.
Ivey gave the audience a sneak peek into her upcoming State of the State address. She said she expects to applaud the many positive things going on in the state while also issuing a challenge to address the areas that cry out for improvement.
Those matters include the 2020 census, the prison system, health care, mental health care and education reform. Ivey said the census makes 2020 a “make or break year” for the state, which could lose representation in Congress and federal funds.
The governor spoke about the “dangerous conditions” in Alabama’s prisons. “We know that the issues are multifaceted and long-standing,” she said. “This is an Alabama problem and we need to have an Alabama solution” to avoid having federal courts step in.
“The Department of Justice is ready to step in if we don’t,” Ivey said. “Maintaining the status quo is not an option.”
Ivey said she has long made improving education in Alabama a “high priority. Unfortunately,” she said, “Alabama’s at the bottom of just about every education ranking that you can find. Our children are suffering from this. We need to get energized about fixing the education system.
“When something’s broken, you’ve got to fix it,” Ivey continued. “It makes absolutely no sense to continue the same system and expect different results.”
Other Speakers Share Concerns
The governor was the last of six speakers to address the gathering. Each of her predecessors spoke about an aspect of Alabama, its challenges and possible solutions.
Jim Johnson, the director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talked about the changing demographics of Alabama. He said the state’s population will be greatly affected by the graying of America and the browning of America.
Johnson told of counties across the country where the majority of voters are aging and thus “ain’t got no dog in the K-12 education fight,” he said, adding that their concerns are crime, safety and retirement amenities.
Non-white students in school districts “are under-represented in the college prep tracks – honors, AP and IB,” Johnson said. “In other words, ladies and gentlemen, the kids of today who are the next generation that has to propel our nation are between a rock and a hard place in our school system due to no fault of their own.”
Neil Lamb talked about education in Alabama’s third century. The vice president of educational outreach and faculty investment at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology said society is awash with information.
“The challenge,” he said, “is not all information is created equal. How do you discern the value of the information you have? We have to teach our students how to live in an information society and how to move beyond … the first hit on Google. The first hit on Google does not represent the sole sum total of all the knowledge.”
Bennett Wright, the executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, compared Alabama with Tennessee in the area of corrections spending.
“Last year’s combined DOC and probation parole budget here in the state of Alabama is the highest it’s ever been an Alabama history – $550 million,” Wright said. “The budget in Tennessee last year was $1.04 billion for supervising or incarcerating not that many more offenders than we do. And they are probably expected to get about another $80 million or $90 million bump up this year.
“I’m not saying we’ve got to spend $1 billion, but I’m saying we need to have a little bit more realistic expectation about what we have to do,” he continued.
Monica Baskin, a professor of preventive medicine at UAB, said at least some of Alabama’s health challenges in its third century can be addressed through innovation, collaboration and equitable dissemination.
“We have great interventions,” she said. “Now we just need to find ways to more equitably distribute them throughout our state.”
Michael Chambers closed out the morning session. The associate vice president of research at the University of South Alabama cited opportunities for Alabama, including automobile manufacturing, aviation and aerospace.
“Here in Alabama, the will of the people has to be expressed to make … changes at a fundamental level,” he said. “That to me is the greatest opportunity. Now is the opportunity.”