Public education was and is the great American dream. Nevertheless, since the 1950s, we have seen a broad-based movement toward the privatization of education. It is against this background that I tell my story. Stephen Covey who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People suggested that one of those habits is “keeping the main thing the main thing.” For public education, excellent, effective education is the main thing.
I was born in rural Macon County and attended Shorter High School, a public school for grades one through twelve. There were fewer than 100 students in all 12 grades. There were 9 members of my 1960 graduating class. I used to say that there were 5 basketball players and four cheerleaders, but that may not be politically correct!
Mrs. Steele Bibb, a Huntingdon College graduate, was our principal. Four members of my graduating class, including Betty Menefee, who would later become my wife, signed up to attend Huntingdon. When I almost backed out because of fear of the tuition (they were charging almost $1000 a year!), I was recruited by Coach Neal Posey. I suspect that he knew that I could not play basketball that well, but also knew my ACT score. In the background, Mrs. Bibb knew I liked basketball, and probably “recruited” Neal Posey. Shorter High School provided excellent education. An amazing percentage of graduates attended college. But soon after my graduation, the case of Lee v. Macon made Macon County the battleground between the politics of Gov. George Wallace and the power of Judge Frank Johnson, neither of whom was an educator.
I had a good academic record at Huntingdon. I also served as president of the Student Government Association five years after John Ed Matheson, and five years before Jeff sessions. Admission to the University of Alabama Law School was easy. I was one of the first Huntingdon graduates to attend law school, although there have been many since. The education that the Shorter school provided passed every test.
I returned to Montgomery to practice law. I moved back to Macon County in 1970, in the opposite direction from the “white flight” that was generally occurring, but continued practicing law in Montgomery. The public school system in Macon County was not the same. Our children, Philip and Mike, attended Montgomery Academy.
My brother Wade had graduated from Shorter High School in 1956. He attended Troy State Teachers College and got a degree in education. In 1960, he was hired to teach at the newly formed Montgomery Academy, a private school with emphasis on college preparation. Wade taught mathematics. He continued pursuing his education and got a Master’s degree in education at the University of Alabama.
After teaching at the Montgomery Academy for a number of years and serving as an interim headmaster, he was appointed Headmaster at the Montgomery Academy. He was influential in hiring Mrs. Duke and Mrs. Jolly. Mrs. Duke and Mrs. Jolly had taught both of us at Shorter High School. They taught at the Montgomery Academy for several years.
My son, Philip, graduated from the Montgomery Academy in 1985, in a class of 40. He was one of the National Merit finalists in that class. A very bright black student from Macon County was also in that class and several others were enrolled at the Academy. In 1986 we moved to Tallassee and Mike completed his education in the public school. Philip now practices intellectual property law in Chicago, and Mike practices law with me in Tallassee. This is my story about schools.
Without question, much social progress was made by the changes in public education that have occurred since 1960. But something very important was lost. The loss partially defeated the purposes of the intended changes. Government did not keep the main thing the main thing. Everyone would have been better off if it had.
Today is a new day. We must find ways to rehabilitate the dream of excellence in public education. Privatized education can never reach the talented intellects that are mired in poverty and other disadvantages. Excellent, effective, free public education is still the great equalizer. But the education system (like the army?) must offer the opportunity to everyone to be all that they can be. “No child held back” is just as important as “no child left behind.” We can only renew the dream of excellent universal public education by keeping the main thing the main thing.