Alabama State Department of Education Headquarters The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is the administrative entity within the Alabama state government that manages K-12 public education in the state. ALSDE recommends education policies and develops and implements efforts to increase graduation rates and academic proficiency, narrow achievement gaps caused by economic inequality, and ensure that Alabama graduates are prepared for college or careers in the public and private sectors. ALSDE oversees 132 school districts and more than 90,000 educational personnel, 46,000 of whom are teachers who educate approximately 750,000 students per year. It is directly responsible to the Alabama Board of Education (BoE), which is made up of nine individuals, eight of whom are elected from single-member districts to four-year terms. The sitting governor serves as the president of the board, and the board selects the superintendent of education. In addition to the superintendent’s office, the agency consists of the divisions of policy and budget, teaching and learning, and research, information and data services, each overseen by an assistant superintendent.
The department is funded by the Education Trust Fund (ETF), which is financed mainly through income tax and sales tax revenues. ALSDE’s most recent annual budgets have hovered around $13 billion, with more than $5 billion coming from the Education Trust Fund and almost $8 billion from other state and local sources; more than $500 million in funding is contributed by the federal government. ALSDE officials and the superintendent, the governor’s office, and the BoE work together to form the yearly education budget for the state. Meanwhile, many citizens in the state have advocated for reforming the tax system to improve education funding in court cases such as Lynch v. Alabama.
Barton Academy ALSDE was established by the Public Education Act of 1854. Previously, education was decentralized and suffered from inadequate academic standards and low levels of equality. Students were not graded on their mastery of the course material, were not taught from a standardized curriculum, and were not held to regular attendance policies that could effectively ensure all of Alabama’s white children had access to adequate primary educational resources. Education was also hindered by strict, often cruel, disciplinary procedures that failed to foster a positive learning environment. The act aimed to centralize the state’s school systems, provide the state legislature with the power to select a state superintendent of education, and increase funding for public education. After creating a public school system, the state then began the initial process of licensing most public school teachers.
After the Civil War, Congressional Reconstruction was imposed on Alabama by the federal government and embraced by newly elected Republicans in the state. The new Constitution of 1868 recognized public education as a duty of the state and created the State Board of Education, imparting it with both administrative and legislative power over all state-supported educational facilities within Alabama. The state’s Reconstruction government initiated several education reforms that attempted to ensure the proper and equal education of the state’s recently freed African American population in concert with the Freedmen’s Bureau, centralize decision-making powers involving education, adopt statewide textbooks, and improve education funding through poll and business taxes.
Beaver Dam School Many of these Reconstruction-era reforms were reversed in the 1875 Constitution after conservative Democrats, who became known as “Bourbons,” regained control of the state legislature in 1874. These Democrats viewed state-funded public education as a luxury and unnecessary even for white children and especially did not want to educate African Americans, so they mandated segregated schools and defunded much of the state’s public education system by lowering taxes. They also abolished the BoE but did not disband the ALSDE. Political threats to public education slowly subsided in the postwar era, and the state began to increase funding for and the responsibilities of the ALSDE as the nineteenth century closed. Most importantly, ALSDE was one of the first state education agencies in the nation to centralize teacher certifications based on an exam process, beginning in 1899. Later, the 1901 Constitution created a structure that lowered tax funds that could be directed at education but allocated more state funds on a consistent basis and continued to limit the ability of municipalities and counties to raise local taxes for schools. Furthermore, a tax proposal around that time that would have steered more tax money to white schools was defeated by a coalition that opposed all local taxation for schools, despite sympathizing with poorly funded African American schools. Philanthropic institutions, such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund, tried to take up the slack for training African American teachers and improving African American schools.
Early Twentieth Century
Public School Regulations, 1914 In the early decades of the twentieth century, ALSDE and state officials, notably governors Braxton Bragg Comer, Thomas Kilby, and David Bibb Graves implemented progressive reforms aimed at improving public education. Lawmakers established the Alabama Illiteracy Commission in 1915 to reduce adult illiteracy and the Alabama Education Commission in 1919 to study and make recommendations. The Education Commission found that the state consistently ranked near the bottom of all states in teacher compensation and benefits, and as such, only 20 percent of white teachers in Alabama public schools had professional training. Although compulsory attendance laws existed after 1915, fewer than 70 percent of school-age children regularly attended school. In addition, only half of those students enrolled attended past the fourth grade. This commission recommended that the state create a new BoE and State Council of Education to coordinate and oversee public schools, and they were both established in 1919. That same year, the agency also assumed control over the Illiteracy Commission, which was directed by the new Division of Exceptional Education. Illiteracy rates fell significantly prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The ALSDE also promoted academic reforms to raise employment levels. Aided by federal funding from the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the legislature created the Division of Vocational Education with three subunits that focused on increasing education and training in the fields of agriculture, trades and industries, and home economics and were targeted toward the state’s most disadvantaged populations. With additional funding provided by the Smith-Bankhead Act of 1920 (cosponsored by Alabama senator John Hollis Bankhead), the department helped train disabled persons for employment. Hoping to improve education standards, the ALSDE published the Course of Study for Elementary Schools in 1921 under the newly installed superintendent, John W. Abercrombie, a former U.S. congressman and education reformer. This publication aimed to assist the state’s many new public school teachers plan their daily activities, suggesting textbooks and reference materials and outlining requirements for promotion.
Into the 1940s, ALSDE was stressing the importance of lifelong education policies and the role of public education in improving the socialization skills of Alabama’s school children as part of a core curriculum recommended in the 1941 Course of Study. The agency also served a vital role in Alabama during World War II. It used the state’s academic infrastructure as centers for selective service registration, rationing registration, civilian defense training, selling war bonds, and collecting scrap. School buses were used to transport defense workers. In addition, ALSDE administered the National School Lunch Program to improve student nutrition and later the policies created by the National School Lunch Act of 1946. Most importantly, the department provided valuable leadership in stressing the importance of public education growth and reform after the war ended as national surveys during the war found Alabama ranking very low in terms of high school completion and college attendance and completion rates.
Integration and Federal Involvement
Gov. Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door At mid-century, ALSDE faced significant changes in public education originating from the federal government, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board Education of Topeka decision in 1954 ending segregation in public schools. Gov. George Wallace, BoE officials, and many local whites vigorously opposed the requirement to end the “separate but equal” doctrine in education in the form of “massive resistance.” Additional federal action, principally the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the 1967 Lee v. Macon County Board of Education case, helped move forward the slow process of school integration in Alabama. The federal government provided funds for language, math, and science education through the National Defense Education Act of 1958, sponsored by Alabama congressman Carl Elliot, and more general subjects through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which ALSDE used primarily for mathematics and reading instruction.
Federal policy has continued to have a significant impact on Alabama public education and the operations of ALSDE. In June 2013, the agency announced that the U.S. Department of Education had approved the state of Alabama’s request to be released from the federal requirements of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Education officials considered the act’s “all-or-nothing” expectations unfairly punished Alabama schools that had shown significant levels of improvement. Officials established the PLAN 2020 as an alternative to NCLB to develop career readiness standards for all subject areas, improve student performance and increase graduation rates, improve assessment and accountability systems, develop a unified school readiness plan, and maximize financial resources to support local schools’ instructional needs.
One notable success has been the department’s effort to raise advanced placement achievement, assisted by the federally funded Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP). The APTIP initiative was launched in 2007 to increase the number of students taking and passing advanced placement (AP) tests. It was created in response to research indicating that students who successfully participated in AP courses experienced better chances of academic success. ALSDE improved the ranking of Alabama compared with other states for student scores in AP math, science, and English. Schools in the program gained a 101-percent average increase in passing scores, which was much higher than the national average.
Alabama State Board of Education The ALSDE faces several challenges moving forward into the twenty-first century, including the rising poverty rates of public school students and ensuring adequate education for public school students who may not have proper legal documentation to live in the state. Furthermore, the agency will have to deal with the prospect of tax credits, created by the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, being used to transfer students from failing public schools to private schools. Finally, the ALSDE will continue to struggle with taxpayers and legislators who have proven unwilling to raise enough tax revenue for adequate public education funding in the future. The issue of education proration, or cutting spending due to funding shortfalls, may continue to hamper the agency in the future as it has been used an average almost every four years since the 1950s.
- Bond, Horace Mann. Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel. 1969. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
- Kilgrow, Adelaide, and Eugene M. Thomas. History of Education in Alabama. Bulletin of the Bicentennial Intern Project 7 (1975): 136 pp.
- Public Education in Alabama: A Report of the Alabama Educational Survey Commission. Washington, D.C.: The American Council on Education, 1945.
- Weeks, Stephen B. History of Public School Education in Alabama, 1865-1918. 1915. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1971.