Obamacare and the State Takeover of Birmingham City Schools

As I thought about what to write about the Alabama Education Department’s decision to take over Birmingham City Schools, the Supreme Court also came out with its decision to essentially uphold the basic tenants of Obamacare.

Now, what am I gonna do? Write two columns? Not enough time. So, I decided to look for the existential meaning of both these events happening on the same day. I got my answer, from a good friend who’s been closely following both issues.

His point is really simple: people don’t like forced change, even if it turns out to be good for them.

Anybody who’s had to pay a health insurance premium knows that healthcare costs are really out of control. Average Americans have been struggling to pay for health insurance, the escalating co-pays and deductibles as they suffer from the unregulated excesses of the greed-is-good crowd that caused the 2008 economic crash and its lingering effects. They don’t care that people who still have jobs and are able to get insurance are paying more and getting less service, much less the ones who’ve lost jobs and can’t find work.

But what’s struck me is how the rich have gotten the working poor to slit their own throats and rail against what, not too many years ago, was a Republican-backed plan to make healthcare affordable. Obamacare was a spin on the Mitt Romney-initiated healthcare plan in Massachusetts when he was governor. Instead of seeing themselves in need of a reformed healthcare system, some folks have been convinced that Obamacare is forced “socialized medicine” (not sure what that makes Medicade and Medicare), or worse, little more than unwarranted support for the teeming,  dark masses mooching off the system as they drive around the ‘hood in Cadillacs.

So they’re against it. Period. Meanwhile, they wonder how they’re going to pay for medications, doctor visits and procedures.

Anybody who has watched the downward spiral of Birmingham City Schools over the last 15 or so years knows that education for city students is a mess. Everyone complains that it is too top-heavy with administrators, and test scores indicate something is amiss in the classrooms. I’ve had parents tell me they want to engage, but feel unwelcomed at schools. Some superintendents have tried to formulate solutions, but they eventually clash with the appointed or elected school board, usually over some inside politics that have little to do with classroom instruction.

So people in Birmingham, mostly African Americans, voted with their feet, opting to move outside the city in search of better education options for their children.  Some of those parents have told me the comparison between the expectations and learning environment at city schools and suburban schools is like night and day. As a result of these parents leaving, Birmingham has less money, fewer students (the ones left are from poverty-stricken areas, with all the problems that brings), more administrators than you can shake a stick at, and no one, it seems, is willing to tackle the systemic problems leading to these problems.

Yes, Houston, we have a problem.

So the Birmingham School board made its checker-like moves by refusing to tackle the hard problems of reducing staff and saving money. This landed them right in the square where chess players like State Superintendent Tommy Bice, State School Board member Yvette Richardson and City Superintendent Craig Witherspoon wanted them to be – out of options and under state control.

Now, the board’s black members and others in the black community are crying foul, slinging racial allegations against the whites, Bice and his bulldog, former State Superintendent Ed Richardson, who’s been dispatched to put Birmingham schools’ financial house in order. Richardson will reduce staff (i.e., fire black folks) and suffer little political repercussions for doing so.

Therefore, many people in Birmingham are against the takeover. Period. Meanwhile, they have developed no solutions to fix a system that is failing our kids and our community.

No one likes to be forced to change. It’s a human condition. The South didn’t want to give up its slave-based economy and went to war over it. And once it lost, its society made sure those freed Negroes never forgot their place. Dictators in the Middle East or Africa or Russia don’t want to give up their power, fighting and killing their own people to keep it.

It’s not that dire here, of course. But even when change has the potential to bring about good, people still fight it if forced into making change. Resistance is an emotional reflex. My hope is that emotions don’t get the best of us and make us miss the opportunity that change, even forced change, can bring.

America’s healthcare system is broken. Birmingham’s education system is broken. Fixing systemic problems is unnerving to people who benefit from the status quo. But for the rest of us who suffer for their benefit, brokenness is no longer an option. If upheaval and conflict have to come, let’s make the most of it by allowing the process to show us what’s wrong and teach us to avoid making the same mistakes that got us here.

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