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90.3 WBHM Birmingham--Buried deep in the 26 page report, there's a graphic that the folks at the Southern Education Foundation know is controversial. But they say it sums up the problem with Alabama's education system. It's a simple bar graph that compares the combined salaries of Alabama and Auburn's head football coaches - with the total state dollars awarded in financial aid to tens of thousands of needy college students. Football - $6.5 million. Financial aid - $2 million.

"It's a matter of priorities."

Steve Suitts is the Foundation's vice president.

"There are probably some other states where the numbers might be comparable, but it'd be heard to find other states where two football coaches in college are being paid three times as much as kids are being given to go to college by the state legislature."

Now that graphic applies to college students, but Suitts says the message starts much earlier in the educational process. He says in Alabama there isn't enough focused attention paid to increasing graduation rates. According to the foundation's calculations nearly half of all students who should have graduated last year, didn't. Suitts says the state doesn't have to look far for clues on how to turn that trend around. He praises some of the state's early reading programs and math interventions, but he says they're piecemeal. The state needs to bring it all together in a plan that is more holistic.

"A parent knows that if your child gets through algebra that doesn't mean they're going to conquer calculus. They're going to need another year of support and preparation and help. And if you look at policy making it's the same thing. You can't expect a 4th grade reading program to solve the entire education problems."

The new report suggests that if Alabama would reduce the high school dropout rate and increase number of kids going on to college it could almost double its economy in next 40 years. Michael Shattuck likes the sound of that. He's director of Business Development at the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board, the agency that recruits businesses to locate here.

"They want to know how many people in an area have a college degree. How many schools you have in the area that can provide a potential source of employees for the area, so it's a very important concept."

And studies like the one released this week by the Southern Education Foundation can make Shattuck's job a little harder.

"Yeah it is discouraging, but we have had a lot of success in term sof recruiting companies to our region. You know Alabama traditionally has been at the bottom in terms of the education attainment and I think we're making progress. And part of that is just highlighting and emphasizing the strong aspects of our state. The strong aspects that would induce companies - and we have several of those."

But, Shattuck admits, the downturn in the economy is making that a tougher sell. It's also making it harder for state lawmakers to expand funding for education and dropout prevention when they've got a lot of competing needs and tighter budgets.

-- Tanya Ott, April 30, 2008

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