News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


City needs to decide what itís going to be

Decatur/Morgan Chamber of Commerce board members and school officials have been talking for some time about low achievement test scores and their impact on city growth.

Theirs is a legitimate discussion that, as expected, created a degree of tension that travels alongside most criticism. Both sides, nevertheless, agreed to work together to attack the problem.

City leaders compare Decatur to upstart Madison and struggle to answer why the Huntsville suburb grows and Decatur is stagnant.

The concern is real. From 2000 to 2003, Madison's population increased 16.2 percent while Decatur's grew 0.5 percent.

The Chamber moved its monthly meeting to Chestnut Grove Elementary School this week to have an appropriate setting from which to publicly voice its concerns about local education.

People are not moving here, the Chamber said, because prospective residents go on-line and compare Decatur and Madison school test scores. Madison's are higher.

The implied criticism is that the schools must do a better job, not only of educating children, but of telling its successes.

Nobody said so, but the message is that if newcomers are careful about which school district they move into, their children can attend schools that perform as well as Madison's.

For instance, Chestnut Grove fourth-graders did as well as Madison's last year in math, both scoring in the 74th percentile.

Madison's median family income for 2000 was $63,800 while Decatur's was $37,000 based U.S. Census data.

State Department of Education statistics illustrate the discrepancy between income levels. In Decatur, 54 percent of fourth-graders ranked at or below the poverty level last year. That compares to 19 percent in Madison.

Madison's Hispanic school population is 3 percent while Decatur's is 12 percent. Further comparisons show Madison's schools are 69 percent white and Decatur's 53 percent.

Income and demographics directly impact school scores. You might say that Madison's success comes from location. You might also say that some of Decatur's problems arise from decisions about what kind of jobs we want here.

Low-paying jobs don't necessarily fill a void in employment. In Decatur's case, they are a magnet for low-performing students who overwhelm the school system.

The Chamber, real estate agents and builders want more growth.

Madison is proving that quality growth is its key to success. Does Decatur want to hold out for quality or should we grab on to any jobs that come along?

We need to decide.

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