I’ve had some very interesting conversations lately with key people in the State House about the current situation with pending legislation regarding school choice.

The general sense is how amazing it is that there are apparently a number of legislators who are hedging on the legislation, but not for the reasons that you would expect.

Before I tell you the absolutely abysmal arguments that the bill sponsors are currently struggling against, let me paint a picture for you.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to conduct military training in Panama. It was interesting to me to be on the ground at a military base where my own grandfather had served as the base commander almost 50 years prior. Panama itself is a beautiful country and on one particular day, I was able to visit one of the major locks on the Panama Canal to watch a cargo ship come through.

It was amazing to watch that full-scale giant sailing vessel wedged into this man-made channel moving in at snails’ pace and sitting still as the locks raised and lowered it to be able to safely exit the other side. At the time I was there, the Panama Canal was already 85 years old. It is now 107!

Before the Panama Canal was finished in 1914, ships had to go around Cape Horn at the southern end of South America in order to move their cargo between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, which added 50% more time to the trip. Navigating through the Magellan Straits was exceedingly dangerous and could cause worse problems for the ships.

The canal was originally commissioned as a cut-through for ships, but it is clear the founders had no idea just how much the shipping industry would be affected by it. The Panama Canal sees 10 to 15 thousand ships pass through it every year. Fully 5% of the entire world's trade goes through the Panama Canal, with over 14,000 transits every year. For 100 years, shipbuilding worldwide was governed in part by the size of the Panama Canal. Basically, if you were a competitive shipbuilder you had to keep your ships scaled to a size that could fit through the locks of the Panama Canal. It has had an epic impact on the world.

But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it was once considered pure folly … a fools’ errand … a failed project started and abandoned by the French - until leadership in the form of President Teddy Roosevelt came along.

You see, Roosevelt believed that he had a mission in mind that would serve the greater good. He chose to launch the mission, for good or bad, and let the debate rage in the aftermath. In fact, in 1911, then former president Roosevelt told an audience in Berkeley, Calif., that he had decided as chief executive to ensure access to the Isthmus of Panama to get a canal built as the centerpiece of America’s growing global power.

Said Roosevelt, “The Panama Canal would not have been started if I had not taken hold of it, because if I had followed the traditional or conservative method, I should have submitted an admirable state paper occupying a couple of hundred pages detailing all of the facts to Congress and asking Congress’ consideration of it.

In that case, there would have been a number of excellent speeches made on the subject in Congress; the debate would be proceeding at this moment with great spirit and the beginning of work on the canal would be 50 years in the future. Fortunately, the crisis came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly, I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”

Were there problems? Yes. Were there questionable uses of foreign policy? Yes. Did it make people nervous and rock the status quo? Yes.

Did it change the world? Yes.

It did not matter to Roosevelt what people said about him. It did not matter whether or not he could point to success first in other places. It did not matter that he might not get reelected. What mattered was that America was in need of a game-changer because the world stage was developing and we had limited opportunity for self-reliance in trans-continental shipping without a means of safely and quickly traversing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, not to mention the benefit to our naval forces. So, the canal was built and the rest is history.

I tell you that because of the first point made in my opening statements: right now there is a bill in Montgomery that would change the face of education in Alabama as we know it that is titled “The Parents Choice Act.” This Bill has the potential to become the Panama Canal of education policy in Alabama.

Keep in mind that we are 50th in the nation in education rankings right now. Fiftieth! Really, we are 52nd in math! Yet the word I have been hearing from the State House is that some Republicans in Montgomery - many of who have already taken campaign donations from the Teachers Union - are fretting and worried that this bill might actually create some changes.

Well, that’s the whole point!

I’m hearing that it is also said that despite the empirical evidence that Alabama schools are ranked dead last in the nation, that members of the House and Senate really haven’t been hearing from their constituents on this. Never mind that last week over 150 parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and students showed up for School Choice Day at the State House.

I’ve also been hearing that many of our elected officials in the Executive and Legislative Branches are in campaign mode already and don’t want to go down a road that will make some establishment education folks and members of the teachers’ union mad. Well, they run the risk that as the story gets out that there may be any number of moms and dads who are mad.

This bill is hard, I get it. But this bill is also easy if you get down to it. It simply requires a statesmanlike view. The mindset that I must also think outside of my own District and see what can be done for the greater good. Unless a legislator can attribute an actual policy position for their “no” vote on this school choice legislation then they must then look to the broader view.

What is good for Alabama? What is best for the state as opposed to just what is good for reelection? Doing the same thing and remaining in last place? Or doing something innovative and digging the education canal against all odds. Our kids deserve more than just the same old, same old.

Great legacies do not come from playing it safe. Roosevelt knew one thing when he dug the canal: to make a difference you have to go big or go home.

Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts Rightside Radio M-F 2-5 pm on WVNN. His column appears every Monday in 1819 News. To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement go to www.rightsideradio.orgThe views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.