Next year Alabama will be 200 years old. To mark the milestone, a variety of events and activities have been planned around the state. Groups and organizations from the Alabama Tourism Department and Alabama Humanities Foundation to the Alabama State Department of Education and Alabama Public Television are involved in Alabama’s bicentennial celebration.

Telling one’s story is important. Rightly, much energy and effort is being put into illuminating and telling Alabama’s 200-year history. But just as it’s important Alabamians take the time to look back and reflect on what was, it’s also important we do the same about what is and what can be. Telling the state’s story is important, but the blank pages, the story yet to be written is of equal, if not greater, importance.

Auburn University’s Government and Economic Development Institute (GEDI) has recently focused on four critical issues that currently, and will in the future, impact the “quality of life and economic prosperity of the state of Alabama, its communities and its citizens.”

Through a collection of research-based articles from experts and scholars in various fields, GEDI has published “Alabama Issues 2018” with the goal of impacting Alabama’s present and its future. As the introduction notes: “The 2019 bicentennial of Alabama serves as an unprecedented occasion to celebrate our state — to reflect upon our past, evaluate our present and collectively envision the future we desire for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. [The publication] will serve as a tool in that process by examining statewide issues to address the nature, costs and implications of our current and alternative policy choices.”

This is important.

“Public policy” is a term that may cause one’s eyes to glaze over or trigger an automatic yawn. But the degree, or lack thereof, of a nation’s, state’s or community’s progress is directly related to the public policy it implements. Public policy is more than one-word slogans or folksy sayings — or at least it should be. Shallowness in policymaking produces dysfunction and hinders advancement. Conversely, depth and successful implementation generates progress and prosperity.

Alabama’s future story will be written by our children and grandchildren. Rightly, the first issue examined is education.

According to “Alabama Issues 2018,” success, or the lack thereof, begins at education’s earliest level — pre-K. One article notes, “In a study specific to Alabama, economist Keivan Deravi found the rate of return for pre-K to be ‘comparable to the state’s recent economic development investment in the automobile industry and its mega projects.’” Pre-K’s importance can’t be understated. For every $1 spent by a community on high-quality pre-K programs, research has shown a return of more than $7.

A bevy of studies have shown the correlation between a high-quality pre-K program and numerous positive outcomes, for children and the community. The research is irrefutable. However, although Alabama has one of the “highest-ranked public preschool programs in America,” 70 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds don’t have access to the state’s “First Class Pre-K” program.

A strong argument is presented for why the state’s public pre-K program should be for all kids, not just the disadvantaged. Dr. Steven Barnett notes, “We cannot solve the school readiness and failure problems without including the middle class. Alabama cannot build a world-class workforce that will attract high-paying employers if every child is not well educated. Many middle-income families cannot find or afford high-quality pre-K.”

Another series of articles delves into education funding, examining trends and disparities and proposing viable solutions. For our leaders and those concerned about quality and appropriately funded education in Alabama, these are invaluable.

The story of health care access and outcomes has not been an uplifting or positive one for many Alabama citizens. In the first article focusing on health care access, Danne Howard, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association, is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this hopeless and this concerned for the health care delivery system in our state. … What’s going on now is not one thing in particular. It’s the convergence of a number of things that have been going on for years as well as new things that have just started happening.”

This “perfect storm” for health care access in Alabama is creating a nightmare for many Alabamians.

In 62 of Alabama’s 67 counties there are not enough physicians to meet local needs. Three counties don’t have a full-time dentist. One county doesn’t have a doctor at all. Seven counties don’t have a hospital and 13 lack a single life-sustaining dialysis clinic. Alabama’s Black Belt is experiencing an outbreak of tuberculosis with a rate of infection that’s “almost a hundred times the national average, and higher than the rates in India, Kenya and Haiti.”

Infamously, Alabama is first nationally in infant mortality, second in obesity and third in the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, preterm births and low-birthweight babies. The state’s future can’t be a positive one if health care access and health care outcomes aren’t seriously, aggressively and effectively addressed. Slogans and shallow talk won’t do it. Alabama needs sound public policy. This is definitely a “leadership opportunity for the taking.”

So it is with the last two areas examined, criminal justice, and budgets and taxes. With piercing analysis and thoughtful prescriptions, experts address these issues, which are of great importance. The latter, budgets and taxes, greatly impacts the other three issues. Budgets reflect our priorities. Taxes are how we fund them. Our priorities and funding need attention.

GEDI Executive Director Dr. Joe Sumners states it quite correctly: “The state of Alabama, sadly, tends not to follow the example of its two successful major college football programs. We consistently set our sights too low. … We have become accustomed to mediocrity, or worse; indeed, it is all we have ever known.”

Breaking the chains of mediocrity that have hampered us as a state begins with expecting more from ourselves, and definitely more from those that lead us. It begins with us thinking deeply and seriously about the issues we face — and addressing them.

Hopefully, the story told in some future celebration of Alabama’s history will be of how we — in this time — decided to choose public policy excellence, not mediocrity.