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Alabama Accountability Act:  By the numbers

Larry Lee

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By Larry Lee
Education Matters

Now that we have several years of experience with the Alabama Accountability Act, let’s look as closely as possible at the numbers available to see what’s been done.

The legislation creating AAA was passed early in 2013 under rather mysterious conditions. Basically one bill went into a conference committee and a radically different one emerged a few hours later. It was as if you went to pick up your prom date, she met you at the door of her house all cute and bubbly and told you to wait a moment while she got her coat. And minutes later her mother shows up, wrinkles and all, and says “let’s go have fun.”

It was legislative sleight of hand from the beginning. Nothing was ever as it was promised to be and studying the numbers since 2013 proves the point.

As is often the case, the bill’s mantra from Day One was about “helping poor kids stuck in failing schools by their zip codes.” But at the Alabama Statehouse, stated intentions and reality are sometimes very different.

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The bill called for the creation of Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that would accept donations to be distributed as payment for students to attend private schools. Contributors would be allowed to claim a dollar for dollar tax deduction against their Alabama income tax liability.

Since such taxes are used to fund the Educational Trust Fund, a dollar given to an SGO is a dollar diverted from ETF.

Initially, donations were capped at $25 million annually. This has since been increased to $30 million. However, this cap has never been reached.

In 2013 seven SGOs collected $24,787,079. In 2014 eight SGOs got $13,413,510. The next year five SGOs took in $11,815,131. Five also got $16,088,342 in 2016, while six collected $21,010,580 in 2017.

(Originally contributions were reported on a calendar year, however, this has now changed to a fiscal year of July 1-June 30.)

Figures available on the State Department of Revenue web site show more than $87 million has gone to SGOs through June 30, 2017. However, additional info from the state indicates the actual to-date number is $93 million.

A total of 12 SGOs have participated. Five have been discontinued and only three (Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, Scholarships for Kids and AAA Scholarship Foundation) that began in 2013 are still in operation.

Here are total scholarships given each year:

2013–20

2014–5,792

2015–851

2016–4,132

2017–4,119

Since the legislation says that a scholarship recipient is eligible to continue to receive it until they finish school, many of those who got scholarships in recent years were already enrolled in the program.

Private schools seeking scholarship students must apply to the state Department of Revenue for approval. As of Sept. 20, 2017 there were 203 schools on this list. Of these, 77 (37.9 percent) were non-accredited.

By far the two major scholarship granting organizations are the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund and Scholarships for Kids, both headquartered in Birmingham. AOSF has received $43.6 million in donations, SFK, $39.5. It is noteworthy that the average contribution to AOSF is $66,527 as compared to $11,277 for SFK.

Of course, those who have been major proponents of AAA from the outset, such as Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh and the Business Council of Alabama, have insisted this bill was always about helping kids in failing schools. But the numbers do not support this contention.

For instance, records show that AOSF and SFK gave 3,849 scholarships in 2017. Of these, only 1,279 (33.2 percent) went to students “zoned” for failing schools. And this designation is very misleading as a student already attending a private school may actually be “zoned” for a failing public school. A much better measurement would be “attending” a failing school.

For instance, of the 5,690 scholarships awarded in 2014, 1,709 went to students “zoned” for failing schools, but at the same time 1,067 went to students who were already attending a private school. Since there were only 11 total scholarships given the year before, very few of these 1,067 could have been students getting one for the second time.

I have checked, re-checked and re-re-checked numbers. Still, because info is sketchy at best, reporting forms have changed, reporting periods have changed, etc. I am never 100 percent convinced that my numbers are totally accurate.

Because of this, the taxpayers of Alabama deserve a complete and full accounting of the AAA. A legislative committee needs to dig deep into records and gather testimony from public school educators, private school administrators, parents, etc.

Why is the state of Alabama administering a program that diverts tax dollars from potentially helping public schools to non-accredited private schools? Are scholarships truly being used to help students succeed academically, or to boost athletic programs at certain private schools?

We continue to have far more questions about the Alabama Accountability Act than we have answers.

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Opinion | Recognizing our congressional interns

Bradley Byrne

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A Congressional internship is an incredibly rewarding experience that helps young people gain skills and knowledge that will serve them well in whatever career path they choose.

I’m pleased my office offers internships to college students and recent graduates from Alabama throughout the year. This year, it was an honor to host eleven interns in my D.C. office and two interns in my Mobile office over the course of the summer. These were all high-quality individuals who helped our office function and served as great ambassadors for Southwest Alabama.

During their internships, they assisted with legislative and administrative tasks including answering the phones, researching legislation, attending events throughout Southwest Alabama, observing Congressional hearings, and assisting constituents with various government agencies.

This year’s summer interns were:

Harrison Adams, a native of Selma, is a junior at the University of Alabama, where he is majoring in Economics and Finance with a minor in Social Innovation and Leadership.

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Anna Casteix, a Mobile native, is a junior at the University of Alabama, where she is majoring in Biology with a minor in Psychology.

William Chandler, a native of Montgomery, is a junior at Sewanee, where he is double-majoring in Politics and English with a minor in Rhetoric.

Emma Goodloe, a native of Mobile, is a senior at the University of Georgia, where she is majoring in Public Relations with a minor in Public Affairs Communication.

Win Gustin, a Mobile native and Murphy High School graduate, is a rising junior and History major at Washington and Lee University.

Summer Hinton, a native of Mobile, is a sophomore at the University of Alabama, where she is double majoring in Public Relations and Political Science.

William Kelly, a native of Mobile, is a senior at Auburn University, where he is majoring in Finance. He is planning to graduate next May.

John Loris, a Mobile native, is a junior at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. He is majoring in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science with a Sports Administration minor.

Trinidad Miller, a native of Brewton, is a senior at the University of Alabama, where he is majoring in Marketing with a double specialization in Sales and Services Marketing.

Casey Nelson, a native of Tuscaloosa, is a senior at the University of Alabama, where she is pursuing dual bachelor’s degrees in Public Relations and Political Science.

William Newman, a native of Montgomery, is a senior at the University of Alabama, where he is majoring in Finance with a specialization in Investment Management.

Aaron Seeley, a native of Fairhope, is a sophomore at Auburn University, where he is majoring in Political Science with a double minor in Economics and English.

Jackson Tunks, a native of Fairhope, is a junior at Queens University of Charlotte, where he is majoring in History with minors in Business Leadership and Political Science.

I sincerely appreciate all their help over this past summer, and I wish them each all the best as they conclude their studies and prepare for the next chapter of their lives. I have no doubt they have bright futures ahead.

My office accepts interns all through the year, so I would encourage any interested students to contact my office and apply. If you want to learn more about internships in my Mobile and D.C. offices, simply visit Byrne.House.Gov/Services/Internships.

We should all take great pride in helping develop the next generation of leaders for our communities, state, and nation. Congressional internships are just one way we can equip our nation’s young people with important life skills, and I am glad my office is able to offer such a productive internship program.

 

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Opinion | The two faces of Attorney General and candidate Steve Marshall

Thomas Scovill

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An essential purpose of the Republican Party is to slow and reverse the tide of tyrannical government. When the Party stops being useful in that, I must wonder whether there is a continued need for it beyond them not being Democrats.

The Alabama Republican Party was worthy of the purpose in 2010. The ALGOP pushed for campaign finance and ethics reform. They enacted their agenda in a special session of the legislature only a few weeks after the great landslide wrought largely by the promises of reform.

Because financial transparency in and around government is an important bulwark against corruption and the tyranny it spawns, the ALGOP enacted a ban on contributions by Political Action Committees (PAC) and tax exempt 527 organizations with the exception that a PAC could contribute to the principle campaign committee of a candidate. This means that a 527 organization can put money into Alabama campaigns only by becoming an Alabama PAC, that a PAC can put money into Alabama campaigns only by becoming an Alabama PAC, and that these entities can contribute funds only to the principle campaign committees of candidates. These provisions are the essence of what is called the Alabama ban on PAC to PAC transfers. This ban and companion reporting requirements have made it harder to disguise the source of campaign money by laundering it between PACs and other organizations.

The PAC to PAC ban was immediately challenged. In 2011, the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC) sued the state of Alabama and Attorney General Luther Strange to overturn the law as impermissible under the US Constitution. The ADC lost repeatedly in federal courts, most recently in April 2017 when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) refused to issue a writ of certiorari, thus upholding the lower court decisions.

The Attorney General of Alabama defended the Alabama law because that is his job. At first this was Luther Strange. And he led by example. In 2014, he promptly returned $50,000 of unlawful contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (the RAGA, a 527 organization) as the law required.

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The end game belonged to Steve Marshall who succeeded Luther Strange in February 2017. The brief to urge SCOTUS to deny certiorari bears Attorney General Marshall’s name. We can conclude that Attorney General Marshall understood and agreed with the Alabama law he defended in federal court.

In May 2017, Attorney General Marshall registered as a candidate for election to the office he was appointed to by Governor Bentley, a registration that allowed him to begin receiving lots of campaign money, $129,000 in June 2017 on the way to over $3.3 million so far.

Candidate Marshall’s respect for Alabama law seems to have dissolved by February 2018 when he began accepting contributions from the RAGA, the same organization to which Candidate Strange had promptly returned unlawful contributions in 2014. So far Candidate Marshall has taken and not returned $735,000 from the RAGA, 22 percent of his total campaign contributions.

So why is Candidate Marshall breaking the law Attorney General Marshall and Attorney General Strange defended in federal court?

Apologists for Candidate Marshall have offered the alibi that federal organizations are regulated by federal law and do not have to comply with Alabama campaign finance law. This is poppycock. Because the RAGA’s stated mission is to elect Republican attorneys general in the states, the RAGA and its affiliates do not play in federal elections. By not playing in federal elections, there is little federal law that impacts the RAGA. Besides, federal law is supreme only when it conflicts with state law. There are many examples of the federal government and states legislating concurrently on the same subjects, e.g., taxes on income. And on this campaign finance issue there is no conflict between federal and state law because neither sovereign has meddled in the realm of the other.

Apologists for Candidate Marshall also say that the RAGA and its PACs report to the IRS and Federal Election Commission respectively and do not have to comply with the reporting required by Alabama law. This is a dodge, again because the RAGA does not play in federal elections and has no federal election reporting requirements. And this alibi is risible because the primary issue is not reporting, it is Candidate Marshall not returning unlawful contributions as required by Alabama law.

I have not heard much chatter on this issue. Republican leaders may be hoping the issue goes away as complaints to the Secretary of State and Ethics Commission crawl ahead at the speed of government. Democrats may be biding their time for an October campaign surprise, except it will not be a surprise at all.

Candidate Marshall is a scofflaw worthy of impeachment. Running such an ethically flawed person to continue as the state’s chief of law enforcement while he also co-chairs the ongoing Ethics Reform Commission should embarrass the ALGOP even as it lacked the courage to deny his nomination and now compromises the essential purpose of the Republican Party to slow and reverse the tide of tyrannical government.

As Candidate Marshall skates past the law, Democrats will use this embarrassment to defeat him in November and in the process damage the entire Republican ticket. After Hubbard and Bentley, I am disappointed in pusillanimously myopic leadership that has fully embraced another fiasco. Republican voters deserve better.

 

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Opinion | Hitting the road

Bradley Byrne

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Each August, the House of Representatives typically enters a period of recess known as the August District Work Period. This is time set aside for Members of Congress to travel across their home districts visiting with the people they represent.

For me, this is incredibly valuable time that I can spend listening to my constituents and gaining a better understanding of the issues impacting our area. Here is just a quick highlight of my August District Work Period so far.

As you probably already know, I love to hold town hall meetings throughout the First District to hear directly from the people I represent. This August, I am holding a “Better Off Now” Town Hall Tour with twelve stops in all six counties that make up the First District. So far, we have held town hall meetings in Salipta, Atmore, Brewton, Dauphin Island, Millry, Citronelle, and Mobile. Later this month, we will make stops in Grand Bay, Monroeville, Seminole, Loxley, and Spanish Fort. You can get all the details about the town halls online at Byrne.House.Gov/BetterOffTour.

Visiting local businesses and talking with employees is another priority for me in August. For example, I have already visited Olin in McIntosh, the Louisiana Pacific facility in Clarke County, Serda Brewing in Mobile, and Metal Shark Boats and Master Marine in Bayou La Batre, just to name a few. The visits help me learn firsthand how federal issues are directly impacting employers and employees in Southwest Alabama.

A really special opportunity was being able to ride along with UPS to help deliver packages on the Eastern Shore. I dressed up in the full UPS uniform, rode in the truck, and personally delivered packages. It really helped to step in the driver’s shoes and see the difficult work they do every day. I am especially grateful to Chris Dorgan for showing me the ropes.

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Just last week, I hosted Chris Oliver, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, down on Dauphin Island for a Red Snapper research trip. As one of the leading federal officials responsible for our fisheries, I welcomed the opportunity to show off the health of the Red Snapper stock in the Gulf, as well as the very impressive research being done locally by the University of South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

Also last week, I traveled to the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi to meet with the director and get an update on services for our veterans. As you may know, the Biloxi VA oversees most of our local VA facilities. It was a productive visit as I work to hold the VA accountable and ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve.

We had the annual Women’s Forum in downtown Mobile, which is organized by the Community Foundation of South Alabama. We had another outstanding crowd as local women had the opportunity to network and hear from speakers and panelists about issues important to them.

I find great value in holding roundtable discussions to hear directly from leaders about specific issues. With this in mind, we held separate roundtables with local school superintendents, economic developers from our area, and community leaders from Chatom. Each of these roundtables were very informative, and we have more scheduled later this month.

As you can probably tell, this August District Work Period has already been a huge success. The good news is that we are just getting started! I look forward to spending more time around Southwest Alabama throughout August to help me be the best Congressman possible.

 

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Opinion | A thank you note to Alabama’s teachers


Cam Ward

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My oldest daughter just turned sixteen. She’s driving, and as a dad, it’s a thrilling, but scary moment in life — this week, she started the tenth grade, and the reality is that during the school year, she spends nearly as much time at school as she does around her mom and me. For young people like my daughter, those hours at school are shaped primarily by their fellow students and their teachers.

If everything turns out right, a young person will enter Alabama’s schools around the age of five or six, and by the time they graduate at seventeen or eighteen, they will have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of mathematics, history, American and English literature, biology, and chemistry, among other subjects. We entrust teachers with the awesome responsibility of educating our young people about the basic structure of the universe – to understand and reason through, for instance, the process of photosynthesis – so that they can think analytically when confronted with any type of problem. That’s an incredible responsibility; and to teach such important knowledge to students who, well, haven’t yet achieved full impulse control, is no small task.

We trust our teachers to impart knowledge and facts, but we also expect our teachers to model virtuous behavior before our young people, because knowledge isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and we want our kids to become responsible adults. The best teachers can not only clearly communicate lessons on the history of the Civil Rights movement, but can also talk about, and model in person, the virtues of courage and perseverance that animated heroes like Rosa Parks.

Facts are stubborn things, as the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, and what she meant by that is that the world is governed by certain unalterable truths, including, for instance, the truth that a free market economy lifts more people out of poverty than socialism does. Teachers turn this knowledge into wisdom by showing students the link between effort and reward: the harder you work, the better grades you will get, and the harder you work once you graduate, the more opportunities you will have in the workplace.

Great teachers impart knowledge and model wisdom, and often they do so at a great cost to themselves: growing up, the best teachers I had were the ones who were willing to stay a few minutes after class to answer my fifteenth question how to solve a quadratic equation. Many teachers often sacrifice time and effort beyond what’s required — the clock often begins before eight, rarely stops at five, and every hour in-between is dedicated to their craft.

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As a state senator, I am committed to ensuring that our schools are well-funded and that our teachers are competitively paid. Nothing is more important to the future of Alabama than supporting education policies that work — and as in business or sports, personnel is policy. I am grateful to the great teachers we have, and I promise to always have your back in Montgomery. Thanks for all that you do — the impact that you will have this school year on my daughter and thousands of other students is life-changing.

Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard

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Alabama Accountability Act:  By the numbers

by Larry Lee Read Time: 4 min
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