Connect with us

Guest Columnists

Alabama Accountability Act:  By the numbers

Larry Lee

Published

on

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.

Advertisement

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.

Continue Reading

Guest Columnists

Opinion | Role model statesmanship showcased in the public square

John W. Giles

Published

on

Americans got their fair share of hand to hand combat politics in the 2018 general election, which is still going on in Georgia and Florida. As we approach Thanksgiving; there is a national story buried in the heart and soul of Crenshaw County Alabama politics that needs to be shared. In a county that voted 72 percent for Trump, the centerpiece of this story lasers in on local Democrats and Republicans putting their county first, let me explain.

For decades, Crenshaw County was a Democrat stronghold in all of the county elected positions. In fact, many stated for years there is no way to get elected in Crenshaw County unless you ran as a Democrat. Over the past three quadrennial election cycles, Republicans have picked up the Probate Judge office, Sheriff, and three of the five County Board of Education seats. In this recent election, Republicans earned four out of five commission seats; here in lies the role model statesmanship showcased in the public square.

Reverend Charlie Sankey is a black Democrat Commissioner who was re-elected from the north end of the county. He is also a bi-vocational Pastor serving at Rockwest Baptist Church just inside Pike County and is a full time officer at First Citizens Bank. In this election cycle, the other four county commission seats were won by white Republican men. Sankey had served as Chairman of the County Commission for the last four years. With the Republicans clearly holding a majority of power now, the chairmanship over the next four years has certainly been a kitchen table discussion since the election.

Yesterday; all five commissioners were sworn in for their new term. The first order of business was to nominate and elect a new chairman. The county attorney statutorily opened the floor for nomination for chairman three times; and only one name surfaced; Charlie Sankey. In a unanimous vote, Charlie Sankey a black Democrat was just elected as Chairmen by his four white Republican colleagues. What a testament of bi-partisanship. There are so many takeaways from this historic move; I don’t know where to begin.

In my discussions with Sankey over the years, I have found him to be an economic, moral, social and constitutional conservative. We still have our minute differences, but he always puts the county first, makes one dollar do the work of three dollars; and if something is right he stands firm and if it is wrong, he fixes it. He has a common sense approach to governing and will not allow little, agenda driven side shows cloud the focus of what is best for the county. The county is in strong fiscal shape under his watch.

Advertisement

In an environment where politics are highly charged, it is refreshing to see these four Republicans demonstrate such great statesmanship and bi partisanship in this historic decision. They looked at the content of Sankey’s character, rather than the color of his skin or party affiliation. They put what was best for the county rather than nominating someone who has not yet been seasoned for the job. On the other hand, Sankey has demonstrated over the past four years to be a steady handed competent leader. After months of observing Sankey in the chair, newly elected Commissioner Raymond McGough showed great leadership; and without equivocation, nominated Charlie Sankey and got the vote through unanimously.

Most who know me understand I do not vote for Democrats and in some remote cases; I will not vote for a wayward Republican. The Republican National Committee and the Alabama Republican Party platforms espouse the core issues that drive my heart, vote and support. Setting aside my party affiliations for one moment; these four Republicans made the right decision and have my greatest and profound respect.

While this is a win win win for the citizens of Crenshaw County, it should be a shining example from the courthouse to the Whitehouse to always do the right thing and the hell with the consequences.

 

Continue Reading

Guest Columnists

Opinion | Words cannot express our gratitude

Bradley Byrne

Published

on

One hundred years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the world’s largest, deadliest, and costliest war to that date drew to an end. The guns that boomed over field and forest in Europe fell silent.

World War I was over.

Over 116,000 Americans had lost their lives.

One year later, President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement to the nation in celebration of the first Armistice Day, expressing his thoughts on the war’s end: “To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”

In 1938, twenty years after the Armistice, Congress formally recognized Armistice Day as a national holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace.”

Advertisement

Unfortunately, the “war to end all wars” was only the precursor to an even deadlier, costlier war.

The next year, World War II broke out across Europe, a war that would cost the lives of over 400,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

For a particular Alabamian and veteran of WWII, the celebration of Armistice Day was not quite recognition enough for the service and sacrifice of veterans who had served, not just in WWI, but for all those who had worn the uniform of our nation.

Raymond Meeks, a native of Birmingham, brought the idea of a national Veterans Day, to be held on what was then Armistice Day, to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gen. Eisenhower greatly supported this idea, and in 1947 Weeks led the first national celebration of Veterans Day right here in Alabama.

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed into law the formal celebration of Veterans Day here in the United States, dedicated to the memory of all those who served our country in the armed forces.

To this day, words cannot express our gratitude for that service.

Today, as I serve in Congress, it is an incredible honor to know that I am able to represent a free people thanks to the service, dedication, and sacrifice of our veterans.

That is why I advocate so strongly for our nation’s veterans. We need to provide them with proper access to educational and workforce opportunities, we must work towards a health care system that actually gets them the care they need, and we must help them get the benefits they earned.

Just this year, I voted to provide greater funding for programs in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), positive reforms to the G.I. Bill, and better access to career and technical education for veterans to reenter the civilian workforce. Additionally, my office has helped to resolve hundreds of cases for veterans and their families right here in Southwest Alabama.

Service in the military is so much more than just a job. It is a dedication to support and defend the Constitution and the people of the United States, both at home and abroad. That service is immeasurable, and I am humbled to represent so many of those who have fought for our freedoms.

The words of President Eisenhower on the first official Veterans Day stand as a charge for today: “Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting and enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

 

Continue Reading

Guest Columnists

Opinion | Alabama board of education member says school choice is trying to “destroy a whole race of people”

Rachel Blackmon Bryars

Published

on

Alabama board of education member Ella Bell, D-Montgomery, spoke out during a work session Thursday claiming that Alabama’s landmark tax credit scholarship program for low income families was part of an effort to “destroy a whole race of people.”

“They took money from the poorest counties in the state to send kids to private school,” Bell claimed, after accusing the program of “stealing” from the state. “That’s just awful.”

Trouble is, that’s just not true.

The small yet popular program created by the Alabama Accountability Act only amounts to one half of one percent of the state’s multi-billion-dollar education trust fund – a fund that has grown well beyond the minuscule cost of providing the scholarships, according to state budget data.

And more than 80 percent of the parents who received scholarships last year from the two largest providers are minorities, according to an AL.com report. All made at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level when they applied, as required by law, which is also the eligibility requirement to receive free or reduced priced lunches.

Advertisement

Disabled veteran Dalphine Wilson of Montgomery, who is African-American, is one of those parents.

The single mother of two uses the scholarships to send her children to private school instead of the city’s troubled public school system.

Wilson’s children dropped to one knee in protest during a recent Montgomery County School Board meeting after its members approved a resolution demanding a repeal of the scholarship program.

Her daughter wept after the meeting, afraid she’d lose her scholarship. Her son asked if they could leave Alabama.

“Parents deserve a choice,” said Wilson, 44, who applied for scholarships after seeing what she described as the “overwhelming” and chaotic culture in her daughter’s elementary school classroom. “And your choice should not be, ‘Gosh, I really hope my child can get into a magnet school, and if they can’t, their only option is this failing school that is under state intervention.’”

She said if anyone is stealing, it’s those who want to take away the scholarships.

“Why rob us of a choice?” Wilson asked.

Ryan Cantrell, a school choice advocate in Montgomery who was an aide in the State Senate when the act passed in 2013, said the program was specifically designed to provide parents like Wilson with a choice that was once only available to higher income families.

“We’re talking about families who absolutely had no other option,” he said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand how an elected official could consciously vote to take that away from a low-income child. It boggles the mind.”

Cantrell said the “heart of the problem” is that opponents of the scholarship program are primarily concerned with the public education system itself, not the students it was established to serve.

“We are so focused … on the adults in the room, and our education system is not built to serve adults,” he said. “Our education system is built to serve students, and whatever it is that works for kids ought to be what we’re doing.”

Cantrell also disproved Bell’s claim that the program has been “stealing” from public school systems. On the contrary, he said, public schools have more funding and less students now than when the scholarship program began.

Montgomery’s school system, for example, has seen its funding increase by more than $8 million, up 5 percent since 2014, even while the overall student population has decreased by more than 7 percent, according to Cantrell.

During the board meeting, Bell also said the program “is absolutely horrifying to me because already I’m black and I grew up in Montgomery County 70-years ago and I know all the tricks.”

But the scholarships aren’t a trick. They’re a lifeline, a choice, for thousands of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have one. Alabama shouldn’t allow that choice to be taken away because of past wrongs.

The plain fact today is that the Alabama Accountability Act is a tiny fraction of our state’s education budget, it gives low-income families a sometimes life-altering choice, and almost all of the students receiving scholarships are minorities.

We should all be proud of that.

Because in the end, this is about what we believe education dollars are for – the system or the student.

Please call your state legislator and local school board member today and let them know what you think.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. Contact her at [email protected].

 

Continue Reading

Guest Columnists

Opinion | Brewbaker: Advice for new legislators

Dick L. Brewbaker

Published

on

Congratulations on your election. Public service is a high calling but as recent history has shown, it can get you in trouble in a heartbeat. So as an ex-legislator who has survived his career and is now safe in “Bucks Pocket,” here is a little advice.

1. Watch out for all the “new friends” you suddenly have acquired. They are friends who want something from you. You don’t work for them, even if they gave money for your campaign. Don’t forget you are there for your neighbors who actually voted for you.

Read Proverbs 27:5-6 once a day. It was written for politicians.

2. If you are a family man and are invited to an event where your spouse is not welcome — don’t go.

3. Judge not. Do not get in the business of assigning bad motives to people that disagree with you. It makes listening impossible.

Advertisement

4. Make it a point to buck your own leadership at least once a session. If you are voting with them 100 percent of the time, you’ve stopped thinking.

5. Beware of becoming a consultant. You aren’t any smarter now than you were before you got elected. If someone offers you money to “consult,” turn it down. It’s a bribe, and it could land you in jail. The Ethics Law can be summed up simply: “Thou shalt not use your position as a legislator to enrich yourself.” Don’t.

6. Pay your own way. Always.

7. Be nice to your legislative assistant. Your career is in their hands.

8. Listen to the other side, sometimes they are right.

9. Take time to get to know the pages, and always, always make time for school groups even if they aren’t from your district. It will make your day a lot more fun.

10. Keep your sense of humor. Remember that the state Legislature is just the AA baseball of politics. The really important stuff is back home, so don’t let politics ruin your good name. Keep it in good condition.

Brewbaker is the president and CEO of Brewbaker Motors in Montgomery. He served two terms in both the Alabama House of Representatives (2003-07) and the Alabama Senate (2010-18). He would have easily won re-election but chose not to run.

 

Continue Reading

Authors

Advertisement

Facebook

Advertisement

Trending

Alabama Accountability Act:  By the numbers

by Larry Lee Read Time: 4 min
0