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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.”

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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.

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 | Senator Rusty Glover: The people’s voice

Rusty Glover

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As a senator, it has been my highest priority to listen to my constituents on a variety of issues which affect their daily lives. These conversations have led me to champion Daylight Saving Time resolutions, to fight every single attempt to raise taxes, to defend the life of the unborn, and to lead the repeal of Common Core standards in education.

Over the past few years, my constituents became a unified chorus when it came to the repeal of Common Core standards in education. Concerns came from frustrated parents and grandparents who did not agree with the confusing methods and procedures in subjects like math and English and worried about their children’s future.

It would have been easier to simply agree with my constituents and move on – but I could not do that. As an educator myself, it became apparent action was needed – and I was determined to take that action and repeal common core.

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I sponsored the bills to end common core in Alabama not once, but twice – senate bill 60in 2016, and senate bill 101 in 2015, and co-sponsored the bill three times prior to that. While backroom deals and compromises killed my attempts to defeat Common Core even before they came to the Senate floor, I continued to fight for the voices of parents and educators.

This is why as Lieutenant Governor, I will not allow backroom politics that shut out the voice of the people who we are sent to represent.

Educators and parents alike agree that the need for high standards remains, but question whether Common Core is the way to solve the problem for our teachers and our students. I do not believe it is.

Tackling issues with the needs of the community at the forefront will allow teachers and parents to work together to meet the needs of children. This is the best way to allow our children to flourish in their future careers.

As Lieutenant Governor I will continue to evaluate the state of education in Alabama – that’s why I believe in having roundtables across the state with every concerned parent, educator, and administrator is fundamental to having better education policy in the Alabama legislature.

Glover is a republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Alabama. As a native of Mobile, Glover has served in the Alabama Legislature for 16 years as a member of Alabama House of Representatives (2002-2006) and Senate (2006-present). Glover is a graduate of B.C. Rain High School, Faulkner State Community College and the University of South Alabama. He retired after 25 years of teaching from Mary G. Montgomery High School in Semmes, where he lives with his wife, Connie. Together they have two daughters, Kellie and Katie; a son-in-law, John McGraw; and a new grandson, Beau Monroe McGraw. He is a member of Wilmer Baptist Church in Wilmer, AL. Visit rustyglover.com to learn more.

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Opinion | House passes VA bill, funds Choice Program

Martha Roby

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The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed S. 2372, the VA MISSION Act, taking another critical step towards fulfilling our promise to make the Department of Veterans Affairs work for the men and women who have selflessly served our great nation. I was proud to support the legislation, and I am very pleased that it addresses a number of important pieces of the large VA puzzle.

First and foremost, the VA MISSION Act extends and makes permanent funding for the VA Choice Program that many veterans depend on to receive care. You may have heard that Choice funding was set to expire at the end of May, and this bill prevents that from happening. In both densely populated and rural states alike, it can be very challenging for the VA medical centers to properly care for all veterans in a timely fashion, particularly when specialists are required. The Choice Program is an attempt to bridge this gap by allowing veterans to access private-sector care at VA expense if they have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA appointment or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility. It has been recorded that 550,000 veterans have used Choice so far this year, and in 2017, 14,790 Alabamians enrolled. Therefore, I am extremely glad that the House has taken action to ensure that this important program is funded.

Secondly, the VA MISSION Act expands the VA’s Post-9/11 Caregiver Program to include veterans of all eras. Currently, only caregivers of veterans from the post-9/11 era are eligible for monthly stipends through the VA, and I believe expanding this program to caregivers of veterans from all eras will help ensure that more veterans receive the help they need.

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Finally, officials at the VA have said that their current physical footprint includes “hundreds of outdated or obsolete facilities,” and many of these facilities are often not in close proximity to large veteran populations. This is a gross waste and misuse of precious resources. Congressman Phil Roe, the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and author of the VA MISSION Act, said he believes a process free from bureaucratic politics is needed “to fix the massive and misaligned footprint” of the VA. The bill directs President Trump to establish a team to review the current VA operations across the country and make recommendations about ways we can modernize, improve, and streamline facilities and the services they provide. We can do better than this for our veterans, and I believe we will.

Before the House voted on the bill, 38 veterans groups issued a letter of support for the legislation and called it “a major step towards making improvements to and investments in the VA health care system… so that veterans have access to care when and where they need it.” I agree, and I believe this bill will improve the lives of veterans. Fortunately, I believe the Senate will act quickly on this important piece of legislation, and the President has suggested he will waste no time signing it into law.

You know as well as I do there’s no “quick fix” for the problems plaguing the VA – of course, I wish there was. Nonetheless, I will continue to support commonsense measures like the VA MISSION Act to deliver positive change for veterans. I have heard from countless veterans in Alabama’s Second District about the continued need for VA changes to improve the care they receive. We owe the men and women who have served our country the absolute best care possible, and I won’t stop fighting to achieve this. I hope we will soon see the VA MISSION Act signed into law.

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband Riley and their two children.

 

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Opinion | Appreciation for Law Enforcement

Bradley Byrne

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Each day, law enforcement officers leave the safety of their homes not knowing if they will pass back through their own front doors at the end of the work day.  They leave their families behind to ensure the safety of our loved ones at schools, in neighborhoods, and on the roadways.  There is never enough we can do to show our appreciation for their work.

These men and women often go far beyond their official job descriptions.  Even when they are not wearing the uniform, law enforcement officers play a significant role in our neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  They even serve as positive role models for our children.

 I have had the chance to ride along with some of our local law enforcement officers and witness firsthand the challenges they face on the job.  Law enforcement officers encounter dangers on the job that do not exist in other professions.  It shocked me to realize that even a task as routine as a traffic stop can turn hostile, and in some cases, even deadly.

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That is why each year we celebrate National Police Week, which gives us an opportunity to reflect on the hard and dangerous work our nation’s law enforcement officers do daily.   Police Week attracts people from across the country to our nation’s capital for memorial services, parades, and vigils in honor of our men and women in blue.

Police Week also serves as a time to pay our respects as a nation to those whose end of watch came too soon.  I recognized National Police Week by speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives to honor these brave men and women and remember the life of one of our very own who was killed in the line of duty just four months ago.

Mobile Police Officer Justin Billa paid the ultimate sacrifice after being shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call on February 20th, 2018.  In such a time of immense grief, we saw our community rally together to support the family and friends of fallen Officer Billa.  The impact of his death was felt throughout the United States, as officers and first responders from across the country traveled to Mobile to pay their respects.

To remember our fallen heroes and honor all of those in law enforcement, the House of Representatives passed several pro-law enforcement bills last week.

The Protect and Serve Act of 2018 toughens federal penalties against people who intentionally target law enforcement officers in attacks, including ambushes.

Additionally, we passed the Justice Served Act of 2018, which provides funds to prosecute cold cases that are solved by breakthrough DNA evidence, including backlogged rape kits.  This bill will strengthen our criminal justice system by making sure that newly-tested evidence is used to prosecute unsolved cases, thus ensuring violent criminals are brought to justice.

From legislation to prevent attacks on our officers to providing funding for additional resources, we are working to ensure these dedicated individuals have the tools they need to do their jobs and keep us safe.

Let us not forget that we sleep soundly at night due to the sacrifices our law enforcement officers make out on the streets.  We owe these individuals far more than our thanks for the services they provide.

I ask you to join me in showing your appreciation for the law enforcement officers in Southwest Alabama for living a life of service. May we honor them each and every day.

 

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Alabama Accountability Act:  By the numbers

by Larry Lee Read Time: 4 min
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