By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
If there was any doubt that the Republican leadership in Montgomery is waging a war on public education in Alabama, those doubts were put to rest last week.
By passing the so-called school “Accountability Act,” and doing so in the way that they did it, the Republicans in the Alabama legislature broke two of their campaign promises from 2010.
But before we get into the process of how this bill was passed, let’s look at the bill itself and see just how destructive it is.
There has already been a great deal said about the flexibility part of the bill, so I will focus on the new parts that were added into the bill at the last minute.
The new version of the bill includes two new and expensive provisions. First, it creates a tax credit to help families with children in failing schools pay for private school education. This tax credit would come out to around $3,500 per child.
The problem is, the cheapest private schools cost over $4,000 a year, and some cost as much as $20,000 a year. In fact, the average cost to send your child to private school in Alabama is around $10,000 a year, so this tax credit is not nearly enough for these families.
To help offset the additional expense, the Republicans are creating a scholarship program, which is capped at $25 million.
But here’s the thing, not only is this not enough to send a child to a private school, every dollar devoted to these tax credits and the scholarship program is taken out of the education budget, meaning our already cash-strapped schools will be facing major budget cuts starting this year.
But it goes beyond that.
Schools receive funding based on the number of students who attend. So if a failing school has a mass exodus or even a sizeable exodus of students, that school will lose even more funding. And that means these schools, which are already considered failing, will have to layoff teachers and support personnel, cut back funding or eliminate entirely extracurricular programs like athletics, and cut funding for textbooks, computers, and field trips.
Now how is that supposed to help a failing school?
This bill is a disaster for our state. But what is equally scary is the way it was rammed through the legislature.
Every bill has to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate before the governor can sign the bill into law. When one of those two bodies changes the bill, the other chamber must accept those changes or a “conference committee” must be formed to work out the differences and send the mediated version back to each chamber for a vote.
But that did not happen last Thursday. When the conference committee met, the Republicans immediately left and went into a closed room. When they returned, they brought with them a bill that was more than three-times longer than the original version and included the tax credit and several other provisions that were not in the original bill.
This new bill was quickly rammed through the conference committee and then sent to the House and Senate where it was only allowed one hour of debate. Until then, nobody had seen this bill or knew anything about it. Ultimately, it passed with only 51 votes.
But legislators were not the only ones kept in the dark. The governor and legislative leaders also kept the state school superintendent and the Association of School Boards out of the loop.
In Gov. Bentley’s own words, he said he kept his education advisors out of the loop because, “I think they did oppose it…I think the conscious decision to not include them was to pass the bill.”
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, went on to add, “The truth is we did not have the votes to pass the bill the way it came out of the House.”
I have never heard of a governor intentionally keeping his own education advisors out of the loop because he knew they would oppose his bill! I doubt the governor would want a teacher telling him how to practice medicine. So he should be listening to teachers on all education issues.
But now we know their true intentions. It started with targeting teachers and support personnel. Then they went after school budgets. But with this bill, the Republicans in Montgomery are systematically trying to dismantle our public schools.
In 2010, the Republicans ran on a platform that said they would support our schools and bring open and honest government back to Montgomery. This week, they broke both of those promises.
Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden. He has served in the Alabama House of Representatives since 2000. In 2010, Representative Ford was elected House Minority Leader by the House Democratic Caucus. He was re-elected Minority Leader in 2012.