By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
I learned a lot of values from my dad. He served in the legislature 26 years, and one of the most important values he practiced as a legislator and that he passed on to me is that our government should operate honestly and out in the open so that the taxpayers can see what they are getting for their money.
So you can imagine the heartburn I feel when the Republicans in the Alabama legislature have – not once but twice – rammed through major educational reform legislation without public input or meaningful legislative debate.
We all know the story: On February 28th, the Republican Supermajority in Montgomery replaced the educational reform bill that had passed both houses of the legislature with a new bill that was three times longer than the original bill and included a new voucher system. Legislators had only one hour to read and debate this new bill, and we still do not know how much it will cost, but that cost will be paid from the state education budget.
Last week, we could have had the opportunity to have the debate on the Accountability Act that we were not allowed to have back in February.
We could have had that debate, but we didn’t.
Once again, the Republican Supermajority used their power to ram through a new change to the Accountability Act. This was the first of the Republicans’ “fix” bills meant to make the Accountability Act better.
Of course, this bill doesn’t actually fix anything. All this new bill does is allow “non-failing schools” to deny admission to students trying to transfer out of “failing schools.”
The Accountability Act was sold to the public as giving kids “trapped in ‘failing schools’ a way out.” But the very first “fix” bill the Republican Supermajority rammed through the legislature would make it more difficult for children in the so-called “failing schools” to transfer to “non-failing schools.”
I guess all that talk about “school choice” was just empty rhetoric meant to pull the wool over our eyes.
But aside from the fact that this “fix” bill doesn’t actually fix anything (in fact, it just makes this already terrible law even worse), once again the debate on the Accountability Act was shut off.
After only two Democrats got to speak on this bill, the Republicans shut off debate and rammed this bill through.
There are two reasons why the Republicans shut off debate. First, the Republicans knew that Democrats had an amendment to offer that would have prohibited legislators and constitutionally elected officers like the governor from receiving vouchers to send their kids to private schools.
As Democrats, we believe it is dishonest for elected officials to financially benefit at the expense of the children of Alabama. These vouchers will take $50 million out of our schools this year alone. Why should legislators make a profit while our children have to make do with out-of-date textbooks and old computers or deteriorating school buildings?
But we did not get to offer that amendment. The Republicans who wrote the Accountability Act want to get the voucher for their families, and they don’t want to go on the record voting against an amendment that would prohibit them from receiving it. So they chose two Democrats whom they knew did not have an amendment and only let them speak.
The second reason the Republicans shut off debate is because they do not want to shine the light of day on what the Accountability Act is or how it will impact public education.
The President Pro-Tem of the state senate, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has said publicly that if they had tried to pass the Accountability Act through the normal legislative process it would not have passed.
And that brings me back to what my dad taught me about how our government needs to be open and honest in how it operates and especially in how we spend the taxpayers money.
The Accountability Act does not improve our schools; it abandons them. It does so by giving up on struggling schools and taking money away from successful schools. It is so bad that now even some Republican senators are joining with Democrats and calling on the legislature to repeal the Accountability Act.
All of our children deserve access to a quality education. The taxpayers deserve to know what their government is doing and how their tax dollars are being spent. Until we have an honest and open debate on the Accountability Act, we cannot provide either.
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.