By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
Most of us would agree that every child in Alabama deserves a quality education. That is why we have a public education system. Most families cannot afford a private school, so without public schools their children would not have a chance to get an education.
It is also true that some of our public schools are struggling to keep up with academic standards. And how we help the students in these schools has been at the center of the biggest debate in Montgomery.
Last year, the Republican legislators in Montgomery forced through the controversial Accountability Act, which provides tax credits for families that transfer their children out of “failing schools” and into private schools.
The Accountability Act also provides tax credits to individuals and corporations that make donations to “scholarship granting organizations” that are meant to give scholarships to kids in failing schools who cannot afford the costs of a private school even with the tax credits, though these organizations can award up to 20 percent of their scholarships to children who are already enrolled in private schools.
To pay for these tax credits, Republican leaders cut $40 million out of the state’s education budget. And more than half of that is going to those who donated to a scholarship granting organization rather than a family trying to transfer their child to a private school.
So more than $20 million of our tax dollars is going to people and businesses that made donations to these organizations rather than to our children’s education where the money was meant to go.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not at all opposed to private schools. But I think private schools should be privately funded. Our tax dollars should go to our children’s education, and not to those people who are trying to make a profit off of private education on the taxpayers’ dime.
And after all that, only 52 kids in the entire state transferred to a private school last year, while about 720 transferred to another public school. That is less than half as many who transferred the year before the Accountability Act was passed.
But it’s not just that the Accountability Act has failed in practice. It is also a failed concept.
The Accountability Act, and the Republican legislators who wrote it and voted it into law, is rooted in the belief that the only way to fix a failing school is to give up and abandon it.
Despite what some politicians might say, kids leaving schools is not going to help those schools perform better academically. And unless every kid in a “failing school” is able to transfer to a private school or a non-failing public school, then there will be thousands of kids still “trapped” in these “failing schools”. So are state leaders not interested in helping these kids get a quality education?
The reality is that you cannot fix something by abandoning it. That would be like a business firing half it’s employees and expecting the company to become more productive.
If our goal really is to help kids in struggling schools, then we cannot hope to do that by abandoning them and their teachers. We have to look at what the problems are and come up with real solutions.
We need to lower classroom sizes so that teachers can spend more one-on-one time with their students and so teachers can have an easier time controlling the classroom. We need to expand programs that we know work, like the pre-k program, the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.
And we need to treat our educators like professionals instead of treating them like the enemy. The Accountability Act was passed without input from a single educator or school administrator. Even the governor’s own superintendent of education was left in the dark.
You can’t cure an illness without seeing a doctor, and you can’t improve our schools without talking to a teacher or principal.
But above all, we cannot hope to help kids in struggling schools by abandoning them.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.