By Larry Lee
Reaction to Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese’s ruling that the Alabama Accountability Act is unconstitutional was just as expected.
Politicians squalled, educators cheered.
Rep Chad Fincher of Mobile County, one of the sponsors of AAA, said the Reese ruling was a “political stunt” while Decatur school superintendent Ed Nichols called it a “bad bill” that was not put together well.
The legislation, passed in 2013 by the supermajority Republican House and Senate, diverted $40 million from the special education trust fund to fund tax rebates and credits to allow public school students in “failing schools” to receive scholarships to attend private schools.
Reese ruled that the manner in which the bill was enacted was unconstitutional in several respects. He also pointed out the AAA runs afoul of constitutional prohibitions against public funds being directed to non-public schools.
The Reese ruling will be appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court to see if they interpret the constitution as he does.
One of the three plaintiffs who brought suit was Dr. Daniel Boyd, superintendent of the Lowndes County school system of less than 1,700 students. A Black Belt county between Montgomery and Selma, this is exactly the kind of school system proponents of AAA say they want to help.
But instead, it is a glaring example of how the legislation has utterly failed. The system has two failing schools, Lowndes Middle with 171 students and Hayneville Middle with 248. Any public school student in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade in the county attends one of these schools. There are no other choices.
According to the AAA, all of these 419 students have the option of transferring to a non-failing school within the system, to a school in another system or to a private school. (That is, provided another system or private school will accept them. AAA allows them to refuse students from failing schools.)
In this case, option one is not an option, while options two and three mean students have to travel to Montgomery, Selma or Greenville and provide their own transportation.
Considering that Lowndes County is one of the poorest in the U.S. with median household income that is only 53 percent of the national average, transportation is a major roadblock.
So it’s hardly a surprise that figures from the state department of education show not a single student in Lowndes County left their failing school. In fact, of the 35 systems with failing schools, 14 others besides Lowndes had no transfers.
So all the talk from the legislature about “kids should not be trapped in failing schools by their zip codes” was just that. Talk, nothing else. The proponents of the AAA told 419 kids in Lowndes County that help was on the way—but it was only a charade.
And what they didn’t tell them was even though they would not be helped, they would still have to pay. Official figures show it cost the Lowndes County system $94,926 as their portion of the $40 million AAA price tag.
So we promised them help, which we didn’t deliver and then we charged them for help that never came.
We have it all wrong. Instead of asking kids in poor schools to make sacrifices to benefit businesses, we should ask businesses to make sacrifices to benefit kinds in poor schools.
Daniel Boyd understands this. It’s the world he deals with daily.
Yet standing up for kids and speaking out against this legislative shell game is called a “political stunt.”
No, it’s not a stunt–it is “courage.”