By Larry Lee
Kelli Hodge was speechless.
She could not believe what she was hearing. And in her job as Dr. Kelli Hodge, superintendent of the Chambers County school system, she hears a great deal from employees, parents, elected officials, the public, etc.
But this was different. She was at her regular Thursday meeting of the Rotary Club, the last place she expected to hear a speaker imply that her school system was bad and that some students were not only bullied, but did not have a desk to sit in while in class.
The speaker was the executive director of Bob Riley’s Alabama Opportunity Scholarship fund. She was there to tell the Rotarians about the Alabama Accountability Act and how her organization could help students in public schools get scholarships to private schools.
She was joined by a mother and her son who is zoned to attend Five Points Elementary. The mother made it clear that she did not care for public schools because of what had happened to her son.
Since the family is zoned for Five Points the implication was that this was the school where her child had such a terrible experience.
“I know that school extremely well,” said Kelli. “I could not believe what I was hearing.”
Neither could Rotarian Carolyn Lott, a Lanett CPA and certified fraud examiner.
“My grandson goes to public schools here and he has never had issues like those described,” she said.
As soon as Dr. Hodge returned to her office she pulled records and discovered that not only had the student in question never attended Five Points Elementary, he never attended any school in the Chambers County system.
When the Alabama Accountability Act was passed the public was told repeatedly that its intent was to help students in failing schools. The law plainly states: Provide financial assistance through an income tax credit to a parent who transfers a student from a failing public school to a nonfailing public school or nonpublic school of the parent’s choice.
However, since the student in question did not come from a failing school and now has a scholarship to a private school in Lanett, obviously legislative “intent” and “reality” are two different things.
And to set the record straight about Five Points, Dr. Hodge told the Rotary Club at the next meeting that this is not a failing school; that on the last Alabama reading and math test, 84 percent of their students were on or above grade level in reading and 82 percent in math. She also pointed out this she is especially proud of this record since 16 percent of students receive special education services and 93 percent are on free-reduced lunches.
I attended the meeting when Kelli made her statement. It was obvious the club supports her work. After all, she is a graduate of the Chambers County system and has worked there 21 years. In addition, she is an elected Republican superintendent and had no opposition in her last election.
“We’ve had tough times around here for years now,” said Carolyn Lott, “but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up. And when a stranger comes in and gives the impression that they have the best thing since sliced bread and if we had any sense we would join them, well, it’s just it naturally gets our hackles up.”
Exit I-85 onto U.S. 29 and head downtown and you see what Lott is referring to.
The textile mills that once provided thousands of jobs in this east Alabama community are all vacant, most of them bulldozed into piles of rubble. Of the 10 schools in the Chambers County system, four of them have more than 90 percent free-reduced lunch students. Three of them are considering “failing” schools by the definition outlined in the accountability act.
It is interesting that Dr. Hodge cannot find that that any students from her failing schools have transferred to the private school in Lanett. Yet this school says they have 12 students on scholarships. Again, “intent” and “reality” seem to be in two different worlds.
“But what disturbs me most,” said Hodge, “is that while we are all supposed to be doing all we can to improve education for kids throughout the state, the accountability act has become a competition fueled by millions of dollars given to scholarship programs, instead of to public schools. All we’ve done is make school kids the rope in a political tug of war.”
“It is really a very sad situation.”
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues. He may be contacted at [email protected]