By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
One of the things that makes our government work is the self reporting of financial information. This self-reporting, and in some cases, outside auditing, allows the people of Alabama to know exactly where their money is going. And each year, at the end of the year, the Alabama Department of Revenue puts out these reports for all to see.
The 2014 numbers were published last week, and one very large thing struck me: Businesses and individuals donated a little more than $12 million to the Alabama Accountability Act’s scholarship fund.
That number stands out because, according to the Department of Revenue, it’s about half the amount of money donated to the same fund in 2013. That drop is important because some supporters of the Accountability Act want to raise the cap on the amount donors could legally contribute. As it stands right now, the fund cannot receive more than $25 million in donations. Luckily, that cap is still in place, and with the sharp decline in donations this year, raising the cap would have been unnecessary anyway.
But it’s not just the Accountability Act’s scholarship fund that has been in the news recently. Interesting numbers about the scholarship granting organization formed by Former Gov. Bob Riley have made year-end headlines, as well. Quite a few things about Gov. Riley’s scholarship granting organization’s year-end numbers also caused me to do a double take.
For example, according to their annual report, the organization did not award any scholarships for the calendar year 2013. This means the numbers shown for 2013-14 would be for scholarships awarded only after January 1, 2014. And since the students who receive scholarships from this organization can stay on the scholarships until they finish school, some of the numbers from the 2014-15 year will include students from the prior year. That means their new numbers will be even more inflated.
Is this really helping more students gain access to a quality education, as proponents claimed it would? I don’t think so.
For the 2014-15 school year, 70 scholarships were awarded by Riley’s organization. But of these, only 53 were actually used. So, out of the thousands of kids zoned for a failing school only 70 scholarships were awarded and only 53 of those were claimed. This calls into question the claims that parents are beating down their doors to get their kids one of these scholarships, and makes us wonder how that $12 million in donations is being spent.
Let’s also consider how those scholarships were distributed.
Looking at the 70 awarded scholarships, according to the organization’s annual report, 20 of those awarded where already in a private school, which would certainly not help those “stuck in failing schools” by any means.
Additionally, the annual report shows that of the 70 scholarships awarded, 54% of them went to students already enrolled in non-failing schools—only 46%, 32 scholarships, went to students in failing programs.
Many, many times, the Accountability Act’s supporters have used the “Kids trapped in failing schools simply because of their zip code,” argument. None of the numbers out of the annual report for Former Gov. Bob Riley’s scholarship granting organization show that to be the case. Because, as it states, there are currently a little over 2,800 students enrolled in failing schools inside the Black Belt counties. At the very most, only 32 of them were given the chance to make a school choice thanks to this scholarship granting organization.
It makes me wonder if these “reformers” see the real picture. There are certainly many struggling schools in Alabama. But the solutions the “reformers” have put in place aren’t really solutions at all. At best, 0.0111% of students in places like the Black Belt are being helped by a scholarship fund set up by Bob Riley. And only half of the money donated to these scholarship funds by private individuals and businesses actually went into the Accountability Act scholarships this year. That says to me that the Accountability Act isn’t the solution to our problems that we’ve been told it is.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.