By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The Alabama Accountability Act was sold to the State Legislature and to the Governor as way for the State’s children to escape failing schools. At the time of its passage, little was known about what the bill would accomplish other than it was “bold” and “historic.”
At a hurried, symbolic event celebrating its passage, Governor Bentley said, “I’m so proud we have done this for the children of this State and especially the children who are in failing school systems and had no way out. Now, they have a way out.”
Later, once the Governor understood the devil in the details of the bill, he called for a two-year delay on the private school tax credits, wishing to return to the original flexibility act, which offered nothing in the way of public money going to private schools or individuals operating Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). Bentley said at the time that he believed public money should go to public schools, implying some concern about private companies or individual profiting from education tax dollars. However, the bill’s architect, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) dismissed the Governor’s idea as “dead on arrival.”
In the first year of the AAA, former Gov. Riley’s SGO, Opportunity Scholarship Fund, was the leader in fundraising with around $18 million in donation. In the latest cycle, Riley’s group raised only around $700,000 of the overall approximately $12 million raised by all participating SGOs. Marsh has stated publicly that because of the program’s overwhelming success, he would like to raise the contribution limit from it current cap of $25 million to $100 million.
The tax credits are tied to the Education Trust Fund, and the money given to private schools under the AAA comes directly out of funds available for public schools. Riley’s SGO has been made the poster organization by Marsh and Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, so it is appropriate to examine the claim of helping children to escape failing schools in the context of Riley’s group. According to its own records, the group has offered scholarships to around 2900 children statewide.
Riley’s SGO handed out 151 scholarships in 23 counties where there were no failing schools.
In seven Black Belt counties, 70 scholarships were awarded but only 53 enrolled. A total of 20 scholarships went to children already attending private schools, 38 students were from non-failing schools and only 32 were assigned to failing schools. According to Riley’s records, 11 of the Black Belt counties—Barbour, Bullock, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Sumter and Wilcox have received 89 scholarships. The failing schools in these 11 counties have 4,789 students so around .01858 percent of the students in that area have profited from the AAA.
This does not seem to square with Marsh’s characterization of an overwhelming success. Marsh says that the 2015 Legislative Session will feature an introduction of more school choice. It is unclear where Governor Bentley stands on increasing the cap under the AAA, or if he is pro or con on more school choice programs. If past is prologue, the House and Senate leadership will ignore him on this issue. Education watchers are said to be curious to see if Bentley weighs in on the issue at all.