By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, January 27, hundreds of Alabama school children and their parents joined Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) in a rally in front of the state capital demanding that the state of Alabama offer more education choices to students such as charter schools and expanding the controversial Alabama Accountability Act.
Speaker Mike Hubbard said in a statement on Facebook, “School Choice Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. When we stand up for the future of our children and fight for the betterment of our educational system, Alabama families are winning and we are all better off for it.”
U.S. Representative Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) offered his own written statement concerning the rally for school choice taking place in Montgomery on Wednesday and the wider School Choice Week that is taking place all over the nation. Rep. Palmer wrote, “Having been an advocate for school choice for more than two decades, I am pleased that citizens in Alabama, and all over America, are choosing to highlight the importance of this issue. Alabama has made significant progress in recent years expanding school choice, but there is still a long way to go.”
Congresswoman Martha Roby said in a video statement, “I’m Martha Roby and I’m proud to celebrate School Choice Week. Every student deserves a chance, and every parent deserves a choice. My state of Alabama is going to be making another big push on improving school choice this year, and we are going to do our part in Congress to make sure federal laws support and do not hinder those efforts.”
Not everyone in Alabama is as enthusiastic about increasing school choice options in Alabama which they say would divert students and education dollars from Alabama’s public schools.
The Alabama Education Association (AEA) issued a statement on Wednesday saying that it supports the efforts of all parents everywhere seeking the best possible education for their children, be it in public, private, religious, or home schools. However, AEA must stand against those that seek to divert scarce public education resources into ideas that have been shown not to improve student achievement and, instead, foster fraud and waste of taxpayer funds.
AEA Associate Executive Secretary Dr. Greg Graves said, “Just as with the oral argument before the Alabama Supreme Court on AAA, while public school educators and students went about the tasks of teaching and learning, children were taken out of the classroom to be used as pawns and set decoration by those who seek to dismantle and destroy public education. The numbers from AAA show that it is predominantly being used to subsidize parents who already sent their children to private school and those in school systems without a ‘failing school.’ Studies have shown conclusively that students in charter schools perform no better, and often worse, than students in public schools and that charter schools are rife with fraud and abuse of taxpayer funds. Instead of investing in strategies that we know improve teaching and learning, such as smaller class sizes, better training and professional development of teachers, and additional resources for students with challenges, we are only looking at ideas that divert money from public schools into private hands.”
House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D) said in his own statement on the school choice rally in Montgomery: “The problem with charter schools and the Accountability Act’s scholarship granting organizations is that not every kid gets a choice or a chance. No matter how many scholarships and charter schools we create, some kids will get left behind in a failing school. The goal of public education is to make sure every child gets a quality education, not just those who are lucky enough to get selected for a scholarship or charter school. Instead of giving up on struggling schools, we should be fixing those schools so that all our children get a chance.”
Supporters however say that Alabama is one of the last states still refusing to offer charter schools.
Policy Institute Senior Analyst Dr. John Hill wrote, “For as long as charter schools have been a choice for public education in other states, the Alabama Policy Institute has promoted their legalization. Throughout much of that time, reform-minded legislators had little chance of seeing a charter schools bill adopted due to the Alabama’s political environment and the effective messaging of those opposed to choice in our public schools. Hence, Alabama remains one of only eight states in the nation without a charter schools law.”
Dr. Hill said, “Much of the anti-charter messaging is centered on a handful of arguments that are not new and have been used in nearly every state’s public debate over charters. Any attempt to expand school choice, no matter the vehicle, has been or will be met with scare tactics on issues of funding, control, and cherry-picking students. It is time for Alabama to move beyond these talking points, as so many other states have, and lay these concerns to rest.”
Rep. Palmer said, “The broad-based coalition of organizations supporting school choice in Alabama, which includes the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Students First Alabama, the American Federation for Children, the Alabama Business Education Alliance, the Alabama Public Charter School Alliance, and the Business Council of Alabama, is very encouraging for the future of school choice in Alabama. I’m certain their efforts will have a big impact and will continue to create more opportunities for students in Alabama to achieve the education they need and deserve.”
Congresswoman Roby said that in the last Congress, she supported and the U.S. House of Representatives passed: The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, which promotes state efforts to expand choice through charter schools, particularly for at-risk and under-served populations and the Student Success Act, which contained provisions supporting parental engagement as well as opportunities for parents to enroll their children in local magnet schools and charter schools. Rep. Roby said that the House is expected to take up these and other measures in support of school choice this year.
Rep. Palmer said, “This week is the fifth Annual School Choice Week, which was started in 2011. There are approximately 11,000 independently planned events happening around the country in support of school choice as a result. More than 2000 people are expected to attend the rally in Montgomery today. The organizers intend to support choices ranging from traditional public schools to public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling. The Alabama State Legislature is expected to take up school choice measures in the upcoming legislative session.”
Critics continue to have doubts.
State Representative Ford said, “The school choice debate is misleading because most kids will never get a choice. In the end, all these ‘reforms’ are is just a modern day version of bussing, and simply bussing some kids out of failing schools is not a solution.”
Dr. Graves said, “Despite the rhetoric from those who are looking to divert public school funding, parents have always had a choice between public schools, private schools, and home schooling. For the last decade under No Child Left Behind, most parents in what are now called “failing schools” also had the choice to transfer to other public schools in the same district. What is being presented as “choice” is nothing but a way to starve public education and make charter and private school operators rich.”
Alabama’s largest Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) is headed by former Alabama Governor Bob Riley. Critics argue that tax dollars to the Education Trust Fund are diverted to the SGOs hurting public schools.
Congressman Gary Palmer represents Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District. Congresswoman Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District.