By Larry Lee
It is said that “confession is good for the soul.” With this being the case, the legislators who wrote the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 are now sleeping better.
When this bill was written the people of Alabama were told over and over that the purpose was to “help kids stuck in failing schools by their zip codes.” In fact the codified version of this bill says on page 2 that it is intended to, “Provide financial assistance through an income tax credit to a parent who transfers a student from a failing public school to a non-failing public school or nonpublic school of the parent’s choice.”
However, anyone knowledgeable about Alabama education quickly realized that this was unlikely at best because the bill was not supported by either research or common sense and was built on false assumptions.
Now proposed amendments to the accountability act have been introduced in the current legislative session that remove any doubt the intent was always about tax breaks–not helping kids in failing schools.
Records from 19 school systems with 34 failing schools show that only 40 students in these schools got a scholarship. Yet, one scholarship granting organization (SGO) says they have awarded 969 scholarships in the counties where this 19 systems are located.
The only way this is possible is by giving scholarships to students who are not attending failing schools or who are already enrolled in a private school. In fact this same SGO says they have given out scholarships in 23 counties where they are no failing schools.
The synopsis of the new bill now states “confirm that the intent of the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 is educational choice.” So two years later we want to unring the bell and publicly acknowledge what many have known all along–that this legislation was never about “helping kids stuck in failing schools by their zip code.”
In its original form, the accountability act amendments want to raise the cap on individual contributions, increase the cap on SGO contributions from $25 million to $35 million, make tax credits retroactive and move the cutoff date from Sept. 15 to May 15 so that it will be easier for more students from non-failing schools to get scholarships.
In the first year (2013) all SGOs in the state raised $24,787,079 of the $25 million maximum. In 2014 all SGOs only raised 53 percent ($13,414,758) of the $25 cap. Yet, the sponsor of the bill now wants to increase the cap by $10 million.
The reason this is important is that every dollar donated to an SGO is a dollar that does not go to the Education Trust Fund, the same fund that has not bought a new library book for any school in Alabama since 2009. The same fund that has cut funding for new textbooks by 50 percent since 2008.
Amy Hiller is the principal at Meek Elementary in Arley in Winston County. This is a great school of about 225 children. Nearly 70 percent of them are on free and reduced lunches. Amy recently bought new math textbooks. But to do so, she had to raise $30,000 to pay for them. Raising this much money in a rural town of a few hundred people is not easy.
I know Amy well. Have been to her school many times. Given the fact that resources are not presently adequate to support her school as it should be, why are we even talking about diverting even more money from the education trust fund? How do you rationalize this?
There are 733,000 students in Alabama public schools. Each of them is just as special as any who may get a scholarship. Why do you try to help a handful of them at the expense of all the others?
If one end of the boat is leaking, it does no good to move to the other end. Let’s remember all the public school children in this state. Let’s patch the hole instead of going to the other end, which is all the accountability act does.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education. [email protected]