By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, January 26, thousands of school choice activists flooded Montgomery to rally legislators to give parents more choices in how they educate their children. Hundreds of rallies for expanding school choice occurred across the nation; but the rally in Montgomery was reportedly the biggest of them all.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) addressed the crowds. He told them, “It is important to show support for school choice.” “On charter schools … encourage your locals to look at options.”
Business Council of Alabama (BCA) President and CEO William J. Canary said at Tuesday’s school choice rally at the Alabama Capitol: “The business community continues to pledge to be partner with the education community to make a difference because all of you out there today represent our future work force.” Canary said. “We can change so no child in our state will ever be academically given a death sentence because of where they live.” Canary told the children present that they are our future and that school choice will be part of that future.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) said, “School choice initiatives give parents the ability to determine what works best for their children and it removes barriers for their success. It’s my goal to make sure all children our state have an opportunity to have success in life.”
The Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) said in a statement: “School choice is continuing to expand in Alabama and our efforts are being recognized nationally. After passing our state’s first public charter school legislation just last year, we’re already ranked 2nd in the country.
This week is National School Choice Week.
The Alabama School Choice Coalition rally at the state Capital included cheerleaders and dance music. The National School Choice Week at the Capital was supported by BCA. The BCA says that it supports scholarships for students, fully funded volunteer pre-kindergarten for all Alabama 4-year-olds, and charter schools.
President of School Choice Week in Alabama Andrew Campanella said, “We are grateful for Governor Bentley’s support for School Choice Week in Alabama. The growth in enthusiasm surrounding National School Choice Week demonstrates that Americans in communities across the country recognize, more than ever before, the importance of ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn and to pursue their own American dreams. When school choice abounds, our children and our communities all see the benefit.” “National School Choice Week will shine a positive spotlight on these options so that more parents can learn about the opportunities available for their kids, in time for the 2016-2017 school year. The Week will also provide Alabamans with an opportunity to speak out in favor of even greater educational choices for kids.”
For decades the only choices that Alabama parents had for their children’s education were going to the local school that they were districted too, moving somewhere else, or paying for private schools with no assistance from the State of Alabama.
For years the powerful Alabama Education Association (AEA) blocked any vouchers or charter schools even for the poorest preforming of schools. Then in 2010 the people of Alabama gave Republicans super majorities in both houses of the Alabama Legislature. In 2013 when the Republican controlled legislature passed that Alabama Accountability Act which allows students zoned to Alabama’s worst schools to apply for scholarships to attend another public school or a private school. The scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) are funded by allowing taxpayers to opt a portion of their education tax dollars to be diverted to the SGOs.
Last year the legislature passed Alabama’s first Charter School law and expanded the size of the Accountability Act’s scholarship program. Charters will be able to compete for students across district lines like private schools do.
In 2015, the size of the scholarship program was raised from $25 million to $30 million. Marsh says his goal is to increase the cap to at least $40 million. The Legislature also authorized up to 10 new public charter schools. The law authorizes autonomy in areas of personnel, finance, and what is taught. Schools must meet strict performance and accountability standards. School boards are also allowed to apply to convert existing schools to charter schools. Charter schools are expected to start opening in the fall of 2017.
The regional advocacy and political director of the American Federation for Children, Ryan Cantrell told BCA’s Dana Beyerle that 5,700 scholarships of about $4,100 each have been awarded to parents whose children attend schools of their choice.
Critics of school choice complain that taking more students and education dollars out of public schools will only collapse the public schools. They complain that creating new options only weaken traditional public schools and that Republicans are motivated to weaken public schools and the once powerful teacher unions, which historically backed mostly liberal Democrats. The AEA has announced recently that it was suspending its political efforts to focus on its debts and teacher advocacy.
Original reporting by the BCA’s Dana Beyerle contributed to this report