By Larry Lee
The middle school principal is concerned about the sickness in his/her school and calls for a doctor and team of nurses to figure out what is going on. After a through exam of 300 students, they learn that 40 of them definitely have the flu.
But the doctor does not give them medicine, does not give them a shot, does not write out a prescription, does not send them to their family physician. Instead, he just pats them on the head and tells them, “I hope you get better.”
There would be instant outrage from parents, from educators, from politicians. Some would say the doctor should lose his license.
But this is EXACTLY what we have done with education legislation in Alabama and instead of outrage, some politicians have hailed it as wonderful.
I am talking about the Alabama Accountability Act passed in 2013 when we arbitrarily declared that six percent of all public schools would be labeled as “failing” and we would offer millions of dollars in tax breaks that would magically cure all our education ills. The state department of education recently released the latest list of “failing” schools. There are 76 of them in 26 school systems. More than half of them come from Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham alone.
Others come from out of the way communities such as Autaugaville, Union Springs, Notasulga, Packer’s Bend, Linden, McIntosh, Butler and Panola.
And when you go through the 2013 legislation line by line you will not find mention anywhere of steps that should be taken to help these “failing” schools. Will they get funding for additional teachers so class sizes can be reduced? No. Will a SWAT team of education experts descend on them to diagnose their problems? No. Will their teachers be given help with more professional development? No.
Like the doctor above, we just pat them on the head and wish them well.
And something in my old Southern Baptist heart says this is wrong. It is immoral. It is ignoring the admonishment of the Golden Rule.
It is made even more egregious when we look closely at these 76 schools. They have 36,844 students. Some 71.5 percent of them receive free-reduced lunches and 92.6% of them are African-American. By comparison, of the 730,563 students in all our public schools, 51.9 percent get free-reduced lunches and 33.1 percent are African-American.
How do we determine a “failing” school? By looking only at how their students perform in math and reading tests. How much growth have test results shown over time? Doesn’t matter. Is there an outstanding music or art or drama program at the school? Doesn’t matter. Is there a much-needed after school program to help working parents and better socialize children? Doesn’t matter. What about vocational instruction? Doesn’t matter.
So we labeled 36,844 students as “failing” and all of their teachers and schools. And then we turned our back on them.
At the same time we have said that it is OK to now divert $66 million from the Education Trust Fund to give scholarships to private schools in the name of helping “failing” schools. (If we say six percent of public schools are failing, why don’t we apply the same standard to private schools?) At the end of 2015, there were a reported 3,697 students attending private schools on Alabama Accountability Act scholarships. Of these, only 871 were “zoned” to attend a failing school. And we know from earlier reports that at least 1,000 scholarships went to students who were already enrolled in a private school.
I have said repeatedly that there is no doubt that some students have benefited from the scholarship they received to attend a private school. But does the mother of 10 children only feed one of them?
Alabama has a rich history of inequality and inequity. This legislation only perpetuates this legacy.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. [email protected] Read his blog: larryeducation.com