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Opinion | An open letter to Rachel Bryars of the Alabama Policy Institute and the people of Alabama

David Tarwater

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Dear Ms. Bryars,

I read your criticism of the Baldwin County school board’s resolution calling for a repeal of the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA). Having been a member of this board at that time, I felt the need to respond.

I recently retired after six years of service to Baldwin County schools. It was a great honor to serve. I was mentioned in your article as I was the one to initially offer this repeal resolution.

Your article was titled,School boards are choosing systems over students by calling for scholarship repeal.

While running my own business, I put in countless hours in my board position, all to benefit the children of our county. This could be said about any other member of the board as well. I point this out to strongly disagree with your suggestion that our resolution was offered for any other purpose than to benefit students, and the idea that we are choosing “systems over students” is categorically false.

It’s important to note that the Alabama Policy Institute says one of their main goals is school choice.  For example, a letter from a private school principal on API’s website illustrates how “school choice” leads to school privatization, or at very least public funding of private schools.

When considering your position, I feel as if there are very important  details that readers need to consider. I also offer a response on a few of your other points.

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First, to address your data on school funding for Mobile, Montgomery, and Baldwin Counties, there are other factors when looking at these statistics. First, let me point out that school systems received less state monies in 2018 on a per pupil basis than they did in 2007. Over a decade has passed and public education professionals are receiving less resources to move our children forward. When we consider inflation, state funding has been cut by 20 percent. Less than ten years ago Baldwin County Schools had to release 1,100 employees because of drastic reductions in state funding. Alabama continues to be way behind in the country in education funding. Our funding per pupil is over $2,000 less than the national average and our K-12 achievement Index ranks 45th in the nation.

To suggest that education funding is where it needs to be for Alabama, and that we should be happy with recent tiny increases, is an insult to our great teachers and faculty. Anything that decreases our already deficient funding of education, which the AAA does, is unacceptable for the students and people of Alabama.

Baldwin County, like the vast majority of school systems, does not have a “failing school”. I have a hard time agreeing that students and teachers in our great schools pay for a $9,000 voucher to the Mobile County  private school you listed in your article. The AAA has meant $5 million less in funding for Baldwin County alone since its adoption.

Five million dollars could mean more teachers, support staff, technology, and extracurricular programs for our students, the type of things that will allow our schools to be truly world-class places. The AAA has siphoned in excess of $146 million from the Education Trust Fund for the state. These are real numbers that have real effects on our children.

I called for the repeal of the AAA because the law means our tax dollars fund large amounts for private schools just so they can take a few of our students, when instead we should be making the improvement of these struggling schools our greatest emphasis and priority.

While the three interviews you share from parents of students utilizing the scholarship are very compelling, my concern is what the effects are to the “failing schools” left behind. What happens with the rest of their student body? What does this do to teachers and students morale? My other concern with the AAA is the lack of accountability. Public Schools must report academic success but there are no such requirements for vouchered students.

In response to your biblical example and idea that  those opposed to the law do not want students to have the “best learning environment possible”,  I feel as if we cannot honestly say that we are caring for ALL of our children if, instead of investing heavily in the schools and communities that have the greatest need, we are choosing to brand them as failing and leaving the vast majority of their students at a disadvantage.

The children of my community deserve better than the Alabama Accountability Act, and that is why I will continue to call for its repeal. I hope that others, whether they are private individuals, institutions, or other school boards will also continue to speak out against it. The Alabama Accountability Act’s stated purpose was to identify and fix “failing” schools, but the reality of the law is that it is actually only failing our students and the future of education in our great state.

Our children deserve the best, and I hope you will join me in reaching out to your local Board of Education and state legislators and letting them know it is time to repeal this law.

 

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