With school bells ringing to signal the start of the new school year, so has the bell sounded signaling a new round of attacks on the Alabama Accountability Act.
Legislators wanted to provide a way to help parents remove children from failing schools and place them in one they think is better. Many argue against that approach. They say that using education dollars to subsidize student transfers takes money away from struggling schools.
But even for those who favor parental choice, the bill appears to be flawed in just about every detail. The way the law defines "failing" schools has been roundly criticized. A spokesman for the Alabama State Department of Education said his agency was never consulted about how to identify failing schools. For one thing, the math and reading standardized test scores used to identify "failing" schools are given mostly to students in middle school grades — so middle schools are disproportionately represented on the list.
And for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of students zoned for those "failing" schools are finding they don’t really have any options for moving to another school. And students who play school sports apparently won’t be eligible to participate if they move to another school due to residence rules of the sanctioning body. Athletic officials weren’t consulted before the law was passed, either.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has now filed suit in an attempt to overturn the law, raising equal protection questions about the way it works.
The law says a student zoned for a "failing" school can transfer to a non-failing school in the same system at no charge with transportation provided, or to a non-failing school in another public school system if parents provide transportation. If there is not another school at the same grade level, that’s just too bad, and other schools are not required to accept students from failing schools.
A tax credit of $3,500 for a family that removes a child from a "failing" school to attend, but parents are responsible for paying tuition up front, and they only get the tax credit after they file their income taxes the following spring. Most of the students in the state’s "failing" schools are in low-income areas. Most of those families can’t afford to pay tuition up front, and most wouldn’t get the full benefit of the tax credit. For some, transportation alone is a deal-breaker.
Legislators made some amendments to the law before this year’s legislative session ended, but if they’re serious about doing something worthwhile for children in poorly performing schools, they’ll need to start over. A good place to start would be by doing something they didn’t do the first time around: have conversations with stakeholders about what needs to be done and how to do it.
The current law appears to be based on a model bill from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank that focuses on policy ideas for state governments.
Provisions of the Alabama Accountability Act resemble those in ALEC’s "Parental Choice Scholarship Tax Credit Accountability Act."
ALEC restricts full membership to current and former legislators — people who should know how to put together a good bill — so consideration of the group’s proposals is not necessarily a bad thing. But when those proposals are rushed through a legislative body without comment, debate, or input from its affected stakeholders, it just might cause more harm than good, even if it survives court challenges.
Still, the Alabama Accountability Act makes us hopeful about this: Public attention has been focused on school performance and on the way our legislature operates. That’s important to bringing about improvements in both.