In a press conference at the Alabama State House on Thursday, House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said he'd introduce a bill to add $40 million in annual funding to the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative. The money would come from funds set aside under the Accountability Act for tax credits for parents who move their children to public schools.
"It's time to stop gambling on the Accountability Act and spend our money on programs that we know will work," Ford said.
Passed earlier this year, the Alabama Accountability Act has been a flashpoint between Republicans and Democrats ever since. The bill grants students in "failing" schools the chance to transfer to a non-failing public school or a private school, with a tax credit of up to $3,500 to pay the cost of the transfer. It also offers tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to scholarship funds that would help defray additional school costs for low-income students.
The bill includes multiple definitions of "failing" schools, though any school will land on the list if it performs in the bottom 6 percent on standardized tests in three of the last six years. Seventy-eight schools, including Anniston Middle School and Zora Ellis Junior High, made the first failing schools list this summer.
Lawmakers set aside $40 million in the 2014 education budget to offset the cost of the tax credits.
So far, no student from Anniston Middle has transferred under the provisions of the Accountability Act. So far, fewer than 800 students statewide have transferred, only 52 of them to private schools.
Ford said the $40 million set aside amounted to a $769,000 expenditure for every child who transferred – an apparent reference to students who transferred to private schools.
Ford said the money should be restored to the education budget and spent on AMSTI. That program, set up in 1999 to improve the state's math and science teaching, is widely regarded by Alabama educators as a successful effort. State statistics show that students at AMSTI schools routinely outperform students at non-AMSTI schools on standardized tests.
State Department of Education spokesman Michael Sibley said the program is now in place in 724 schools – about half the schools in the state.
Ford said his proposed $40 million transfer would allow the state to expand the program to every school, as early as the 2014-15 school year.
Estimates from the state Department of Education suggest it wouldn't be that simple. Sibley said it would take $46 million to $50 million per year, for five years, to get the program into every school. It takes roughly two years to train teachers in a school to conduct the program, he said.
The Accountability Act's main author, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said it was misleading to compare AMSTI and the Accountability Act.
"It's a fine program," he said of AMSTI. "But it's apples and oranges."
Marsh said that when the $40 million was set aside earlier this year, Democrats complained that it was a harsh cut – but didn't mention any plans for a major boost to AMSTI.
"A few months ago the Democrats were complaining that we couldn't afford it," he said. "Now they want to spend the $40 million on something else."
Marsh said the program was in its early stages, and that participation would be greater in future years.
At the press conference, Ford said he had not discussed his proposal with state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice before announcing it. Attempts to reach Bice immediately after the press conference were unsuccessful, and Sibley said the superintendent did not yet have an official statement on the proposal.
At a a brief meeting of the State Board of Education Thursday morning, Bice proposed a handful of changes to state school regulations to comply with the Accountability Act. They all passed. Bice said it would take about a year for the department to completely settle into implementation of the act.
Middle schools and junior highs now make up 44 of the 78 schools on the failing schools list, which school officials refer to as the "priority" schools list. Bice said he expected to see more elementary and high schools on the list in future years.
Middle schools figure so prominently on the list, Bice said, because they're the schools most thoroughly tested under the No Child Left Behind testing regime.
"Sixth, seventh and eighth grade is the span where everybody gets tested," he said.
Earlier this year, Alabama got federal permission to opt out of No Child Left Behind. The state plans to adopt a new testing system, based on the ACT Aspire test, which measures progress toward readiness to take the ACT college entrance exam. That system will likely test a broader range of grades, bringing more elementary and high schools onto the list, Bice said.
Asked why no children transferred out of Anniston Middle, Bice said that in some districts, families were reluctant to leave their school system.
"What we're hearing is that a lot of people want to stay and turn their school around," he said.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.