Since its creation, the Alabama Accountability Act has neither revolutionized educational opportunities in our state nor silenced its thunderous critics. There’s little doubt either of those outcomes will soon change.
We say that because of a new study released this week by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama that essentially paints the AAA as middling legislation that’s produced tepid results. No home runs, no outright failures, the study said. So much for the grandiose claims by the AAA’s legislative supporters who pushed the program as a way to help low-income students move out of schools on the highly criticized “failing” schools list and improve their education.
Let’s point out several highlights of the study:
n Students on AAA scholarships frequently did better academically than low-income students in public schools, but they didn’t perform better than the state overall.
n On average, scholarship students’ academic results did not improve from their previous levels.
n A majority of students on AAA scholarships did not post gains or losses in percentile scores on the ACT Aspire, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and Stanford test. However, scholarship students did better than low-income public school students on the ACT Aspire test in almost every grade in reading and math.
n Eighty percent of families who take advantage of the AAA do so because of bullying and school safety issues, not because their public school is considered failing by the state guidelines.
In truth, little with the AAA’s place in the sphere of Alabama public education has changed since the program began in 2013. It has helped a significant number of families move their children out of undesirable situations, but it remains a flash point for the argument between school-choice advocates, defenders of public schools and skeptics of private schools’ role.
Lesley Searcy, executive director of the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, told the Associated Press that “the vast majority of children are starting the program three years below grade level. While there is always room for improvement, these results should be encouraging to families in the program and for lawmakers looking for ways to improve education.” AAA critic Larry Lee, a Montgomery County Board of Education member, told the AP in an email that he estimated the program had diverted $5.4 million from the school system. “Yet many elementary schools are struggling to just get textbooks,” Lee said.
Just as important, if not more so, is that the AAA hasn’t demonstrably addressed the overwhelming need to improve the quality of public education in Alabama — not just for low-income students, but for all of them. Two examples: Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Reports ranked public education in Alabama 47th nationally, and Education Week ranked it slightly better at 43rd. That’s not good enough. In time, the AAA may become a small component of an improved version of public education in Alabama, but until a more holistic approach lifts the weakest schools and raises the bar statewide, there’s no reason to be satisfied with these results.