The Alabama Senate has passed a bill that would set up a second siphon of taxpayer dollars to fund private school education in the state, a move that doubles down on an educational program unproven in Alabama and proven to worsen outcomes in other states.
Senate Bill 123, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, expands various provisions of the so-called Alabama Accountability Act. That law, passed in 2013, labels the bottom 5 percent of public schools as “failing,” and provides tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that fund students’ departures from those schools.
“What you are doing is taking public money from a private school to recruit a student out of a public school,” Sen. Rodger Smitherman said in explaining the legislation. And he’s right. In the years since its passage, the state’s Education Trust Fund has lost upward of $66 million in funding it would have gained if it weren’t for the tax credit program.
This has had real results for school systems across the state. In 2014, for example, Tallapoosa County School Superintendent Joe Windle specifically cited a loss of funding caused by the law as the reasons for layoffs in his district.
“At the beginning of last school year,” Windle explained to me at the time, “we lost the funding for all library aides across the state of Alabama. That was due to the funding of scholarships under the Alabama Accountability Act for students to attend private schools. That was a $40 million cost to education funding. Our share of that cost as a system was $268,000. That’s what it cost us.”
Sadly, since its inception, while it was billed as an effort to give “school choice” to those in institutions labeled “failing” by the state, the Alabama Accountability Act has done just the opposite. For the over $66 million the state has lost in public school education funding because of the bill, only about 4,000 students have been granted scholarships through the program, which also allows SGOs to spend 5 percent of their revenue — millions of dollars over the years — for “administrative costs,” including advertising critical of public schools and salaries of those working for the various organizations.
Additionally, SGOs have pioneered the law far beyond its original intent of helping those in the worst schools. Since before the practice was even allowed following an amendment to the law itself, SGOs were advertising private school vouchers to those in non-failing school districts. In 2016, only 43 percent of those provided SGO scholarships were actually zoned for failing schools.
Even further, the only research looking at the academic benefit of students receiving scholarships through the program in Alabama isn’t conclusive — and isn’t promising for the legacy of the Accountability Act. A 2016 University of Alabama report compared test results of students in the program to comparable students in public schools and found that while there was “no cohesive pattern” in score differences, “there were very few subject areas in which more than 50 percent of the students met proficiency standards for either group of students.”
Overall, the report’s main observations were that not enough information was made available under the law to compare public school students to those granted funds by SGOs — a problem in and of itself — and that the program had not had time to produce enough data for analysis.
In other states, though, the first few waves of academic research looking at similar programs have been published, and their results are clearer: In most cases, students who receive funding to attend private schools do worse than their public school counterparts, especially in math.
New Orleans’ Education Research Alliance released a study of the first two years of a similar Louisiana program that concluded “the program had a negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement … most clearly in math.” Students who had been in the 50th percentile of math skills before the program, once transferred to a private school scored in the 26th percentile just a year later.
Another study by the right-wing Thomas Fordham Institute — which generally supports “school choice” — said in a study that “students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers.”
Despite the numbers in Alabama and research nationwide, though, Sen. Marsh is still set on expanding portions of the law. SB123 would allow utilities with over $100,000 in utility gross receipts tax liability to get credits toward the program. Currently the revenue derived from that tax benefits the mental health fund and the Education Trust Fund.
The bill also expands the audit requirement for SGOs — definitely a good thing — but unacceptably and without explanation removes a requirement that the auditor “certify that the [SGO] report is free of material misstatements.”
Marsh has pushed back against criticism of the legislation, though, saying that the bill will benefit the children receiving the scholarships — an assertion not backed up by the research, but certainly backed up by many of his Republican colleagues in the State House.
“I’m not focused on a few,” Marsh said. “We’ve got a focus on everybody. But you can’t forget the few.”
Pam Doyle, the president of the Alabama Association of School Boards, has a different perspective than Marsh: that when you fund public schools, everyone benefits, even the few.
“Education dollars are diverted to private schools, who don’t maintain the same fiscal accountability public schools are required to do,” Doyle recently said. “Alabama can’t afford to fund two school systems, one public and one private.”