Last week the Baldwin County School Board formally called on legislators to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), and many of the law’s detractors are hoping it could motivate other school systems to do the same.
During an Oct. 18 meeting the board voted 6 to 1 to introduce a resolution that will be delivered to each member of Baldwin County’s legislative delegation urging them to support repeal of the AAA, which has been controversial since passed in 2013.
“[It] has now accumulated five years of historical data establishing that it has not served its intended purpose, and instead has caused harm to the financial wellbeing and academic progress of public school systems in Alabama,” the resolution reads.
The AAA is a school flexibility bill allowing students attending “failing public schools,” defined as those scoring in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores, to transfer to another nonfailing public or private institution.
It also created a dollar-for-dollar reduction in state tax liability for businesses and individuals who contribute to organizations granting scholarships to students zoned to attend those failing schools — deductions which ultimately divert money from the Education Trust Fund (ETF).
The resolution passed Oct. 18 blames the AAA for the loss of “$137.4 million in direct tax credits” that would have otherwise gone to the ETF and been distributed to schools around the state.
The AAA was primarily written and passed by Republican members of the Legislature. School board member David Tarwater introduced last week’s resolution, and while he was elected as a Republican in 2010, he was recently censured by the party for publicly endorsing a Democrat.
“It’s purely a voucher system. That’s what it is,” Tarwater said of the AAA. “That bill is stealing money from the children that I represent, and as board members, it’s our responsibility. There’s no way to fix it, and again, we’re asking for this thing to die and to die a quick death.”
Baldwin County is the first school district to publicly call for the repeal of the law, though it is not the only one to be critical of the bill. Officials with the Mobile County Public School System have often criticized the “failing school” label associated with the AAA.
However, unlike MCPSS, which had nine failing schools in 2018, Baldwin County has never had one of its schools defined as failing under the AAA. Instead, most board members seemed concerned with money leaving the ETF and going to various private and parochial schools through the AAA.
The resolution also notes that “69 percent of [AAA] scholarship recipients were not zoned to attend a ‘failing’ school.” Data collected by the Alabama Department of Revenue, which the law requires scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) to submit quarterly, shows similar numbers.
The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the largest SGO in the state, listed 1,545 AAA scholarship recipients in its most recent filings, though only 679 were zoned to a failing school.
More than 160 nonpublic schools in Alabama have received students through the AAA, but only three of those are in Baldwin County. State data indicates only four students attending those schools receive an AAA scholarship.
There’s been more of an impact in Mobile County, where 23 nonpublic schools currently enroll AAA scholarship recipients. According to the state, McGill-Toolen Catholic High School has more AAA students than any other school in Alabama.
The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund currently lists 118 of its scholarship recipients as McGill students — only 64 of whom would otherwise be zoned to attend a failing school. That’s resulted in McGill receiving roughly $207,057 in educational scholarships from the SGO.
That does not include students who receive scholarships from other organizations, though those numbers are much smaller. Speaking with Lagniappe, Principal Michelle Haas also noted McGill’s numbers are higher because it’s part of a larger network of local Catholic schools.
“Many of these students come to McGill-Toolen to complete their 9-12 education. Most, if not all, of the students who receive an AAA grant start at one of our [eight] partner schools,” Haas wrote via email. “Our AAA students represent about 10 percent of our enrollment.”
Earlier this week, the Mobile County Board of Education discussed adopting a similar resolution opposing the AAA and asked Superintendent Chresal Threadgill to draft one for the board to consider at a meeting in November.
That’s something opponents of the AAA are hoping other districts will consider as well. In fact, a spokesperson for Baldwin County indicated the resolution the board passed last week is already being disseminated by the School Superintendents Association of Alabama.
However, repealing the AAA could be trickier than passing a resolution.
Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, was the chairman of the education budget committee when it passed, and though he’s not seeking re-election he supports the AAA and believes others do too.
“I think it would be very shortsighted to just do away with AAA,” Pittman said. “The public school system is strong in Baldwin County, which is a great thing, but it’s better for individuals and families to have choices — especially for those who are stuck in areas of the state where the schools aren’t as good as they are here.”
Not all members of the local school board could agree on the resolution, either. Board member David Cox says he opposed the resolution his colleagues passed last week because believes in school choice and doesn’t believe AAA tax deductions create a financial burden for schools.
“Virtually all of the contractors who pave our roads and build our buildings are private businesses making a profit,” he said. “People say the state doesn’t need to spend tax dollars paying a private company to perform a service, but we do that every day.”
Cox also claimed the AAA is financially beneficial for Baldwin County schools because even if the system loses state funding from student transfers, it still receives federal and local funds for those students.