Some of the state’s largest school systems are urging legislators to repeal the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), but supporters of the school choice law and families benefiting from the scholarship program it created say repeal would negatively impact hundreds of local students.
Proponents say the AAA helps students in “failing” public schools by paving a way for them to transfer to better-performing institutions, whether they’re public or private. It also established tax credits for corporations and businesses that contribute to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that help cover the cost of transfers for low-income families.
However, the law has been unpopular among public-school advocates because those tax credits ultimately divert money that otherwise goes into the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF). In the vast majority of cases, those dollars are instead sent to private schools.
The Baldwin County School Board passed a formal resolution in October calling for the repeal and school districts in Montgomery and Mobile counties quickly followed suit.
At least five Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) schools have been deemed “failing” by the AAA every year it’s existed, and nine schools are currently working to have the label removed in 2019. Don Stringfellow, vice chairman of the MCPSS board, said he knows MCPSS has some “problematic schools.”
It’s an issue administrators are working to improve, Stringfellow said. However, he argued AAA measures performance based on scores from a single standardized test that has changed several times in recent years and, in some cases, is only administered to students at one grade level.
The resolution passed by MCPSS also claims AAA has caused “negative financial impacts” for public school districts even though studies of the program have shown there has been no “significant academic improvement” among students who’ve transferred to other schools under the law.
“I don’t object to anyone sending their kids to private school, my issue is doing that using money that’s supposed to be designated for public schools,” Stringfellow added. “Seems like the cap for the tax credits has gone up more and more over the past few years, which is just more public-school dollars not coming into our system. Just like every entity, we need every dollar we can get.”
The annual cap on tax-deductible AAA scholarship donations has increased to $30 million following legislative amendments in 2015 and again last year. However, supporters of the AAA argue $30 million is less than half of one percent of the $6.63 billion allocated to the ETF in 2018. Alabama’s overall education budget has also grown over the past couple of years.
No matter the impact, roughly $137 million has been diverted from the ETF because of AAA tax credits since 2013. Consequently, more school districts are expected to pass similar resolutions urging the law’s repeal ahead of the 2019 legislative session beginning in March.
But while the momentum is being celebrated by some, including the Alabama Education Association, it has also left hundreds of families in Mobile County worrying about the future of their children’s education.
“We’ve had a lot of success with the scholarship program. I have five boys, and when everything fell on me, I promised myself I was going to raise them not to be a statistic,” Alleane West, a mother of scholarship recipients, told Lagniappe. “I have nothing against the public school system. I’m just a firm believer that every child doesn’t flourish in every environment.”
West was able to send two sons to local private schools using money awarded through the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF), which is by far the largest of the six SGOs registered with the Alabama Department of Revenue.
According to AOSF, there are currently 480 students on scholarship in Mobile County, around 77 percent of whom are African-American. The second-largest SGO, Scholarships for Kids, only has about 65 students on scholarship in Mobile County.
While not all of those students are zoned to attend a failing school, SGOs prioritize those who are, according to AOSF. Families must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level in order to qualify for an AAA scholarship.
Earlier this month, several parents with children attending local private schools on AOSF scholarships met to discuss the growing interest in seeing the AAA overturned. If it were, many would have to enroll their children in the MCPSS school they’re currently zoned to attend.
At the meeting, which was organized by AOSF Executive Director Leslie Searcy, parents shared the concerns driving them to look for educational opportunities outside local public schools.
Some cited bullying, safety and negative influences on their children from other students, while others said they were primarily concerned with larger class sizes and the overall quality of the education offered at some schools their children would be zoned to attend.
Several also admitted they wouldn’t have had a problem sending their children to certain MCPSS schools, though most were magnet programs. With limited space and a lottery system to select students, many said they were unable to enroll their students in those schools.
Though they didn’t disclose their names, two of the parents said they actually work for MCPSS — one as a substitute teacher and another as a full-time teacher. The latter said her son receives an AOSF scholarship, but she “works extra” to pay tuition so her daughter can also attend private school.
“I’m certainly not saying everyone is bad, but there’s not always room at the schools you’d want your kids to go to for all of them to attend,” she said. “I don’t want my children to play Russian roulette over who’s going to be their teacher and whether they’re going to get what they need.”
At the meeting, Searcy told parents district school boards don’t have the power to repeal a state law, but they do wield influence with legislators. However, she said AOSF would be using its own influence and encouraged scholarship recipients and their families to do the same.
“We’re going to make sure they understand that there are more than 500 children here in Mobile depending on these scholarships who do not want to go back to a school where they were bullied or behind,” Searcy said. “These scholarships are leveling the playing field for families, and empowering them to make choices people with greater means have been making for years.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly gave the impression the School Superintendents Association of Alabama was supporting school boards calling for the repeal of the Alabama Accountability Act. According to SSAA, the executive director disseminated a version of the first resolution to school boards throughout the state but has not endorsed any action related to the Alabama Accountability Act.