Monthly Archives: March 2013

Easter and empathy

I’m no theologian, but the crux of Christianity has always seemed to me to be empathy.

Jesus had the potential for an easy ride. He was God’s son, and he could have reveled in mortal pleasures. He could have been a king — you know, the real kind, with crowns of gold not of thorns — but he declined.

He immersed himself in our miseries. He hurt. He felt betrayal. He was judged by those with no right to judge him. He died the most brutal death, overwhelmed by vulnerability and pain. He asked for a pass and simultaneously declined one.

He was human. He understood the least of us. He buried himself in humanity: the dirt and grime and sweat and blood. The king of kings became the lowest serf, walking in the shoes of the shamed and diseased.

Once or twice a year, we worship Jesus. We see him on the lowly ass and look for ways to spread palm fronds to ease his journey.

Somehow, though, we miss the point. We acknowledge his empathy for us but decline to feel the same for our brothers and sisters.

We raise fiscal issues when the issue is healing those who are sick. We preach the deficit when the issue is hunger. We throw stones at immigrants when we should be comforting the stranger.

We claim to be Christians, but we rebuke Christ daily. Rather than empathize with the poor and the hungry and the sick, we seek ways to denigrate them.

Christ, who could have had any worldly possessions, chose instead to honor those who had none.

Christ, the supreme judge, refused to judge. Instead, he understood our failings. He embraced our desperation. The all-powerful son of God chose empathy over censure. He loved us and demanded that we love one other.

In the ultimate act of empathy, Christ hungered and suffered and died for us. Can we honor his sacrifice by empathizing with each other? Can we care for the sick and the poor?


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Filed under Alabama politics, Poverty, Religion

Medicaid expansion can’t wait

Alabama lawmakers can walk, chew gum and whistle Dixie simultaneously when their goal is to undermine public schools.

When it comes to offering health care to 300,000 uninsured Alabamians, however, multitasking is beyond them.
The Alabama Accountability Act began as a bill to provide flexibility for local schools.
Many expected the flexibility law was a first step toward the creation of charter schools. No problem. Some school districts have horrible outcomes. If they had time to take advantage of the flexibility bill and their students still struggled to get a good education, then competition made sense.
In a back-room deal, however, legislators rushed the process. Rather than give the flexibility bill time to work, they lumped it together with previously hidden provisions that reduce funding for all public schools. The result is a poorly drafted law that legislators still don’t seem to understand.
There was no reason to rush the “school choice” portions of the Accountability Act, but there were many reasons not to. Delay would have given school districts a chance to innovate without an additional drop in the state funding that already has fallen 22 percent since 2008. Delay also would have allowed informed input, which would have improved the sloppy law.
When it comes to expanding Medicaid, however, there is a reason to move quickly.

The federal government will fund 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2017 and beyond — if the Legislature decides to continue the expansion — Alabama would have to pay 10 percent.

If the state sticks with the expansion beyond 2016, it would add $771 million in expenses over seven years. It would simultaneously bring in about $11.7 billion in federal funds and generate $935 million in new tax revenue for the state.

GOP lawmakers, or at least some of them, acknowledge the expansion would bring in more tax revenue than it would cost. They acknowledge it would provide health care to 300,000 uninsured Alabamians still reeling from the recession. They recognize it would restore viability to the many hospitals that are struggling because uninsured Alabamians have no choice but to use emergency rooms as their first and only health-care provider.

Their only objection is they want to reform the state Medicaid program first, to chew gum before they walk.

Once the legislative session ends, though, their insistence on implementing Medicaid reforms before expanding the program will cost the state one of the years in which the federal government will cover 100 percent of expansion costs. A one-year delay will result in a loss of $900 million in federal funds. Alabama hospitals and residents will help pay for the expansions implemented in other states, but Alabama will not enjoy the tax revenue from the economic activity and 300,000 Alabamians will remain uninsured.

Reforming the state Medicaid system may be a good idea. Hundreds of millions of dollars and the health of hundreds of thousands of Alabamians are compelling reasons to accept the federally funded expansion while making the reforms.

If the Legislature and Gov. Robert Bentley can walk and chew gum at the same time, now is the time to do it.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, Medicaid

Painful lessons from Iraq War

Ten years ago today, U.S. bombs and missiles were raining down on Baghdad.
It was the second day of America’s “shock and awe” campaign. The lessons from a war that officially ended last year should guide U.S. leaders as they navigate a world that has, if anything, become more complex.

Was the war a mistake? A complete answer may be impossible for years or even decades, but it looks like one.

That’s not to say it had no positive results. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and an avowed — if impotent — enemy of the United States. He had every incentive to develop nuclear weapons. While the United States was beyond his reach, many U.S. allies and some U.S. troops were vulnerable to his military capabilities.

The removal of Saddam and his government opened a path to democracy for Iraq, another positive, and ended the oppression of the Iraqi people.

Any discussion of the negatives of the Iraq War must begin with the deception that convinced Congress and most Americans to support it. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no secretive plot with al Qaida. The administration of former President George W. Bush concocted some pieces of evidence and exaggerated the significance of others. America invaded a sovereign nation that, while full of bluster, presented no threat.

Then comes the cost, most importantly in lives. U.S. families continue to grieve for the 4,448 service members who lost their lives in the Iraq War. Another 3,400 contractors died there. And any claim that the invasion benefited the people of Iraq must be balanced against the stark reality that 134,000 Iraqi civilians — 70 percent of Iraqi casualties — died in the war.

The monetary cost also was dramatic, and has much to do with why Americans fret over the federal debt a decade later. The United States borrowed $2.2 trillion to finance the war. The total cost, with accrued interest, will reach $3.9 trillion. America spent money it did not have on a threat that did not exist.

It’s too early to know other results of the war. Instead of a functioning democracy, Iraqis are embroiled in civil strife and violence. As economic opportunities improve, religious extremism may give way to productivity. A strong negative for U.S. interests is that Iraq was a check on Iranian ambitions. Even more than the United States, Saddam’s Iraq had every reason to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The lesson of the Iraq War is not just that wars are costly, but that the results are impossible to predict. Americans watch in horror the atrocities in Syria, but intervention could cause more problems than it solves. North Korea and Iran are frightening enemies that, like Saddam’s Iraq, use bellicose rhetoric to unite their people. A clear lesson of the Iraq War is America should focus less on the words of foreign leaders than on a reasoned assessment of the threat.

Any benefit from the Iraq War does not appear to have been worth the cost in lives or money. That knowledge should not turn America into a pacifist nation, but it should remind our leaders that war is a last and tragic result of diplomatic failure.

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Private charity not enough

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Morgan County transforms children.

It also plays a part in tackling one of the greatest obstacles to state progress, generational poverty.

Its mission, matching adult volunteers to children who need their influence, is without controversy. No caring Alabamian would deprive children of the mentoring the program provides, generally to those in low-income homes or broken families. Even a judgmental political climate that increasingly blames the poor for their struggles does not go so far as to blame the children of the poor.

Nor do rational Alabamians doubt the devastating effects of generational poverty. Even those who haughtily attribute poverty to cultural deficiencies recognize the need to break the cycle. Those in poverty cost everyone else money, through Medicaid expenses and food stamps and other safety-net programs. Even people devoid of compassion recognize that pulling children out of poverty benefits a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

Despite a mission that almost all Alabamians applaud, Big Brothers Big Sisters lost its state funding in 2011. It was one of many cuts made by the state in an effort to keep its property taxes the lowest in the nation and its overall taxes the second lowest in the nation.

Some would argue that’s as it should be. Why should Alabama residents have to pay taxes to support a program they may or may not support? That’s the job of private charities.
The short answer is that private charities cannot take up the slack. A combination of less generous donations and increasing need have left organizations like Big Brothers woefully short of the resources they need to perform a task that benefits not only children but the state.

This is not a new problem. Even with state and federal tax dollars funding Medicaid, the poor struggle to find doctors who will provide care at low reimbursement levels. The poor line up at local food banks, but many struggle with hunger. Drops in federal funding of Pell grants have not triggered an increase in privately funded scholarships.

The claim that charitable giving will rise to meet the needs of the disadvantaged may have been true a generation ago, but today it is a myth.

Those who work at organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Morgan County see the desperate need of their clients. They work crazy hours at minimal pay, donating much of their time. They beg for contributions to help the many children who, without intervention, are doomed to the poverty that overwhelms their parents.

Alabama need not be a compassionate state to conclude it should provide its impoverished children with a ladder out of generational poverty. If our state is to enjoy a future marked by progress rather than poverty, it needs to give its children a chance.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Poverty, Tax reform

What Sen. Taylor got wrong on Accountability Act

Columnist Josh Moon is far more entertaining than me, so I hope he writes a rebuttal to a piece by state Sen. Brian Taylor defending the Alabama Accountability Act. In the meantime, I thought I would correct a few inaccuracies in Taylor’s description of the law, contained in Friday’s edition of the Montgomery Advertiser. Taylor’s op-ed is a response to this column by Moon.

Taylor begins by challenging Moon’s assertion that the law is a “handout to rich people to send their kids to private school.”

While the law is not just a handout to rich people, that is certainly part of it.

The law gives all families of students assigned to a failing school a tax credit of about $3,500 if they enroll in a private school, regardless of their income level. This means that wealthy (and non-wealthy) families whose children are assigned to a failing school but enrolled in a private one will receive a $3,500-per-child benefit, even if their children have never attended a public school. The money for this tax credit comes straight out of the Educational Trust Fund, which finances all public K-12 schools, two-year colleges and universities.

Also regardless of income, those who contribute to a scholarship fund created by the Accountability Act will get a 100 percent tax credit of up to $7,500 per year. This money also comes out of the ETF. In states with similar laws, such contributions typically come from private-school alumnae in scholarship funds that solely benefit the private school they attended.

So in at least two respects, the Accountability Act is a “handout to rich people.” If not one student transfers from a failing school, it will still drain more than $50 million from the ETF. The beneficiaries of that $50 million handout will not be the poor.

Taylor goes on to write about the benefits the law will have for the poor. In fact, those benefits may be limited. The $3,500 vouchers cover less than half the tuition of a typical private school, so by themselves they will not permit a poor family to send their child to a private school. The scholarship fund is capped at $25 million, which is only enough to bridge the gap between the voucher amount and private-school tuition for about 8 percent of the 80,000 students in schools the law deems “failing.”

Moreover, students who depend on free meals or school-provided transportation will not be able to attend private schools. And maybe most significantly, the law does not require private schools to admit them.

For the poor, the option to transfer probably will be illusory until such time as educational corporations set up schools that can generate a profit on $3,500 a year. They can only do so by slashing the number of teachers and creating virtual classrooms, steps that have decreased educational outcomes in other states.

Taylor also claims that only students whose household incomes do not exceed 150 percent of median income are “eligible students” entitled to money from the ETF-funded scholarship program. While this appears to be the law’s intent, it is not what the law says. The law defines “eligible students” with income limitations, but the portion of the law setting up the scholarship program does not limit it to “eligible students.”

The law also fails to specify the applicable median income. Does it refer to the median income in the county or school district or state? Does it refer to the median income of households with children? Regulations may be able to sort this issue out, but it is one of many drafting errors in the law.

Taylor suggests that money used to finance the Accountability Act — somewhere between $59 million and $367 million per year — will not actually hurt the ETF. The theory is the money will still be used to educate children, thus reducing costs for public schools.

This is entirely inaccurate for the $25 million scholarship fund, which represents expenses beyond those currently borne by the ETF. It also is inaccurate as applied to the $3,500 tax credits that will go to students assigned to failing schools but already enrolled in private schools. The Alabama Association of School Boards estimates the families of 10,600 such students will receive these tax credits, costing the ETF another $37 million.

Even for students who use the vouchers to transfer from a failing public school to a private school, the reduction in ETF costs is likely to be minimal. Absent a wholesale exodus — unlikely given transportation and food issues — the public schools will remain open. They also will lose enrollment-based federal funding, especially in Title I schools.

Taylor repeats the GOP line that competition will force failing public schools — as defined by standardized test scores — to improve. Given that Alabama’s K-12 schools have seen a 22-percent drop in inflation-adjusted funding since 2008 and will see a greater reduction as a result of the Accountability Act, it is hard to imagine that competition is relevant. They can barely sustain existing programs targeting struggling students, and they will have fewer resources for such programs after the law takes effect.

Finally, Taylor repeats the talking point that the law merely allows parents to choose to spend their “own tax dollars” to pay for a different school. Except for families making more than $70,000 in annual income — almost none of them, based on the free- and reduced-lunch statistics of the failing schools — the tax dollars they spend will not be their own. Their state income tax liability is well under $3,500, so other taxpayers will foot the bill.

The debate between Taylor and Moon would have been useful had it taken place before the Legislature passed the law. Sadly, Taylor and other lawmakers voted for the Alabama Accountability Act without the benefit of a debate that could have cleared up some of their misconceptions.

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When failure is only option

The debate over the Alabama Accountability Act was ugly, both because it took place after the Legislature passed it and because it revealed a troubling deference among lawmakers to scholastic corporations with large lobbying budgets.

One positive arising from the debate is it forced Alabama to focus on one of its greatest problems: generational poverty.

The schools that meet the law’s definition of “failing” have much in common. They typically have a high percentage of black children, almost all of whom come from impoverished families.

With American optimism, we want to believe we can solve the problem of failing schools. With Alabama simplicity fostered by ideological legislators, we want to believe the problem is the teachers employed at the “government schools.”

There is reason to believe, however, that the problem has less to do with inadequate instruction than with the bleak circumstances of the students.

One in five Alabamians live in poverty. Almost one in two black Alabama children live in poverty. Half of Alabama children, regardless of race, live below 200 percent of the poverty line. Few of the families are just experiencing temporary financial difficulties. The parents of most impoverished children did not graduate from high school and almost none attended college. The children are mired in generational poverty.

I witnessed an incident that helped me understand the issue. An honors student at a local high school was an undocumented immigrant. He excelled at almost everything. After the passage of Alabama’s punitive immigration law, both his behavior and his grades changed. He was convinced he could not attend college. He expected he would have to return to Mexico, which his family had left when he was a child because of the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity. The honor-roll student suddenly began failing his classes. The dreams he had of success disappeared with the law’s passage. He was depressed and apathetic, foregoing homework for more enjoyable distractions.

When federal courts struck down most of the immigration law, his grades immediately improved. He resumed his status as a role model for his classmates.

Children locked in generational poverty see no chance for success. Their parents and siblings and friends have no way out, and they have no reason to think their plight is any brighter.

Imagine if you had a teacher who put an “F” on your report card before the semester began. The only issue was whether you would work hard and get a 59 or not work at all and get a zero. Failure is inevitable. How hard will you work? If the decision is between having fun with your friends or doing your homework, which will win out?

Those in generational poverty confront a similar question, but the “F” is a measure of their income potential. While those of us outside of their circumstances may rationally believe they could escape poverty with hard work and good grades, they know otherwise. Their parents and friends and siblings know otherwise. Even if they apply themselves in school, they have every reason to believe their future holds no more promise of an escape from poverty than it does for the people who surround them.

As a state and nation, tackling the problem of generational poverty presents two separate issues. The first is making sure there is a way out for the children. If there is a path out of poverty, the second issue is how to make sure the children know it.

Unfortunately, a trend in national politics is to eliminate opportunities for the poor. A budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., last week makes dramatic cuts to programs for the poor, replacing them with tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy. He would reduce health-care availability, pre-kindergarten programs, K-12 funding, food assistance, housing options and the Pell grants that provide the only path to college for most children living in poverty.

Most of the headlines on the sequestration cuts that took effect March 1 focus on reductions in defense spending and White House tours, but the most damaging cuts come from programs designed to provide opportunities for the poor.

In short, national budgetary trends tend to confirm the grim expectations of many Alabamians in generational poverty. They are destined to fail. Unlike those in more prosperous communities, they have no American Dream. They have only a deep-rooted knowledge that their scorecard for life already is marked with an “F.”

Teachers can and should play a role in pointing children toward a pathway out of poverty, but they can only do so if that pathway exists. For those in generational poverty, the pathway is narrow, steep and rarely traveled. Until society acknowledges the problem and seeks to correct it, the incentive structure upon which our economy is based will remain irrelevant to the poorest Alabamians.

Eric Fleischauer can be reached at or 256-340-2435.

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Filed under Capitalism, education, Poverty

Vouchers: It’s our money

“It’s their money, not the government’s. Why can’t they spend it as they wish?”

It’s the oft repeated talking point of legislators defending a bill that would give tax credits allowing students assigned to failing public schools to transfer to private schools.

Unfortunately, it just ain’t true.

House Bill 84 creates tax credits for all families with children assigned to failing schools, regardless of their income and regardless of whether they attend the school. The amount of the credit is pegged at 80 percent of the per-student cost of the state’s contribution to public schools, which comes to about $3,500 per year. The family can use the credit to offset the tuition of a private or religious school.

The tax credit is unusual, however. Typically, tax credits merely reduce tax liability. HB84 is more generous. Families with a tax liability of less than $3,500 would receive a voucher — payable to the private school — for the difference. (“If income taxes owed by the parent are less than the total credit allowed under this subsection, the taxpayer shall be entitled to a refund or rebate, as the case may be, equal to the balance of the unused credit with respect to that taxable year.”)

What most of the schools labeled as “failing” in HB84 have in common is extremely high poverty rates. Typical is Brookhaven Middle School in Decatur, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

According to Alabama Department of Revenue schedules, families do not owe $3,500 in income tax unless their incomes exceed $70,000. No family with a child who receives free or reduced lunches, therefore, has a tax liability that approaches the amount of the HB84 credit. Those that transfer to a private school will receive a voucher — paid for by other taxpayers — to offset tuition.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Voucher programs in other states have found no measurable benefit, as measured by standardized tests, to the students who opt out of public schools. A study of a Florida program, however, found that some public schools improved, probably due to competitive pressures.

The Florida study is an outlier, but it does give some credence to the idea that public schools perform better with competition. Arguably, a well-designed tax-credit or charter-school program would improve substandard public schools.

Even most defenders of HB84 are embarrassed about the way in which it was passed. Legislators who campaigned on a platform of transparency went to great pains to hide the bill from education officials, other lawmakers and the public. An eight-page bill providing more flexibility for local school districts morphed into a 28-page bill with a different name in a conference committee. The bill is riddled with errors because lawmakers received no input from the state superintendent and others who understand Alabama’s educational system.

“The bill would not have passed had all the school systems, AEA, and everyone known about it,” Gov. Robert Bentley said, in a remarkable defense of legislative duplicity.

He may be right that it would not have passed in its current form. Even though Republicans have a supermajority in both houses, many are more interested in helping the state than in exacting revenge from political foes or pursuing ideological quests to undermine public schools. With informed input — even from those who opposed it — the bill could have helped the poor while causing less damage to public schools.

The secretive process resulted in a defective product.

One of the most profound flaws is the near-total lack of quality controls on the private and religious schools that can accept the tax credits and vouchers. The bill does not require accreditation from any agency for many schools. It imposes no minimum standards for teachers. For schools that do not participate in a separate scholarship program, it requires no disclosure — to students or the state — of test scores or graduation rates.

If the talking point — that parents wanting to transfer their children out of failing schools are just using their own money — was accurate, the lack of standards on the private or religious schools to which their children transfer would not be troublesome.

But in most instances, other taxpayers will be footing the tuition bill.

Our tax dollars will go to religious schools, even if those schools preach a message inconsistent with our own beliefs. Those schools may be evangelical Christian schools or Mormon schools or Catholic schools.

Interestingly, they may even be Muslim schools. Gulen schools, which originated with Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, have had great success in the United States because of their ability to finance their mission with tax dollars. They are in 25 states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with students going to schools that include religious instruction. Few would have any problem if, as proponents of HB84 routinely claim, families funded their attendance at such schools with money they otherwise would owe in taxes.

For those families making less than $70,000 a year, however, the tax money comes from the rest of us. Our taxes will be supporting schools that focus less on academics than on the fundamentals of religions that may not be our own. Schools that attract students with video games despite abysmal graduation rates will maintain a profit with our tax dollars.

And the money we pay is coming straight from the Education Trust Fund, thus reducing the resources available for the state’s many excellent public schools, universities and two-year colleges.

Legislators, consumed with the desire to keep HB84 secret, failed to get the input they needed to create a bill that benefits the state. It drains money from the Education Trust Fund and funnels it to private entities. Some in Alabama resent their tax dollars going to public schools. They may find they are even less comfortable financing the schools allowed by HB84.


Filed under Alabama politics, charter schools, education