“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.