No way to run a state

The confusion among lawmakers about the school voucher law they approved Thursday is disturbing.

Their failure to understand the bill involves both the details and the devastating effect it may have on public schools.

In broad terms, the bill creates two separate types of tax credits. The families of students assigned to failing schools get a tax credit of $3,500 which they can apply to the tuition of a private or religious school if they elect to transfer. The other tax credit is available to individuals or corporations who finance a scholarship fund designed to make up the large gap between $3,500 and the tuition charged by the private school they elect to attend, if the school agrees to accept them.

Both tax credits are financed entirely by the Education Trust Fund, so the money comes directly from the operating budget of public schools.

Gov. Robert Bentley said Monday the only way a school could be labeled “failing,” thus triggering tax credits for students who elect to leave the school and attend a private or parochial school, is based on a school-grading system included in a law passed last session. He is wrong. The bill he said he will sign today includes four different methods a school can end up in the failing category.

Many of the Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill — some of whom had no more time than Democrats to review it — thought the ETF’s maximum financial exposure was $25 million. The $25 million cap, however, only applies to the scholarship fund. The far greater exposure comes from the vouchers issued to students who elect to transfer from “failing” public schools to private ones.

Estimates from Bentley and lawmakers on how many schools fall into the “failing” category range from 75 to 202. The agency that has the data — the state Department of Education — is scrambling to come up with a number. Bentley and GOP lawmakers — who have a supermajority in both houses — intentionally concealed the bill from the state superintendent because they feared he would oppose it.

Not only do they not know how many schools are affected, Bentley and lawmakers don’t know how many students are enrolled in those schools. A blind-sided Department of Education is trying to pull the numbers. Bentley admits he has no idea how much the bill will cost.

Bentley said Monday lobbyists had no input into the bill. In fact, the bill is modeled after a template created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization funded by corporate interests likely to benefit from its model laws.

Numerous studies of similar laws in other states find no benefit to students who use the vouchers.

The reason Bentley and many lawmakers do not understand the bill is the deceitful way in which it was passed. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, the driving force behind the bill, and Bentley candidly admit they tried to keep education officials, other lawmakers and the public from discovering the 28-page bill existed. They succeeded. It emerged from a conference committee slated to work out minor differences in the House and Senate versions of a seven-page bill on school flexibility.

Lawmakers passed a bill that will dramatically reduce funding for public schools. They did so without understanding the bill, and while trying to avoid input.

That’s no way to pass a bill. It’s no way to run a state.

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4 Comments

Filed under Alabama politics, education, Subsidies

4 responses to “No way to run a state

  1. lee mccain

    I had a patient last week who told me she was ecstatic about the new law. Her son is in sixth grade at Brookhaven and is getting teased and ridiculed for being a bookworm although its beyond my understanding as what Tom Wolfe calls an Americano why any one would belittle and disparage one striving for book knowledge. She sees an opportunity to send him to Decatur Heritage and take him out of such a negative environment. Sure my wife teaches at a public school and I have no doubt this will harm many a school in public education. But maybe we Americanos should walk in other less fortunate shoes on occasion and see this maybe the only recourse many underprivileged have. And maybe we should not judge if that is the right or wrong recourse- I have no doubt what so ever that is what you or I would do if our children were in failing schools. Yes the Republicans, most of whom I consider to be zealots and imbeciles, pulled a fast one, but I know at least one nurses aide whose child might be better for it.

    • mile304

      The status quo is unacceptable. I can easily see a role for private schools or charters as a part of the solution. I don’t see a role for unaccredited schools, which this bill allows. There are essentially no standards for schools that accept the vouchers, and the standards for those that accept scholarships are based on outdated information. No student who depends on transportation or on free/reduced meals can take advantage of the bill. Even if not a single child transfers to a private school, the bill will drain well over $25 million from the ETF. The bill is riddled with dumb errors, from a pure drafting standpoint. There is no limit on the tuition amount the ETF must fund through the scholarship program. One of the claimed goals is to push public schools to improve, but they already are underfunded and they will have fewer funds with every student that leaves. They will not just lose the $3,500 in state funds, they will lose federal funds. Throwing money at a school does not improve it, but removing funds makes it worse. Even if the bill is an outline for a workable approach, the failure to get input leaves it hopelessly flawed.

      Specific to your patient, does she know her child can transfer to Cedar Ridge Middle School? Unlike a private school under the state law, her transfer would come with transportation and no additional costs.

      • lee mccain

        Honestly did not get that in depth. Was a strange sedge way from a conversation about my wife in Decatur City Schools. The take home message I interpreted or misinterpreted was that the public school system failed her and her son. Indeed most private schools- even the esteemed and affluent Randolph- have far lower standards for teacher accreditation than Decatur City Schools. But is not patronizing for us ( and by “us” the collective elite- and yes elite seems extreme- who have the means to move their children elsewhere should they so desire) to decide these matters for the underprivileged instead of letting them decide for themselves? No I agree with you wholeheartedly the bill is maligned with errors and was fraudulently and surreptitiously passed, I am just trying to serendipitously give another voice and change the perspective.

  2. lee mccain

    oops sorry vicariously not serendipitously. Alas I need an editor.

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