Supporters of public schools worried about the short-term effects of a tax-credit bill are missing the greater threat.
The bill — stalled in litigation, but probably not for long — allows the roughly 80,000 students in “failing” public schools to transfer to private schools. Every student that transfers would reduce the Education Trust Fund by $3,500. A scholarship fund of $25 million also comes from the ETF.
Not just failing public schools, but excellent ones, depend on the ETF. It also funds the state’s universities and two-year colleges.
The short-term threat is significant. Even if none of the 80,000 students transfer to a private school, the ETF will lose $25 million per year. It also will lose $3,500 for every student assigned to a failing school but already enrolled in a private school. The Alabama Association of School Boards estimates the minimum cost of the bill at $59 million.
The $25 million scholarship fund is a blow to the ETF, but it would not help many students. The average cost of private-school tuition in the state is about $4,000 more than the $3,500 voucher. The scholarship fund, therefore, would cover the cost of fewer than 7,000 students.
That leaves about 73,000 students — most of them poor, because most of the failing schools have high rates of poverty — who would have a right to transfer to a private school, but who only have $3,500 to pay tuition.
Few of Alabama’s existing private schools would accept $3,500 in tuition. They do not have the capacity to accept many students, and some have no desire to accept them.
Tax dollars are the holy grail of for-profit corporations. Selling a product to an individual who must pay for it is tough, as Alabama’s private schools know. Selling the same product when it is free to the consumer is easy. The desire to convert tax dollars into profit explains the intense pressure placed on legislators last year to pass a charter-school bill. It also explains the rule-breaking urgency of passing the tax-credit bill.
If the bill becomes law, education corporations will be faced with a simple question: How can they make a profit on $3,500 per student?
The answer: By keeping labor costs to a bare minimum.
House Bill 84 is designed to facilitate this goal. It includes no restrictions on student-teacher ratios for private or religious schools. It does not require teachers to have any training or even to have a college degree. Schools that exist on vouchers — unlike the public schools with which they will compete — are free from almost all educational standards.
Similar laws in other states have attracted schools that use “virtual classrooms” to keep costs down. Scholastic video games and videotaped lectures replace teachers. For marketing reasons the schools need to be fun — they need students to convince their parents to let them attend — but the bill would not require them to teach. Every dollar of their revenue will come from public schools.
House Bill 84 will hurt public schools in the short term, but the greatest damage may come when for-profit education corporations seek to capitalize on their lobbying efforts.