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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