Public schools: dying by design

Can public schools survive the Alabama Legislature?

Free-market conservatives acknowledge their philosophical rejection of public education. They view “government schools” as a socialist experiment gone bad. They want public schools privatized in the same way they support privatization of Medicare and Social Security. The private sector does everything well and governments do everything badly, they figure. Given that view, their efforts to damage public schools make sense.

Some religious conservatives — who resent secular education — are allied with the free-market types when it comes to public schools.

More disturbing are the legislators — usually less open about their philosophies — who proclaim their support for public schools. They show up at school events, work their way into photo-ops with students and shower praise on teachers.

And all the while, they sponsor bills and cast votes that undermine public education.

Wednesday’s edition of The Daily included two stories that were a reminder of the insidious attack on public education.

One story was about local stores that, like others around the state, are losing ground to online retailers.

The state sales tax goes to the Educational Trust Fund, which finances K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. An exception to that rule, passed in the 2012 legislative session, instead directs 75 percent of Internet sales taxes to the General Fund. Not a big deal, it seemed, because not many people pay sales tax on their Internet purchases.

After the law passed, however, Gov. Robert Bentley threw himself behind a bill in Congress that would require the largest Internet retailers to withhold sales taxes and remit them to the state of the purchaser. It was a surprisingly pro-tax position for a governor that consistently opposes tax increases. The Marketplace Fairness Act would send up to $200 million in sales taxes to Alabama, Bentley predicted.

But for the 2012 law redirecting Internet sales taxes, that would be huge for the state’s perpetually underfunded school system. Because of the state law, most of the money will instead go to the General Fund. That’s a trend that will continue to shift tax revenue from public schools to the General Fund.

Also on Wednesday, The Daily ran a story about increasing support among Republican lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in both houses, to an increase in the tobacco tax. With unusual concern for the poor, however, they tied their support to an elimination of sales taxes on groceries. Here’s the rub: They want the tobacco tax to go to the General Fund. Currently, the sales tax on groceries goes to the Education Trust Fund. The revenue-neutral financial impact, therefore, would be to transfer money from the ETF to the General Fund. It’s a clever scheme to divide those who believe it is immoral both to tax the poor on food and to deprive children of a solid education.

All this comes, of course, with last month’s passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, an act of legislative gamesmanship that duped the superintendent of the state Department of Education. He supported a school flexibility bill. In a matter of minutes, the bill tripled in size and morphed into a scheme to provide tax credits — paid for by the Education Trust Fund — to private schools. Budget estimates make clear that legislators expect the only significant impact of the law will be to provide tax credits to families whose children already are enrolled in private schools.

If they are correct, the law will slice about $55 million from public schools. If they are wrong, it will reduce funding by much more. The law placates enemies of public education, including both free-market conservatives and those who denounce “godless” public schools.

Both the Accountability Act and a school-grading law passed last year penalize schools whose students perform poorly on standardized tests, an odd policy for a state Legislature that for years has griped about the emphasis on standardized tests imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

And then there is the nit-picking stuff, like a law that forces schools to comply with a state calendar that — most educators believe — lowers the same test scores that legislators now believe are sacrosanct. The unabashed purpose of the law was to help the coastal tourism industry.

A bill expected to pass this session would transfer $22 million in tobacco-settlement money from the ETF to the General Fund. The House budget passed Wednesday would saddle the ETF with $16 million in mental health spending previously included in the General Fund budget, while cutting $10 million from the nationally respected Alabama Reading Initiative.

I may be biased on the value of public schools. My children attend them, I attended them, and I have family members in Alabama and elsewhere that work for them or are retired from them. I view them not as a socialist entitlement but as a cornerstone of opportunity and of effective democracy.
I agree with Founding Father and former President John Adams, who in 1785 wrote:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

My bias is irrelevant, however, in understanding what the Legislature is doing to public schools. Lawmakers are persistently and aggressively decreasing the resources that public schools have at their disposal.

The public schools in Alabama are worse because of this Legislature. If lawmakers encounter no resistance — if voters agree with them that public schools are not worthy of investment — then the quality of public education will decrease.


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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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