Republicans can support public schools

Loyal Republicans who have paid any attention to the actions of their supermajority in Montgomery since 2010 could reasonably come to the conclusion that good Republicans oppose public education.

For some of those with no active connection to public schools, it’s a realization that may go down easy.

For others, the conclusion is stressful. They may have children in public schools. Many teachers — certainly most of those in the Decatur area — are Republicans. These parents and educators see a few burned-out teachers, but they see many more who are intensely devoted to their students. They recognize that teachers have assumed much of the burden of parenting some students. They see countless situations in which attentive teachers and administrators have turned bleak futures into bright ones.

Dr. Charles Elliott, a Decatur Republican who serves on the state Board of Education, provides relief for those torn by the seeming conflict between loyalty to the Republican Party and to public education. It’s a manufactured conflict, he says. Republicans have historically been ardent defenders of public schools, seeing them as essential not just for individual opportunity but for economic progress. He is angry — red-in-the-face furious — that his party has squandered its complete power over the state to pursue a vendetta against public schools.

The legislative attacks on the schools have been nearly constant since the 2011 session, most involving creative ways to reduce school funding or to shift General Fund expenses to the Education Trust Fund.

The Legislature’s most public assault on the schools this session was the Alabama Accountability Act.

There is room for disagreement on whether the ostensible purpose of the law — to allow students to transfer from “failing” public schools to taxpayer-subsidized private schools — benefits students. There can be no disagreement that the law is fiscally irresponsible.

Legislators have no reliable estimate on the number of schools the law deems failing, and thus have no idea how many students could transfer. Consequently, they cannot calculate the total cost of the tuition tax credits, which run at least $3,500 per student. Most significantly, they cannot agree whether the law that received their votes gives the tuition credits to families whose children are assigned to failing schools but already are enrolled in private ones.

In what seemed a wise move, legislators called a Mulligan. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh proposed a replacement bill to clarify the many confusing aspects of the law.

The changes — some of which appear in the bill and some of which legislators have promised to add to it Tuesday — do not increase the likelihood that students stuck in failing public schools will have a chance to transfer. Indeed, the bill declares that neither private nor out-of-district public schools have any obligation to accept a student that seeks a transfer.

The bill does not change the timing of the tax credits, which come after tuition is due, and it shifts the cost of transportation to a non-failing public school to the family. Taken together, the bill ensures almost no student who lacks the money to enroll in a private school will benefit.

The changes will, however, benefit those who — because they have the financial wherewithal to enroll in a private school — already have done so. The bill gives tax credits to families of students who have never set foot in the failing school to which they are assigned. Despite concerns raised by some legislators, these families can receive the tax credits regardless of their wealth or income level.

This part of the bill, of course, is not about “school choice.” It is a tax credit for families who both have a choice and have exercised it.

The cost to the Education Trust Fund of the tax credit for students assigned to failing schools but already enrolled in private schools is about $42 million, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Two other major changes in the bill involve the private-school scholarship program, capped at $25 million and fully funded by the ETF. The financial hit to public schools might have turned out to be less devastating under the Accountability Act if either donations to the scholarship fund did not meet the cap or if so few students tried to transfer that the money never got spent.

The bill ends this possibility by giving a 100 percent tax credit — which comes straight from the ETF — for donations to the scholarship fund by both individuals and corporations. If no students actually elect to transfer from failing schools, does the money return to the ETF? No, not under Marsh’s bill. Students in non-failing public schools also can get scholarships to private and religious schools. The scholarships are unlimited in amount.

After the Accountability Act passed, legislative estimates of its cost started at over $100 million. The law never changed, but as budget negotiations neared estimates dropped to $70 million and then to $55 million and finally — during budget negotiations — to $35 million. Legislators are manipulating their estimates based on what the budget can handle.

Because the bill guarantees the full $25 million scholarship fund will be spent and because it clarifies that students already enrolled in private schools, regardless of income, will benefit from the tuition tax credit, it will drain more from the ETF than the law it replaces.

The minimum cost — assuming not a single student actually transfers from a failing public school to a private one — is $68 million.

Even under the less expensive Accountability Act that the bill would replace, Decatur City Schools is preparing to cut its annual budget by $726,000, which will result in the dismissal of 16 non-tenured teachers. Student-teacher ratios will increase.

Public education, as Elliott had the courage to say, need not be a partisan issue.

Those stressed because of the apparent conflict between their loyalty to public education and to the Republican Party can relax. The tension comes not from Republican values but from anti-education incumbents.

Every Republican legislator in Morgan and Limestone counties — and almost every Republican in the state — joined the bandwagon that rolled over public education. If they don’t seek to undo the damage and if their challengers offer a traditional Republican vision that supports public schools, supporters of public schools can vote the incumbents out. The next Legislature can seek to repair the damage.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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