Silver lining of Accountability Act

Once it receives the governor’s expected signature, Alabama Accountability Act version 3.0 will become law.

The law will damage public education in the state. The possible silver lining is that it will alert legislators they cannot trust their leadership.

The law started as a nine-page bill that provided flexibility to local school districts. To the surprise of many, legislators were generous in addressing concerns of the state Department of Education and the Alabama Education Association.

The reasons for that generosity became apparent on Feb. 28. The flexibility bill was a sham. Even as legislators and Gov. Robert Bentley worked with the state superintendent, they knew the bill would be replaced in a conference committee. In the space of less than two hours, legislators scuttled the flexibility bill and passed a 27-page “school choice” law, the Accountability Act.

Those who were most vocal about the deception also were the least relevant. Democratic legislators screamed foul, as did the AEA. Neither group, however, could have blocked the law even if it had been subject to normal debate.

The relevant victims of the deception were Republican legislators. While a small core of lawmakers saw the bill in advance, most received it just minutes before the vote. They did not have time to analyze the bill or to consult with educators. What they should have done — what many probably wish they had done — was vote against it or at least delay the vote until they understood the bill. Instead, they trusted their leadership.

Their trust was misplaced.

The debate that lawmakers carefully prevented before the passage of the original Accountability Act was not lacking in advance of Thursday’s passage of the final version. The problem for frustrated legislators of both parties was that the options were limited. Killing the replacement bill did not restore the pre-2013 status quo, it simply left the deeply flawed original version of the law in place.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, voted against the replacement bill on Thursday, as did another respected GOP senator, Cam Ward of Alabaster. Decatur-area House members showed no such reticence, supporting each incarnation of the Accountability Act with gusto.

The replacement law that passed Thursday was an improvement on the original in one respect: it narrowed the definition of “failing schools.” Only the bottom 6 percent of schools will be deemed failing in the first three years. After that, the state Department of Education will have significant input in determining which schools are failing. It also exempted schools like Decatur Developmental, which serve exclusively special-needs students.

Countering this positive change was a costly expansion of the ETF-financed scholarship program, which no longer is limited to students in failing schools.

The Accountability Act will not allow many students in failing public schools to transfer to a private school. No private schools have to accept students who want to transfer, and many already have said they will not participate. The law provides no transportation to private schools. Almost all students in failing schools rely on free- or reduced-cost meals, an option not available in private schools. Parents receive the tax credits well after tuition is due, and the law makes clear the parents must advance the private-school tuition before they are eligible for the tax credit.

The claimed purpose of the law — to allow students trapped in failing schools to leave them — is not a likely outcome.

The replacement law that passed Thursday implicitly acknowledges this failure. The original law created a $25 million scholarship fund — entirely financed by the Education Trust Fund — to bridge the large gap between the dollar amount of the tax credits and the much higher tuition costs of private schools. If no students actually elected to transfer from a failing school, this scholarship fund would have gone untapped.

The replacement law passed Thursday effectively guarantees the full $25 million will leave the ETF. It does so by making it available to students in all public schools, not just failing ones. The replacement law also gives corporate contributors — which received only a 50 percent tax credit under the original law — a 100-percent tax credit for contributions to the scholarship fund.

The most reckless aspect of the original law was retained in the replacement law. Both versions are unclear on the issue of whether students already enrolled in private schools, but assigned to failing schools, are eligible for tax credits. The estimated cost of these credits under the original law was $42 million. That estimate should drop slightly with the shorter list of failing schools in the replacement law, but it will remain substantial.

Because they could not reach agreement before Thursday’s vote, the Legislature left the ambiguous language in place. The Revenue Department will have to resolve the issue. If the department interprets the law in a way that prevents the parents of students already enrolled in private schools from receiving a tax credit, it will save the ETF tens of millions of dollars. To reach that interpretation, however, it also must conclude the tax credits are unavailable to kindergartners, new residents and others who did not attend a failing school the previous year.

The Legislature inflicted all this damage to pass a law that is unlikely to help students transfer from failing public schools. The law’s main impact will be to give tax-funded scholarships to students who are in non-failing public schools and, possibly, to grant tax credits to the parents of students who already are in private schools.

The one possible benefit from the unfortunate law is that Republican legislators now realize they cannot trust their leadership. If they learned that lesson, next year’s legislative session may turn out better.

Contact Eric Fleischauer at eric@decaturdaily.com.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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