A response to Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh on Accountability Act

Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh lashed out Thursday at a proposal by Gov. Robert Bentley to delay portions of HB658, a replacement bill aimed at fixing some of the flaws in the Accountability Act that Bentley signed into law in March.

Bentley’s amendment (which he defends here) would preserve the portion of the bill providing flexibility to local school districts that provide a plan to improve outcomes for their students. This portion of the law had bipartisan support. It was the only section that received input from educators before Feb. 28, when GOP legislators passed a substitute bill renamed the Accountability Act. Bentley’s proposal would delay for two years the implementation of the tax-credit portions of HB658, a bill the House and Senate passed last week replacing the Accountability Act.

Marsh, who has considerable control over whether the Senate even votes on Bentley’s executive amendments, has threatened to kill HB658, leaving the Accountability Act as law.

Marsh’s statements from Thursday’s press release are below, followed by my comments.

“We only have one constituency when it comes to education in Alabama and that’s the children.”

This should be a truism. In fact there are at least two other constituencies, one relevant and one not.

The relevant constituency is corporate contributors who will benefit from tax dollars flowing to private schools. For the most part, this constituency does not include existing private schools, most of whom have said they have no interest in accepting transfer students.

The relevant constituency does include education corporations that can reduce the number of teachers through educational games, untrained teachers and webcasts. Such techniques — consistently unsuccessful in other states — are the only way to generate a profit while keeping costs close to the $3,500 tax credit to which most transfer students would be limited. These are for-profit corporations who contribute heavily to Alabama politicians.

The irrelevant constituency is the Alabama Education Association. It is, of course, the constituency to which Marsh is referring. The AEA is the bogeyman of GOP politics. Every attack on public education since the GOP took power in 2010 has been justified as an attack on the AEA.

The AEA has no power as an affirmative political force. It wedded itself so firmly with Democrats that the GOP’s ascendancy left it impotent. Indeed, because public school teachers generally match the demographics of the state, their loyalty to AEA is limited and does not extend to party politics.

So why the veiled reference to AEA? Because elected representatives who are unwilling to go against the wishes of voters are more than happy to attack the AEA for both perceived and actual sins. If Marsh can stage the debate as one between the GOP and AEA, he wins.

While AEA has historically been the most vocal supporter of public education, Gov. Robert Bentley and other legislators have discovered the organization has little to do with disgust over the Accountability Act. Voters attended public schools. Their children and grandchildren attend them. They know teachers and principals, and generally find them far more sincere in their calling than are politicians. Attacks on public schools are attacks on communities.

“For too long, students in failing schools have been stuck with the status quo and denied the opportunities they deserve.”

As demonstrated by the Legislature’s miscues in trying to define which schools are “failing” — the definitions invariably rely on standardized test scores — this issue is not simple. What is clear, however, is that Alabama’s public schools are improving.

Alabama had the nation’s fourth-highest increase in graduation rates between 2002 and 2008. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked Alabama No. 2 in the nation in gains in fourth-grade reading scores.

Alabama is one of only four states to receive the National Council on Teacher Quality’s highest rating on teacher preparedness programs. The state ranked No. 1 in the nation in the percentage increase in students passing Advanced Placement exams in math, science and English.

These advances have been made despite the fact that — thanks in part to legislative budgeting prorities — inflation-adjusted K-12 education funding has dropped more than 22 percent since 2008.

They have been made despite the fact that, since 2010, the Legislature has been on a relentless and successful mission to force the Education Trust Fund to cover noneducational expenses historically covered by the General Fund.

While Alabama’s public schools are improving, many are far from where they need to be. In studying the schools with unacceptable outcomes, what becomes obvious is that they have a single trait in common: high poverty rates.

The number of homeless students in Alabama public schools rose by 49.3 percent between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 school years.

More than half of the students in the state’s K-12 schools receive free- or reduced-cost lunches because of their low household incomes. Numerous studies have concluded that poverty — not school strategies — is the greatest impediment to a student’s academic success.

“At this point there are two options: override the Governor’s executive amendment or not take the executive amendment out of the Senate basket, which unfortunately will kill this good piece of legislation but it would leave the Accountability Act as passed earlier this session intact.”

This, of course, is only true if Marsh is willing to pay the political cost of ignoring the wishes both of his caucus and his constituents. The other option is for the Legislature to adopt the governor’s amendments. In doing so, it would give schools a chance to use the flexibility provisions of the law to maximize the outcomes of their students. Providing flexibility while dramatically decreasing funding — which is what both versions of the Accountability Act do — is a recipe designed for failure. Some studies have shown benefits to public schools when they respond to private competition, but they need the resources to compete. The Accountability Act reduces funding for schools that already are operating on austerity budgets.

“Since the Accountability Act is already law, both of these options ensure that parents of children stuck in failing schools have school choice now, not in two years, and finally have the opportunity for a better education.”

The idea that the Accountability Act would provide students a way out of failing schools is one of the greatest fallacies perpetrated by Marsh and his colleagues.

The $3,500 tax credits pay less than half of typical private-school tuition. Since almost all of the students in schools deemed failing are from poor families, they are unlikely to have the money to go to a private school. Moreover, the tax credits are paid months after tuition is due and require documentation that the parents already have paid the tuition. The law specifies that private schools need not provide transportation.

All these factors suggest few students will have the financial ability to attend private schools. More to the point, however, most private schools don’t want them. While the very different demographics in “failing” schools and most private schools is likely to be a factor in this resistance, private schools also fear state efforts to ensure that tax dollars are being spent responsibly.

The $25 million scholarship fund — financed with ETF dollars — does little to alleviate the problem. Even if private schools were willing to undergo the enhanced state oversight that comes with such scholarship funds, it would cover the tuition of fewer than 10 percent of students in schools deemed failing. The Accountability Act allows 25 percent of the scholarship recipients to already be enrolled in private schools, and the poorly drafted law places no income limit on the recipients of the scholarships. The replacement bill, HB658, allows students in nonfailing schools to claim scholarships not taken by students in failing schools.

“We’ve worked too hard between both chambers of this Legislature to make school choice a reality and I refuse to kick the can down the road any longer. This is a good compromise bill and I’m disappointed that the Governor has proposed this executive amendment. Governor Bentley put it best after signing the Accountability Act into law when he said ‘All children deserve access to a quality education no matter they live and this provides a new option.’

Thanks to conservative budgeting practices like the Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act, we can implement this law now in a fiscally responsible manner while providing much-needed school choice to students trapped in perpetually failing schools.”

The Accountability Act is about as fiscally irresponsible as can be imagined.

Lawmakers agree it will cost the Education Trust Fund tens of millions of dollars — that was the idea — but poor drafting means they have no idea on a maximum cost. They cannot agree on which schools are “failing” under the law, and thus can not estimate how many families would have a right to claim ETF tax credits. They cannot agree on whether the language gives the families of students already enrolled in private schools a right to claim the tax credits, an issue that by itself could add $42 million to the law’s cost.

The replacement bill solved some problems, left most unresolved and made other problems worse. It gives no guidance on the cost of the legislation, which lawmakers estimate at anywhere between $35 million and $110 million.

The only thing known with certainty is that every dime will come from the Education Trust Fund, thus hurting all the students in nonfailing schools and those unable or unwilling to transfer from failing schools.

Gov. Bentley’s proposal is not perfect. Absent amendments, the tax-credit portions of the Accountability Act will be just as flawed and fiscally irresponsible in two years as they are now. In the course of those two years, however, legislators can do what they should have done before the rushed passage of the law. They can get input from educators and they can study similar programs in other states — most of which have been utter failures, but some of which have not — for effective strategies.

The governor is offering a politically feasible way out of deeply unpopular legislation that will become politically toxic when voters see how it impacts their schools. Instead of preparing for battle, Sen. Marsh should be looking at the vast majority of Alabama children who will be harmed, not helped, by the law that will be his legacy.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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